Military Career Change

Transition to Civilian Life: How a lifetime in the army prepared me for a new career as a CEO

Transitioning from a career of service based on camaraderie and teamwork to one more self-oriented, requires a shift in mentality. In the military achieving a team objective can result in a life or death outcome, something that, does not usually apply to civilian life.

15,000 people transition to civilian life annually

Across all three services of the UK Regular Forces – British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force – some 15,000 people leave annually and transition to civilian life; many have completed a full career, and leave at the end of their contracted period. Specifically in the army, from 2000 to 2019, there were only four years where the number of people joining was higher than those leaving, meaning that the British Army suffered from shortfalls in numbers of as much as 20% or 30% in some infantry regiments.

Unlike in any other career, where leaving a job or thinking about a career change is always an option, joining the army means being legally committed to serve for several years. This is necessary in order to provide an appropriate return of service for the investment made through the initial training and development. The minimum length of service in each branch of the forces is as follows:

Army (over 18s): Four years

Army (under 18s): Until 22nd birthday

Navy: Three and a half years after completion of training or four years’ service, whichever is longer

Air force: Three years after completion of training or four years’ service whichever is longer.

Transition to civilian life happens pretty early in life

In 2019, the average age of all officers was 37, while for all other ranks was 30. With such an average young age, it is not surprising that transition to civilian life is experienced rather early in life.

The armed forces provide many forms of support to people deciding to leave the army. The Transition Individual Planning and Personal Development (IPPD) is an important one . But still, the transition to civilian life can be a daunting process.

Some of the most common challenges faced are:

  • Identifying transferable skills – such as the ability to work under pressure, flexibility, reliability, leadership, self-motivation, problem-solving, teamwork, health and safety credentials – and understand how they can be used to transition career;
  • Dealing with the emotional pathways of the transition to civilian life;
  • Using all the resources available to do some soul searching, removing self-limiting beliefs or self-sabotaging behaviours.

Major General Neil Marshall OBE career transition

Major General Neil Marshall OBE, has experienced military career transition in his life. He left a prestigious role as Senior British Military Advisor for the United States Central Command ahead of time, intending to take control on the next stage of his career.

The Regular Commissions Board (now the Army Officer Selection Board) told him that he didn’t have enough worldly experience to join the army as an officer at the age of 18. Without wasting time, he took a once in a lifetime opportunity to travel and work in the Falkland Islands and join the crew of a British Antarctic Survey ship. Strong of that experience, in 1984, he was accepted in the army after applying for the second time to the Regular Commissions Board. At the age of 50, after an outstanding career in the military, he started to plan out his career change.

From soul searching, to the challenges of transitioning from military to civilian life, Major General Neil Marshall OBE, shares in this honest interview with The Career Changers, the inspirational career change story that led him to become the CEO of the Forces Pension Society.

Major General Neil Marshall OBE – CEO Forces Pension Society

Education and early life

General Marshall, what is your educational background?

I was educated at Aboyne Academy and Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh.

How many languages do you speak?

English is my native language, and I studied some French at school; I later developed more cultural awareness through my military service by travelling the world and being in touch with different cultures.

Which job did you want to do when you were a child?

I don’t think I had a specific profession in my mind, I may have thought of being a Vet for a while, but just as a young boy. Because my father was the leader of the Aberdeen Mountain Rescue Team, I was naturally drawn to the mountains, and I loved skiing. I have been a competitive Nordic skier since a young age, and I became Scottish Under 18 Nordic Ski Champion. Because of my passion for skiing, I quite knew that I wanted to do an active job, something adventurous, but I wasn’t sure what that could have been.

What was your first working experience?

At the age of 15, I started working in a woodcraft shop in Braemar during the weekends and summertime. I really enjoyed that formative experience, and I kept working there until the age of 17.  

Do you have any fun anecdotes to tell about that experience?

At the end of my first week of work, I returned home and proudly displayed the contents of my pay packet (£20 cash) to my mother.  She relieved me of £5 ‘for board and lodging’. It taught me something, but I was not exactly sure what!

Joining the army

How did you mature the decision to join the army?

