Moving up the career ladder – what it means and how to do it

Lisa Jones (pictured right), Career Consultant with our Executive Programme, takes a closer look at career progression and what it takes to move up the career ladder.

What’s next?

Over the course of my military career, I served in a number of locations, including Cyprus, Bosnia, Northern Ireland, and Germany. As well as becoming a Dari linguist and reservist in Afghanistan, working with the Afghan media.

Despite this experience, when I returned from Afghanistan I still found myself thinking, “What’s next?” Life in the Armed Forces often brings a sense of purpose and well-defined roles with a clear path and route ahead in both career progression and day-to-day activities. These things are harder to define in the civilian world, and adapting to this can be challenging for veterans. Equally, families and spouses will often take a career break whilst their partner serves, leading to concern about how they are going to get another job and what this might look like.

The Forces Employment Charity offers service leavers, veterans, reservists and families life-changing support to bridge the gap between military life and civilian employment. My role at the charity is to support individuals as they set goals and work out how to navigate moving up the career ladder.

What do we mean by moving up the career ladder?

Moving up the career ladder means progressing your career. This could be within the same organisation or it could mean moving to another company to better meet your goals. Veterans and the ex-forces community often find this a challenge because you are leaving behind one career and moving into a completely different industry and role, which can feel intimidating.

Unfortunately, a big reason for this is the fact that veterans can struggle to recognise the transferrable skills gained in the Armed Forces that can be employed within civilian life. Businesses are often keen to promote from within, and as a veteran, skills and attributes such as the ability to communicate, work ethic, adaptability, and teamwork will make you strong contenders for these positions when they arise.

Considering the potential of a job role and where it might lead is vital. You might find yourself entering a new organisation at a slightly lower level than expected, and with no prior experience in the sector, advancing your career may feel daunting.

One of the most important things to remember is that whilst the military is a rank-conscious organisation, and you might be accustomed to judging your career by how you fit into that rank structure, the civilian world doesn’t work in the same way. It’s about the expertise you have gained and how you can impact the business you are looking to be employed by. The experiences required for this can come at any level and job title.

Our top tips for moving up the career ladder

In this article, I will explore our top tips for career progression and the simple steps and actions you can take to build your career. These tips include:

  • Setting goals
  • Communicating these goals
  • Taking opportunities for upskilling
  • Networking
  • Weighing up whether to stay at an organisation or move to a new one
  • Utilising your existing skills
  • Considering a sideways step

Setting goals

Taking the time to think about your goals and what you want to achieve is really important. This doesn’t have to mean thinking about where you want to be in three or five years’ time – that approach can be very daunting. It can be more valuable to instead think about aspirations without timeframes, considering where you and your family are at the moment and where you would ideally like to be. Thinking about core questions such as:

  • What do you enjoy doing?
  • What do you like or dislike about your current employment?
  • What do you want to do more of in the future?
  • If you could do anything, what would that be?

Even if the answers to these questions are vague, they create a starting point for discussion with one of our advisors or someone in your personal life. Whilst December and the festive period is a busy time for many of us, there are a lot of opportunities to sit with family and friends and discuss what you want to get from your career.

To put it in military terms, time spent in reconnaissance is never wasted.

Communicating these goals

Speaking to your organisation and line managers about your ambition will undoubtedly make career progression easier. Businesses are often looking to promote from within, as lateral moves within organisations can save money and keep employees engaged and loyal. People retention is important to employers, and knowing you are interested in a position will put you in the best place to be considered. It could also open up opportunities for internal training and work experience in another department.

Taking opportunities for upskilling

Upskilling refers to an employee expanding their existing skill set through training and other methods of learning. Exploring opportunities for this not only gives you the chance to learn new skills to put on your CV and LinkedIn, but it also signals to your employer that you’ve got drive and determination, as well as the capacity and an appetite to learn, attributes that are also attractive to employers and beneficial when looking to move up the career ladder. Even if you hold a senior position or you leave the Armed Forces after many years of service, there will be scope to learn new skills and enhance your expertise.


Veterans will often think of networking as selling themselves; this is particularly daunting because, in the Armed Forces, you don’t need to sell anything. It’s also easy to think about networking and picture local business groups and events. The truth is networking is fundamentally just meeting people and having a conversation. Speaking to friends and family, for example, is a great way to identify opportunities you might not know about. It’s also an excellent way to get inspired about your next steps.

Networking with people in the role or industry you are looking to get into can help you understand what it might be like to work in that sector, giving you an understanding of potential career paths. If you can speak to existing employees before you apply for a job and get a feel for it, it helps you to understand whether it’s the right fit for you.

