‘Agility and a Team-First Mentality’: How Veterans Like Me Can Naturally Excel in Civilian Jobs

Sponsored by ZS

Christen Simel. Photo courtesy of ZS.

Christen Simel. Photo courtesy of ZS.

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May 20, 2024 at 9:12PM UTC

“I have made several ‘leaps of faith’ across my career and have learned so much from each one,” says Christen Simel. One big leap was moving from the Navy to a civilian job. 

“It felt like a different world from what I had been living for the first six years of my professional life, and I struggled to understand where to even begin,” Simel recalls. “Thankfully, I had a great network of other veterans to lean on for advice and guidance that made it feel doable. My biggest challenge was translating my skills and experiences from the military to be relevant to the civilian setting. Each sector has its own specific language, and I found most people had little, if any, personal experience with the military.”

Simel spent a lot of time building foundational business skills and learning the language that she felt most of her MBA peers had already become fluent in. She also spent time figuring out how to describe her military background and accomplishments in ways that civilian professionals could understand. Early on, Simel joined and then stepped into a leadership role in ZS' Veterans@ZS employee resource group. Being part of this group made Simel realize that she was not alone with the challenges she was facing.

“There was also a bit of a culture shock coming from a large, hierarchical, and highly structured environment like the Navy to a much flatter, more agile culture like at ZS,” she says. “It took me some time to be comfortable operating in a more dynamic and collaborative professional environment.”

And Simel’s transition from the military to a civilian consulting career (which she says, “enabled me to build an incredible skill set,”) isn’t the only important leap that she has made. 

“Within ZS, I have moved across teams and roles so what I am working on has changed over time,” she explains. “While it's always daunting to move to something new, each move has afforded me new perspectives and experiences to cumulatively shape how I approach my work.” 

Now, as a manager at ZS, Simel serves as the Space Strategy Lead for the company’s Health Plan and Provider Industry vertical. In this role, she leads both strategic and operational initiatives to accelerate the growth and impact of her team. Her transition into this internal role came from a previous client-facing consulting job about a year ago. Moving to an internal role helps her balance work with her demanding home schedule as a mom to a young toddler — while also staying close to the work the company is doing in the industry — she says. 

“My day-to-day work varies a lot, depending on the needs of the space and firm,” Simel explains. “Part of my role is keeping a pulse on how things are going and proactively coming up with solutions for new challenges, which is particularly exciting for such a rapidly growing and evolving team.”

These duties make sense for Simel, since, throughout all her career leaps, she has gained an exceptional ability to take on large, undefined projects and create solutions. In fact, “the projects I have been most proud of are the ones where I was given a big, unstructured problem to solve with little guidance; the ones that feel ‘impossible’ at the starting line and require creative and resourceful thinking,” Simel shares. “While these are obviously the most challenging, I enjoy being empowered to take ownership of the problem, dig deep into the details, and work collaboratively with my team to design and implement a solution.”

Here, we caught up with Simel to learn more about that journey, as well as get her advice for other women who are transitioning from military to civilian jobs. Here’s what she had to say.

What’s your #1 piece of advice for veterans, and especially other women veterans, who are looking for jobs right now?

My biggest piece of advice is to be confident in the skills and value you bring to the table. Your military service has given you unique experiences and perspectives that will serve you well wherever you land. That being said, you need to be able to explain them in a way companies can understand — reach out to other veterans in your network and in the industries you are interested in to help you build and refine that story.

Do you believe that your military background has provided you with any unique perspectives or talents that aid in your career today?

Absolutely. Agility and a team-first mentality immediately come to mind. In the military, you change roles every few years. By the time I left the Navy, I had held three completely different jobs where I was expected to lead from day one. The ability to jump into a new situation, ask smart questions, and lean on my team to get up to speed quickly has served me well in consulting. I am not afraid to try something new! 

The community mindset of the military has also been a differentiator for me. In the Navy, we are taught that our order of priorities is “ship, shipmate, self” — working for something bigger than myself and ensuring I support those on my team (both on the job and beyond) continues to be a driving force in how I approach my work.

Speaking of your career, what advice do you have for someone new to your industry?

Come in ready to learn — and keep learning! Consulting is exciting in that you are always working on something new; no two projects are the same. The first year, in particular, feels like drinking from a firehose, but the learning curve is always there. Also, keep an open mind; your toughest projects are often the ones that you learn the most from and that set you up for future success!

What programs, DE&I initiatives, or company culture aspects helped ease your transition from the military to a civilian career?

My MBA program at Kellogg was an incredible tool to transition to the civilian world, both to learn more about different opportunities as well as to build the business skills and knowledge that I hadn’t been exposed to in the military.

The company culture at ZS definitely played a large role in helping me to be successful, too. The collaborative, team-based environment is very similar to the aspects of military culture that I enjoyed most. And of course, Veterans@ZS was a huge resource for me, to have a community of other people in the company who understand where I am coming from and to help navigate the transition to a new way of working.  

In general, what’s your favorite aspect of ZS’s culture, and how does your company help you succeed?

For me, it’s the people and the low-ego, collaborative approach we take towards working together. Everyone at this company is incredibly bright, but also humble at the same time. We really emphasize helping others to succeed — I am continually amazed at how willing ZSers across all levels are to take the time out of their busy schedules to help me learn something new or think through how to approach a tough problem.

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