Through my involvement with Nordic skiing, I was already connected with the army. At the age of 18, it felt natural to join officially so, in 1983, I applied for an officer position with the Regular Commissions Board. They told me that even though I had good potential for the role, I didn’t have enough worldly experience. After that rejection, in September 1983, I grabbed the opportunity to go to work in a sheep farm in the Falkland Islands, where I spent the next six months of my life. My days were spent between sheep farming and self-sufficient living, including meat slaughtering, helping a local farmer named Kevin. That experience taught me a lot in terms of self-reliance and responsibility.

In March 1984, a British Antarctic Survey ship arrived in Port Stanley needing one additional crew member for the onward voyage to South Georgia and the Antarctic peninsula; I jumped on the farm motorbike and went for a ride to the harbour. Once there, I applied for the job, and I got it. So, there I was, on board, for the first three days, suffering from seasickness. After that, I managed to pull through, and had this fascinating experience sailing through the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands and Rio de Janeiro before finally coming back to the UK.

It was then, with that first-hand experience, that I made my second application to join the army with the Regular Commissions Board and, this time, I was successful. So, in 1984 I finally started my military career as an officer.

A successful career

Since joining the army, your military career went from strength to strength. How did you start and what roles have you covered during your long journey in the military?

I was commissioned into the Royal Artillery in 1985, serving with 39th and 19th Regiments Royal Artillery, 7th Parachute Regiment Royal Horse Artillery and as an instructor at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst.

I then attended the first Advanced Command and Staff Course at the Joint Services Command and Staff College in 1997/98. Later I was Commanding Officer 1st Regiment Royal Horse Artillery between 2004 and 2006.

While serving in the Ministry of Defence Operations Directorate, I was selected to attend the Higher Command and Staff Course. I became Commander Royal Artillery 3rd (UK) Division in 2009.

I subsequently served as Assistant Chief of Staff Operations in Army Headquarters, Andover, as Director Afghan National Security Forces Development in Kabul and as Director Higher Command and Staff Course at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham.

During my career, I have served in the UK, Germany, Belize, the USA, Canada, Cyprus, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan. I am also a member of the Royal College of Defence Studies.

Between 2016 and 2017, in what turned out to be my final appointment in the army, I was the Senior British Military Advisor to United States Central Command. It was one of the most rewarding roles of my career. I was working with 52 partner nations using my international experience. I was responsible for providing strategy and policy advice, covering countries from Egypt in the west through the Middle East to Pakistan via Afghanistan in the east.

Orlando, Florida, 2016 – Retired Staff Sergeant Timothy Payne of the US Army at the Invictus Games, presenting Major General Neil Marshall Senior British Military Advisor, U.S. Central Command, with the combat patch he was wearing when he was injured during combat operations in Afghanistan in 2011. (Photo by: Daniel Hawkins )

An adventurous life

What did you enjoy the most during your career in the military?

I joined the army because I wanted to live an adventurous life. My career allowed me to travel the world and to experience more often than not a great feeling of excitement, due to the unpredictable nature of the job. Having to respond to situations of global crisis makes for a life with a high degree of uncertainty, something probably very different from the typical 9-5 job. However, this form of unpredictability is counterbalanced by the stability provided by the military organisation in terms of framework, (you get paid, housed and fed). The army is an institution that allows you to progress and get rewarded, so this is a factor that helped me to thrive in my career.

One of the aspects I enjoyed the most during my military career has been the interaction with people. I found rewarding mentoring other people and helping them to become leader. Also finding the best way to get the best out of them and having a positive impact on their development.

Challenges and transferable skills

What has been the biggest challenge in your career?

First leaving the army. Second setting up my consultancy company. And third the transition to civilian life, in terms of going from a service position to a more self-centred one.

What transferable skills have you learned from your experience in the army?

Guiding people and being a leader. I thrive by working with people. And definitely soft skills, like the ability to influence others and empathy. If you put me my in a room, I may not be the person with the highest IQ level, but I would contend that I can “read” the room better than many others. Emotional Intelligence is an essential trait in good leaders.

The career change process

How and when did you start thinking about changing career?

When I turned 50, I started to think about the next stage of my career. In the army, you can retire at 55, so after 50 it all started to feel a little bit like a tailing off.

