Paul Gennaro, SVP and chief brand and communications officer at Voya Financial, has been mentoring veterans since 2013. A veteran himself—having served seven years in the U.S. Navy—Gennaro connected with the Wounded Warrior Project in 2013 and has spent the years since helping veterans transition to civilian life and working in corporate America.
He talks with PRWeek about why he mentors and what veterans bring to the workforce.
What did you do in the Navy?
I enlisted in 1988, and after being stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, went to the Defense Information School at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. After I graduated, I was fortunate to work with the Armed Forces Network in Exmouth, Australia. Then I went to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and I spent my last three years on a submarine base there doing print journalism and public affairs.
So you didn't just take experience from the military, but also as a journalist, into the communications industry?
Absolutely. That's the beauty of the military specifically. You get greater responsibility generally at a younger age than you would somewhere else. When I came out of the Navy, I was doing things that people would be doing 10 years my senior. Most people my age were still in college, but I'm actually doing the job. It's a great opportunity just to get exposed to a lot of different things, whether it was on the broadcast side, whether it was on the print side or the public affairs side.
How did you get involved in mentoring?
I got out of the Navy in December of 1994, and I realized that you couldn't outsource your resume. Nobody can tell your story the way you can tell it, so I bought three resume books and immersed myself in it. I was fortunate things went well, and as people I knew were starting to transition, if I could offer tips along the way, I did.
In 2013 at my previous employer, we got connected to the folks with the Wounded Warrior Project. Talking to the other warriors, I found they were exiting the military and going to resume classes and searching for jobs. What they really needed was somebody to stick with them throughout the whole process as they reach out to companies, as they do interview prep and as they assimilate. I still have people I've worked with previously who circle back.
What did your mentees need most when transitioning into civilian life?
They needed help articulating a really complex skill set in a way that a civilian hiring manager can understand. They're very proud that they've led a platoon into combat, but you probably don't need to put that on a resume. You could scare someone who doesn't understand the leadership that is involved in that. Then it's about making the right connections. Whether it's through Page or other PR organizations, I can identify the head of comms and send along an individual's resume who is interested in their company. I'm just trying to help them make those contacts, because once they get into the workforce, they hit the cover off the ball.
What unique skills translated to your civilian communications job coming out of the service?
When I was in the Navy, I was writing articles, I was editing, I was laying out publications. I'm doing all the things that I would have done in a civilian role, but the terminology is different. You don't talk about soldiers and sailors and airmen and Marines. You talk about employees, stakeholders and internal communications and translate the best you can.
There's also a level of leadership that just comes with the military. If they want to be successful, they have to pick up on the leadership aspect and the teamwork and the collaboration. These are skills hiring managers in the civilian workforce will screen for.
Do you have plans to continue working with Wounded Warrior Project or finding more mentees in the future?
I've actually been devoting my energy the last few years to disability inclusion. One of the things our CEO at Voya said we wanted to focus on back in 2015 was being able to serve customers and clients and be an employer that is more inclusive of people with disabilities and special needs. I'm on the board of [disability inclusion and equality group] Disability:IN, and I do college mentoring with them.
Actually now that we're talking about it, I've made a note and will look into trying to do something that does target veterans with disabilities.
How could the industry do a better job of bringing more veterans into the fold?
From a recruiting standpoint, they should be more actively searching for that intersection of veterans and writing and journalism and communications and media. The military is also incredibly diverse, whether it's ethnicity, gender or race. If you want to build out a diverse workforce, which everybody does because it makes your team more successful, the military is a great place to look. Then you get the leadership, work ethic, teamwork and collaboration—most likely on discount. As veterans transition to the civilian workplace, the best job they may be able to get is a manager or senior manager, but they have 10 or 12 years of experience. You're hiring them a level or two below where they should probably be, but they will work hard and do great things. You will have an opportunity to promote them down the road, but your ROI is immediately positive.