Life lessons: The road from military service to beyond

Retired Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson, Navy Federal Credit Union's CEO.
Retired Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson, Navy Federal Credit Union's CEO.

Life lessons: The road from military service to beyond

by Stacy Roman
Stripes Japan

Retired Vice Adm. Cutler Dawson knows a thing or two about transitioning from active duty, and he’s learned a lot of life lessons along the way. From an impressive 34-plus year career as a U.S. Naval officer, Dawson spent the first 14 years of his military retirement as the CEO of one of the world’s largest credit unions—Navy Federal Credit Union (NFCU). Recently retired, with the encouragement of his wife and assistance from writer Taylor Baldwin Kiland, he’s written his words of wisdom in a recently published book, “From the Sea to the C-Suite: Lessons Learned from the Bridge to the Corner Office.”

Dawson credits his wife, Debbie, with the idea for the book. When he began his career at NFCU, he would make his way to different branches and learn the ins and outs of the organization. As many retired and prior servicemembers do, he would often share his Navy stories with employees as parables and to drive home specific points. To help share an understanding of these lessons, the book was penned.

Important lessons from the book

  1. Care for your people. “In any organization as a leader, you need to care for your people,” he states. Dawson once visited a NFCU branch in which the simple gesture of a nameplate went a long way. Rather than waiting five years for an engraved nameplate, he suggested each employee be given one on their first day. The small act went a long way to increase morale.
  2. Do the right thing. It seems like an easy concept, and for Dawson, it is. “Things work better when you do the right thing,” he says simply. He takes pride in how NFCU takes care of its members. When reviewing mortgages, they take into account what the member can afford, what size house is needed and what will be leftover to ensure a comfortable way of living. During the Great Recession a few years ago, it wasn’t the popular way to do business, but for Dawson and NFCU, it was the right way.
  3. Trust is key. “It’s important to maintain trust in the organization.” He mentions that members want to know their organization is honest and forthright. Likewise, employees want to know their leadership is the same.

Transition advice

Having undergone the two major career and retirement changes, Dawson acknowledges the challenges in moving from military to civilian life. “I didn’t know everything, and basically had to start all over. I learned you can go about it two ways. The first, ‘I’ve got a lot to learn’ and move forward. The second, ‘I don’t know and don’t want to take the time or trouble’.” However, having served in the military has proven incredibly valuable. “The military is a very trust-essential organization,” he says, “When you’re transitioning, whether after four years or 30 years, it’s something people take with them and bring with them wherever they go.”

He found his leadership style from being in charge of a fleet to heading a major credit union really didn’t change much. While in the Navy, he made it a point to get to know his sailors. Similarly, as the CEO of NFCU, it became part of his mission to know his employees. It builds a foundation of trust which becomes instrumental in the success of the organization.

Dawson also has a few words of wisdom for those thinking of separating, in the process of transitioning from active duty or retiring:

  1. “Don’t embellish your record.” He likens this to knowing the ribbons you wear. They tell your story. Be proud of your story and don’t add ribbons you didn’t earn.
  2. “You need to do the best you can. You want to be proud of what you do and what you’ve done.”
  3. “You may not recognize how much military service has taught you. For every year of service, it’s similar to three or four years of experience when you transition. Don’t forget what you’ve learned. You bring much more than you realize.”
  4. “People in the civilian world will expect wonderful things. Military service is admired and respected. Go to work. Earn it and work hard.”

But the more important thing to remember? “Always do the right thing,” he states, “… even if it might hurt a little bit.”

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