Because I believe in the principle of taking control of our lives, I wanted to put myself in the right headspace. I didn’t want to be around waiting for a decision to be made for me. In that case, I could have gone to serve until the age of 55 and then leave. But instead, I left at the age of 52, after having spent one year in a fantastic job in Tampa, Florida, as Senior British Military Advisor to the United States Central Command.

After buying a home in Wiltshire, I knew that that was the place where I wanted to be with my family. In those two years, from the age of 50 to 52, I started my resettlement process. I was looking at what direction I wanted to take in my new career outside the defence domain. I also worked on identifying the areas I wanted to invest my energy into and developing my CV.

It was clear to me that I wanted a “people job” focused around learning and development. That was something that I really enjoyed during my time as an instructor at the Royal Military Academy in Sandhurst and as Director Higher Command and Staff Course at the Defence Academy, Shrivenham.

In an interview with Jim Hughes, I also reflect on a model called “Greater Horizontal Integration” that I developed during my time at the United States Central Command. I realised that one of my strength is to bring a cohesive voice inside organisations.

Transition to civilian life

What did you do after your transition to civilian life?

I initially set up my own consultancy company, working as an independent defence, leadership development and training support consultant before becoming, in January 2019, CEO at the Forces Pension Society. This independent, not-for-profit organisation acts as the pension watchdog for the entire military community. I am also a Senior Military Mentor at the Joint Services Command and Staff College.

The challenges of the transition to civilian life

What challenges did you have to overcome during your transition to civilian life?

I had to be really honest with myself and undertake a deep psychological journey towards greater self-awareness. Getting clarity about career change and transition to civilian life is not something that can happen in one day. In my case, it took a while.

I believe that during the career change process, you need to have an honest conversation with yourself. Use all the tools that are available out there like mentoring, coaching or psychometric tests. If you feel that you need help, you need to reach out to people and ask for it.

Also transitioning from a career of service based on camaraderie and teamwork to one more self-oriented, requires a shift in mentality. In the military achieving a team objective can result in a life or death outcome, something that, does not usually apply to civilian life.

Life as a CEO of the Pension Forces Society

What is your typical day?

Before COVID19 I was commuting four days a week from Salisbury to London Vauxhall by train. I was using the commuting as working time. Since COVID19, I have been working from home, and I have been quite happy with that. I still think it is essential to meet people in person, but working from home could become the new normal. On the top of my role as CEO for the Pension Forces Society, I am still active with the armed forces community. I am particularly focused on helping those leaving the Armed Forces during the  COVID19 pandemic. They are facing particular challenges transitioning into a changing civilian employment environment. This is why I seek to support them in any way I can.

Where do you see yourself in the future?

I have been Chief Executive for the Forces Pension Society for the last 18 months. I can see myself in this role for the next five years. That is going to be the longest job I have ever had! I still need my fix for adventure though. I plan to get that from remaining actively involved in Armed Forces winter sports in the years to come.

Making the difference

What are you enjoying the most in your actual job?

I feel that I am making a positive difference, and the organisation I lead is a force for good. What I do help servicemen and servicewomen receive fair and appropriate pension benefits. I also ensure that they get represented at the top tables of government. My work matters, involves people, that is what I love, and it’s great fun. It is definitely keeping me young.

Why do you think changing a career is a good thing?

Change is a constant in life. It’s essential to take control of your life. Ask yourself “What I am going to do” instead of “What is going to happen to me”. You need to have the courage to make some bold moves. Changing career enriches your life and can give you a newfound motivation and enthusiasm.

The impact of Covid 19

Has the coronavirus impacted your career in any way?

Personally, no and because the Forces Pension Society is member-funded, we didn’t have to furlough anyone. I have been missing the camaraderie of the office life. At the same time, this overall experience made me reflect on how I wish to work in the future.

On a broader scale, I do think about the COVID19 impact on the next generation. I would like to share this message: “Don’t let COVID19 define you”. I think that we have to think “How do we work with it” instead of “Being defined by it”.

General Marshall, any last pearl of wisdom that you would like to share with our readers?

Do not take counsel of your fears. Do not think just about the reasons not to do something. Create a plan, set some goals and work out how you are going to achieve them.

Did you enjoy reading this career change interview? You can read more military career change stories here or all the career change stories here.

Do you have an inspirational story of transition to civilian life to share? Contact The Career Changers at and we will be in touch soon.

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