Talent Circles

Monday, February 3, 2014

Veterans Series: The service is a long version of University: Conversation with Lance Sapera

Learn more about best practices in recruiting veteran and military job seekers by joining a Talent Circles sponsored webinar on 2/13/14 at 9:00 PM PST. Click here to register & learn more. 

This post is part of a series that already includes conversations with:

Conversation with Marylene Delbourg-Delphis

Lance Sapera started his civilian career at 24 Hour Fitness in early 2007. He first led multiple Lean/Six Sigma-based Business Process Excellence initiatives, then became the Director of Equipment Standards and was responsible for all fitness equipment purchases, and after that, he led staffing/recruiting efforts across 400 locations in 18 states between 2010 and 2013. Think of it. These are three very different jobs. Where do you find people with a knack for excelling in multiple areas in record time? Your best bet is to look for them in the military, where the key for success is to continuously learn in order to continuously grow. Lance Sapera was from the Navy. He grew up in a Navy family and served in the Navy for 21 years...

Why did you choose the Navy?
Growing up in a Navy family, I already looked favorably upon the idea of public service and considered this option when I was in high school. One of the things that was exciting to me was the opportunity to earn a Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps (NROTC) scholarship. I joined NROTC at the University of Virginia and over the course of four years received extensive leadership and military training while earning my degree.  At the same time I graduated from the University of Virginia, I was commissioned an Officer in the Navy and went to flight school right out of college. This was a very exciting and intense time for our nation.  It was the height of the Cold War as detailed in novels like Red Storm Rising by Tom Clancy about a Third World War in Europe. Coming out of flight school, I selected for the P-3C Orion; the “Mighty Hunter” was the plane I flew.

How do you go from being a pilot to joining 24 Hour Fitness to now the Director of Program Delivery (Talent Acquisition) for ManpowerGroup Solutions supporting Intuit? I am sure that a MOS translator will not immediately reach this conclusion...
One of neatest things about the Navy was the dual requirement in every job.  Although I was a pilot and always training with my crew to be combat ready, I basically got a new job every two years - each with increased responsibility and leadership requirements.  It is important to note that while the new jobs and responsibilities came fast and frequently, I was fortunate to work for - and with - great leaders and mentors who helped me and the teams I led be successful. 

In my first aviation squadron in Brunswick, ME, I worked hard and earned qualifications as aP-3C Instructor Pilot & Mission Commander completing multiple operational deployments including Operation Desert Shield.  Three years later, I was at the Pentagon, first as a Joint Chiefs of Staff Action Officer and then as a White House Liaison Action Officer. My next opportunity came as the Flag Secretary for the USS John C. Stennis aircraft carrier battle group in Norfolk, VA. After only 18 months and earning qualification as a Battle Group Watch Officer, we were transferred to Jacksonville, FL where I served as an FRS Instructor Pilot training newly-winged naval aviators how to fight the P-3C and leading the Instructional Systems Development Division in developing curriculum for all P-3C aircrew.  In 1997, selected to become a squadron Maintenance Officer, I was again in Brunswick, ME flying combat missions in Operation Allied Force and leading 300+ Sailors operating forward deployed in Iceland and Sicily. Two years later I was stationed back in Norfolk, VA, this time as Assistant Chief of Staff, Tactics & New Technology where we crafted a new global operational strategy for the Maritime Patrol and Reconnaissance Community following the Attacks of 9/11. My last position was Commanding Officer, Navy Recruiting District San Francisco in Mountain View, CA where we recruited the best and brightest for naval service.

It was always part of my job to fly the airplane so having this physical piece to my job where you have to get it right every time was exciting, but the additional responsibilities of what the Navy calls "ground jobs" were every bit as challenging and rewarding.  I had the chance to grow from just being a Naval aviator to also being a leader and a mentor for Sailors in my charge.  The emphasis on investing in my own people and teams helped further develop my own “servant leader” philosophy that I first learned from my father.

In short, a MOS translator may provide useful indications, but may not necessarily capture the potential that service men and women have built up through the Military's continuing education
That's right. The service is a long version of University: every two years I was given a new job and they were not concerned whether I had a background in it. The rule is that you must learn quickly, become a subject matter expert and get the job done! Again, I want to emphasize how fortunate I was to have outstanding leaders and mentors supporting my development in each new role.  It is the “Navy Way.”  The Navy was 21 years of constant learning and personal and professional development. You would think I should have become an airline pilot after the Navy. Or that I would have moved immediately into Human Resources given that my last position as Commanding Officer of Navy Recruiting District San Francisco in charge of 300 recruiters. It's not what happened. 24 Hour Fitness used my leadership ability as opposed to any specific skill set. I believe that leadership is a process that you develop over time through different occupations, and to use a quote by John F. Kennedy, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other.” The training that the Navy provides is exceptional.

What was your selling point as Commanding Officer of Navy Recruiting District San Francisco?  It must have been very hard to recruit in this area...
Competing against the private sector in Northern California and Northwestern Nevada was a real challenge. But a big selling point was precisely the exceptional training offered by the Navy, and we were able to attract super smart young men and women who realized that the Navy could get them started in their career. It was equally important to them to be part of an organization that was greater than themselves; to be part of making the world safer for democracy; protecting and defending the constitution of the United States along with the fact that they would be able travel the world and make a difference any time there was a global crisis. We saw again recently in the Philippines with the devastating typhoon: a US Navy aircraft carrier,  ships, and aircraft were the first responders to the Philippine islands and the people bringing food, water, electricity and medical supplies. Yes, you attract bright people when you have a mission. Like the advertisement says, “The U.S. Navy, a global force for good!”

How did you approach your search for a civilian job?
I started my search with a couple of criteria. The first was joining an organization that had a mission that was larger than all of us, and one I could believe in. That's why I chose 24 Hour Fitness. The idea of being part of an organization that helped people improve their lives through fitness was exciting, and being part of something like that was a mission I could commit to. The second was a company with great people and strong core values because that was one of my favorite things about the Navy. Really, just like in the Navy: the mission and the people I served with. Fortunately, I found the same things with ManpowerGroup Solutions and Intuit – great companies operating by strong core values with great people.

What is the biggest obstacle for Veterans to land a civilian job?
First, it's the disconnect between society in general and those who have served because less than 1% of Americans have served in the military. So most people don't have an understanding of what military service is about, nor do they really understand what military personnel are capable of (i.e., their skills and abilities).  Second, most veterans work hard in their military job until the day that they separate or they retire. And so for that reason, they don’t give proper thought to “How am I going to transition to the private sector?” It's important to help veterans to do a better job at thinking about how they can take this long university in the service and apply that to some specific opportunities in the private sector. They must not count on just the MOS military translators and then applying for some random job, which only ends up being, as you and I both know, a résumé in a black hole. Those are the two big barriers. Ultimately, it's always a good idea for veterans to target military-friendly companies!

Of course, as far as military-friendly companies, Lance does know what he is talking about. While developing an “employer of choice” talent attraction model for civilians at 24 Hour Fitness, Lance led the efforts that enabled 24 Hour Fitness to rank #74 among the Top 100 Military Friendly Employers and #4 among the Top 25 Military Spouse Friendly Employers in 2012 and 2013. I am certain that his personal leadership will make a difference at ManpowerGroup Solutions too!

Clearly, Lance's years of service are dear to his heart, along with the immense and justified pride he takes from having lived through fascinating times of our history, when he was forward deployed when the Berlin Wall came down or to Desert Storm for example. But what was striking to me as we were talking for this interview, was how his strong emotional bond to the Navy allied with a deep personal kindness and courtesy drove him to help others meaningfully. 


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