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Army Intelligence: Kelly Perdew's Successful Transition

"The military is a profession, so it has its own language. Civilians aren't accustomed to it, and don't necessarily understand it. It's your job to be able to speak in their language," Perdew said.
A Military Intelligence Officer, the graduate of prestigious West Point Academy, Airborne Academy and Army Ranger school, Donald Trump's newest "Apprentice" used his military chops to beat out 17 other players and become the most famous "successful transition" in recent years. He is Kelly Perdew, a role-model for transitioning military and proof positive that when servicemembers enter the civilian world, they need not be afraid.

Perdew's military skills helped him keep his cool and eventually win Donald Trump's popular primetime competition, NBC's "The Apprentice," despite a string of tough and unorthodox tasks. Perdew's weirdest challenge? To design fashion couture for women -- a very far cry from your typical military mission. But organized protocol and a focus on the goal are what made him rise above his competitors. "My strategy was always, win the task, and you don't go to the boardroom -- you can't get fired." Now Perdew is under Trump's careful tutelage, and will continue using the military sensibilities that got him this far.

What advice do you have for someone who's transitioning?
Number one, be confident, because a lot of the skills that you developed in the military are directly transferable to commercial applications. Number two, you need to learn the lingo. You're going to have to help potential employers understand what you did in the military. The military is a profession, so it has its own language. Civilians aren't accustomed to it, and don't necessarily understand it. It's your job to be able to speak in their language.

Did you always want to join the military, and what made you move in that direction?
I was in high school in Cheyenne, Wyoming, trying to figure out where I wanted to go to college. I heard Dick Cheney -- the congressman from Wyoming at the time -- speak at the commencement exercises the year before I graduated. I went up and introduced myself, and started networking. Eventually I got a nomination to West Point from Dick Cheney. I saw it as an incredible opportunity. After researching the institution, I realized that you just can't beat the education. When I say education, I mean an all-around education. You can go to a Harvard or a Yale, but West Point is the best institute in the world for teaching leadership.

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When you got out of the military, you decided to pursue your JD and MBA simultaneously?
That's correct. After my service time, I went to UCLA's business school, Anderson, and the UCLA School of Law. Initially, I thought I wanted to be a corporate attorney with a good business background -- I wanted to be able to have both. But as I got into it, I realized I didn't want to be an attorney, I wanted to be the client. I wanted to be the person who was creating, but at the same time leading businesses and helping them grow.

How did your military skills help you on the actual show?
They helped me in immeasurable ways. The attention to detail and being able to prioritize and manage my time was essential. I used all my experiences from West Point and Ranger school. We had shared sleeping areas, shared bathing and eating areas, and no privacy. These things are uncomfortable for a lot of people, but I had already been through all that. A lot of it was straight out of Ranger school -- sleep deprivation, being under scrutiny the entire time, and having your leadership role being evaluated. I've already been through all that.

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Any particular examples that stand out?
One specific thing I implemented was a standard operating procedure for acting as project manager. I solicited input from all the team members and created a 20-point standard operating procedure checklist - this is just like basic operating procedure for Ranger school or any other military operation. I implemented it on the second task, and we won the next five. Part of that was implementing an after-action review. Post-task each time, our team would get together and talk about the things we did well or didn't do well. That's also straight out of the military. It was second nature and incredibly effective.

How did your teammates/competitors respond to your military sense of organization and your military background?
It's important to adjust your leadership style based on who you're leading. I was very careful not to come across as too bossy until I gained their respect. In the military there's a rank structure, so you can actually tell people what to do. To me, that's not good leadership -- just telling someone what to do. Earning people's respect, not asking them to do what you wouldn't do yourself, and leading by example are the ways I gained their respect. But I think I still ruffled a few feathers because I'm a strong personality.

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Do you think the corporate world looks favorably on veterans and former military?
The senior executives understand the value of military training. Ace Greenberg, the CEO and chairman of Bear-Stearns and an amazing businessman, told Donald Trump something that was very humbling. He told Mr. Trump, "You should select Kelly, because he has something that no one else brings to the table. Not only does he know how to lead and give orders, but he can take orders as well -- imperative in a larger organization." To me, that meant two things -- one, I will tow the line when necessary, and two, once a decision is made everybody needs to fall in line and support the mission. That's something a lot of people without military training couldn't understand. If you continue to argue and whine after the decision is made, you'll hurt the morale of the unit and jeopardize the mission. You'll also reflect poorly on yourself. Unfortunately, I think there's also a stereotype about being in the military that we're lock step, not creative, and just followers. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What do you think is the biggest difference between the military and corporate culture?
You have to be able to deal with a significant number of different types of individuals in corporate culture. I was a platoon leader, an executive officer, and the assistant S2 for a brigade. The demographic of people I dealt with in the military were relatively young people, ages 18 to 22. They make up the core of a unit, and there are a lot fewer older people. Inside a corporate organization, especially a large one, you have all ages, sexes, and races. A great thing about the military is that everybody's wearing green -- there's a lack of prejudice. But there is any number of dynamics in a corporate organization. Another thing that's different is the how they deal with a person's personal life. As a platoon leader or company commander, you're as concerned with a soldier's personal life as you are with their professional life -- because it will impact their performance. If they're worried about their wife or husband, it affects the morale of your whole unit. The issue isn't how much profit we'll make this year; the issue is life and death. It's the seriousness of the mission that's the most critical aspect.

What message do you have for our deployed servicemembers?
One of the most amazing things that happened since my time on the show was the amount of support and emails I got telling me I was doing a great job representing the military. I would love to turn that around and say thank you to our servicemen and women for all the things you're giving for us. For giving us the ability to do the things we do. I don't forget you're out there, and everyday I'm thankful for it. Three of my brothers are in the military, so I have a big place in my heart for you.

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