LinkedIn is also a very important element of networking. People are going to be your best resource when it comes to moving up the career ladder, and LinkedIn is essentially a vast database of people you can connect with. Recruiters often describe LinkedIn as your ‘shop window’, the first port of call for potential contacts to see the value you could bring to their team or organisation. The Forces Employment Charity runs free webinars on LinkedIn, which can give people invaluable advice on how to use the platform.

Weighing up whether to stay at an organisation or move to a new one

Job hopping, voluntarily changing jobs on a frequent basis, is something people from the Armed Forces community can find surprising and difficult to comprehend. When I transitioned from the Army, I was shocked at how many people seemed to move from one company to another. These moves always seemed to be very successful; more often than not, they would get promotions and significant salary increases.

The reason this concept can be difficult for veterans to understand is a career in the Armed Forces often inspires loyalty and commitment. These attributes make it more difficult to comprehend leaving a role to go to an alternative organisation, but this doesn’t mean it isn’t potentially the right move for you. Whilst it can be difficult for veterans to only consider their own needs, when it comes to moving up the career ladder, focusing on what you want and need is key. Veterans are very much team players and tend to be quite modest. Reflecting on your achievements and success can feel boastful but communicating the skills you have is a vital part of moving up the career ladder.

Despite the potential opportunities that come from job hopping, there are also numerous benefits from communicating your goals and upskilling within your existing organisation. It comes down to what is best for you as an individual.

When weighing up whether to stay at an organisation or move to a new one, there are a number of questions you could ask yourself that could help you make that decision. These include:

  • Do I look forward to coming to work?
  • If I were to find out I’m still working here in five years’ time, how would I feel?
  • Am I being supported by senior management?
  • Is there a specific role at the organisation I want to take?
  • If there isn’t, is there the scope to create one?
  • Have I fully researched and looked at other opportunities?
  • What’s important to me when it comes to where I work?
  • Does my current role offer the things that are important to me?

Utilising your existing skills

As a veteran, you have a huge range of both technical and softer skills that you can leverage for career progression. Having discipline and being focused on tasks is a good example of this, often people don’t carve out the time required to look for new opportunities within their working life.

Technical skills such as engineering and hands-on experience with advanced technology and equipment are great for your CV and LinkedIn profile. Soft skills such as planning and problem-solving give you the attributes to go out and find opportunities. For example, veterans are great at setting objectives and making sure they meet them. When it comes to moving up the career ladder, setting goals for activities connected to this could be a great way to ensure it happens. These tasks don’t need to be big or time-consuming; they could be simple activities such as searching LinkedIn for potential opportunities or re-writing one section of your CV a day.

Thinking outside the box is also really important. Often in the civilian world, people move up the career ladder because their circumstances change and a new door opens. Being made redundant or a change in your personal life could lead to a decision that forces you to find another job that advances you in your career more than the one you have just left. Thinking outside the box is one of the reasons veterans are likely to act so quickly when a change like this occurs. Many of us in or from the Armed Forces don’t realise how good we are at making decisions, an attribute that often comes from having to make vital decisions quickly, often with very little information, when in the Armed Forces. Quick and efficient decision making is not only valuable when job hunting, it’s a very attractive quality for future or current employers.

In my role at Forces Employment Charity, I have a lot of exposure to organisations hiring veterans. I know from this experience that during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting lockdowns, a lot of employers found that the veterans in their organisations were more resilient and adaptable than those with a civilian background. Veterans were leading the way when it came to making sure businesses ran and operated as smoothly as possible. Delivering under pressure is something employers value, and this skill will undoubtedly unlock future career opportunities.

Considering a sideways step

As a veteran, you might find climbing the career ladder to be frustrating, especially if you feel that you have been overlooked for promotion. It may be that there is a lack of opportunity within your company, or perhaps others have simply been better at highlighting their abilities to senior management.

It could be that you need to consider a similar role in another organisation where there are more opportunities for advancement. People outside of the Armed Forces will often need to take a sideways step in their careers. For example, if they lack a specific skill or exposure to a certain business area, it may be that they need to take a sideways step to gain this valuable experience to open up the right career pathways.

What’s next? You can decide.

Career progression doesn’t have to be daunting. It can be incredibly rewarding and exciting. The Forces Employment Charity is uniquely positioned to offer long-standing expertise with a modern approach to those seeking employment and support. We stand by veterans and empower them to move up the career ladder. Giving you life-long support that you can access at any point. Whether you know what you want your future to hold or are simply asking, “What’s next?”

For more information or to register to receive our help, register with us today.

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