Don't Call Yourself a Senior Leader

man with a bullhorn

So you think after 20+ years in the military, you qualify as a "senior leader"? I would probably agree.

According to Defense Department statistics, if you are an E-8 or above, or an O-5 or above, you are ranked in the top 5% of our nation's military. You have most likely worked with a staggering amount of responsibility for people, equipment and operations. You might have served as a chief of staff, captain of a ship, brigade commander, command sergeant major, command master chief, god of the air wing, empress of the stratosphere, and/or lord of all you perceive.

By definition, you are a senior leader.

But don't call yourself one during your transition.

My transitioning military clients tell me they hear that advice all the time. I personally give this advice as we analyze their resumes and put together their all-important headlines on LinkedIn.

It makes no sense. Surely, "senior leader" is the kind of generic term civilians want to indicate what level you attained in your career, without expecting them to know everything about your particular branch of the military.

Yet that is not the signal civilian hiring managers get when they read the term "senior leader." It is an irritant for them -- like using the terms CEO, CFO, VP level or C-Suite to describe yourself on LinkedIn or in a professional statement. These are words that do not work.

I reached out to a few of my colleagues to find out why this is such a bad idea and what a few good alternatives might be. Here are the reasons you might not want to use the term "senior leader" during your job hunt:

1. There's No Such Job.

Every professional I talked to said the same thing: "There is no such job as senior leader." It was like they had called each other and prepared an answer in advance.

"Nobody is hiring a senior leader," Brenda Tracy told me. She has been a recruiter for more than 30 years, often working for defense clients such as Booz Allen Hamilton and Lockheed Martin. She has interviewed hundreds of transitioning military members. "If the intent of that [LinkedIn] space is to be visible to employers, then use words employers will search by," Tracy said.

In your headline, use a noun to describe yourself that will be a search term for the recruiter. Tracy suggests that the best words to use are job titles and skill-based keywords. Collect possibilities on Indeed or LinkedIn and then get feedback from friends who are already out of the military to make sure you are in the right ballpark.

2. I Don't Think the Term Means What You Think It Means.

In the military, everyone knows what you mean when you use the term "senior leader." Outside the military, that can be very different. Shawn Edmondson, who retired from the Army and now works as the lead local veteran employment representative at the Virginia Employment Commission, is constantly bringing employers and individual veterans together. He sees that sometimes the gap comes from how different industries use the term "senior."

"For example, some shift leaders [at a shipyard] could be described as senior leaders, and they could be in their early 20s. The hiring authority needs to know what 'senior' means to you and how much responsibility did it include," he said.

Edmondson adds that the place to spell that out is on your resume or in the Experience section on your LinkedIn page. Be sure to use numbers to quantify your experience, but do not list the number of years you have been working.

3. "Senior Leader" Strikes the Wrong Note.

"'Senior leader' might scare off an employer," said Michele Lewis, who has taught more than 1,500 senior enlisted and senior officers how to find their first civilian job. She says that when the term is used as a noun, it can convey a certain level of arrogance -- whether you want it to or not.

"'Senior leader' instantly gives the air that we are going to be working for you, not that you will be working with us," Lewis said. Since employers already wonder whether senior military members are going to be stamping around issuing orders, refusing to make their own travel arrangements and terrifying the interns, it is probably best to avoid this kind of message.

It can also be a bad idea when you find yourself speaking to the senior leader of the company.

"In the corporate world, there are often only one or two senior leaders. You don't want to give them the idea that you are after their job," Lewis said. She thinks that senior leadership is something best demonstrated as a skill set or as a professional aptitude.

What Term Should You Use?

The best term to call yourself is the name of the job you are trying to get, such as program manager or operations analyst. If you don't know what job you want to do, you can temporarily use a more generic term to describe yourself in your LinkedIn headline or on your resume.

This general term should be considered a placeholder, not a final product, and you should expect to refine it as you move closer to the civilian world.

Here are suggestions you might use, depending on your experience:

  • Senior executive
  • Executive-level director
  • Senior manager
  • Senior analyst
  • Senior defense professional
  • Acquisition program analyst
  • Human resources professional
  • Operations manager
  • Supply chain manager
  • Financial manager, budget and acquisition
  • Project manager
  • Program manager (someone with full contract oversight)
  • Program director

You could also use a more trendy term. Edmondson suggests choosing a term related to what you have done and what you want to do after transition.

"I would use titles such as change agent, diversity inclusion specialist, process and procedures management specialist. These are broad and would not box them in when pursuing opportunities or turn a recruiter off," he said.

Tracy says these trendier terms are used most often when it comes to management consulting jobs in firms such as Accenture, Ernst & Young or Deloitte. If you see a term like this and you think it applies to you, Tracy suggests that you get online and find a job listing for that title. The listing can also help you identify keywords for that kind of position so you can tweak your resume.

Getting the nuances of the job hunt right can seem like one more thing to do. Keep in mind that you are always signaling to the employer that you not only have the experience to do the job, but you have the social intelligence to understand what is going on and shape your behavior to fit in -- which is how you became a senior leader in the first place.

Jacey Eckhart is a certified professional career coach and military sociologist who helps military members get their first civilian job by offering career-level master classes through our Veteran Job Pool and on her website, Reach her at

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