PRA accepts and welcomes all walks of life. However, some people who join us come from more difficult paths. For many veterans, the transition from the military to a civilian workforce is extremely challenging. That’s why our leading veterans work together to provide support groups and transition programs. Programs like the Veteran Leadership Transition Program (VLTP) and Veterans Support Group (VSG) help veterans through their initial transition into our industry, allowing them to feel welcomed and encouraged by other veterans in their communities.
In light of Veteran’s Day in the US and UK’s Remembrance Day, we spoke with the following veterans about their experiences at PRA:
Sam Cobley, Senior HR Business Partner - Human Resources - Strategic Solutions
John Mann, VP, Project Management, Americas - Project Management Project Delivery
Josh Knoll, VP, Project Management, Americas - Project Management Project Delivery
Can you tell us a little bit about your military experience and your role at PRA?
SC: I joined PRA five years ago in December within the Talent Acquisition group having had an HR background. I applied internally for a Human Resources Business Partner role and was selected to transfer. I am currently a Senior Human Resources Business Partner supporting the Strategic Solutions Division, Global Regulatory Affairs, and the Blue Bell office of Symphony Health providing human resources, employee relations, and strategic support to the senior leadership and employees.
I served 25 years on active duty, serving primarily as a senior enlisted leader in the Airborne Infantry, culminating my career in US Army Recruiting. I graduated with a BA in HR Management, an MBA in Global Strategic Management, and a Master’s Certificate in Organizational Leadership using the GI Bill to pay for 100% of the costs through American University. I served in many different leadership positions and functions while I was in the US Army, mainly infantry units for my entire career with units such as The Old Guard of the Army, the Official Escort to the President of the United States, and the 82nd Airborne Division having deployed to several countries globally, both in combat and peace-keeping operations.
JM: I am a Vice President of Project Management and have been at PRA for about 10 years, and worked in the CRO industry for about 22 years, all in project management. I developed and now co-lead the Project Management Veteran Leadership Transition Program (VLTP).
I had four years active enlisted, where I spent two years in Panama and in the 82nd Airborne at Ft Bragg, and about eight years in the South Carolina and North Carolina National Guard. During this time, I moved from Staff Sergeant to a commissioned officer role. I spent my entire time in the infantry, and while I was in the National Guard, I obtained my undergraduate degree from the University of South Carolina and my Master of Science degree from North Carolina State.
JK: I have been with PRA for over four years and I am currently a Vice President of Project Management. I have over 21 years of experience in the CRO industry, serving in various capacities and operational departments. I have been assisting with the VLTP and the recruitment program for the past three and half years at PRA. I've been in the military for 26 years, including both active and reserve duties, and continue to serve as a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army Reserves. I recently returned from a three-month mobilization with the Reserves where we augmented civilian hospitals in their medical care of COVID-19 patients.
How did your military skills help you in your new career?
SC: I still live by the words of the Non-Commissioned Offer Creed and I never accept the phrase, “I can't.” I will keep moving forward and keep going until the mission is complete, whether I have to teach myself a new skill along the way or not. I strive to provide exemplary service to the employees and leaders I support at all times. I've learned to apply myself to get results, using critical thinking, which is probably the driving factor that helps me in my work the most. I strive to achieve the perfect result as opposed to working for a certain amount of time each day.
In my role, I get pulled into about every issue or concern based on the fact that, as business partners, we understand the business wholly and can direct traffic to the correct locations if we can’t provide the assistance. I did utilize those same skills in the military as in my current role—whether it's backwards planning or decision-making skills or applying leadership principles to help counsel and mentor employees and leaders. Most of what I've learned in all of the leadership schools I’ve attended in the Army and through daily conduct as a leader I can apply liberally into virtually every situation I’ve found myself in as a business partner.
I push myself to better at my job every day and draw those parallels. I understand that what I’m doing is still exactly what I did in the army—just be the leader you would want leading you.
JK: In the military, you interact and learn to operate effectively with people with different socioeconomic backgrounds and beliefs. This translates well into our business, where we have diversity in our clients, from large pharma to small biotech. My experience in the military has helped me develop and hone my situational awareness. The ability to observe, listen, understand clients’ particular needs, and adjust communication styles and operational approaches have helped me in the CRO industry.
JM: From the leadership and soft skill perspective, the United States military education programs are probably some of the more developed organizations in the world. They focus a significant amount of time on every soldier in developing soft skills and leadership phenotype traits that can be used in any career. They focus that training on how to lead teams and make decisions.
The military is dependent upon itself to develop leaders. Unlike organizations in the private sector, the military does not recruit, select, and assign mid-grade and senior-level leaders from outside its ranks, and it must develop them internally. The core of this focuses on, but not limited to, leading by example, communication, sound judgement, decision making, tact, innovation, and mental agility. Those are the soft skills that these people are bringing with them into our organization after 20 years of experience and service. Because the military spends an enormous amount of time on leadership trainings and these skills, which directly translate into Project Management, many or most of the veterans are better performing in these roles than traditional external candidates.
Were you given the resources and training needed to be successful, such as the Veteran Leadership Transition Program (VLTP)?
JM: When I started here about nine years ago, I initiated and helped develop the VLTP. A previous coworker of mine and I started a similar program at a previous company, and when I came to PRA, I duplicated the program with a more robust process to ensure success. The first cohort started out with just a couple of candidates, and the mentor and development team consisted of veterans and experienced subject matter experts. We help them apply their skills over the first six to 18 months to transition them into our industry.
This program is very different. We’re not teaching people who came directly from college, with roles within our industry, experience working in-house CRA, and have a good understanding of drug clinical trials. The traditional candidates need a great deal of leadership and soft skill development to mature into a mid- and senior-level leader. With the military candidates, we focus just on industry knowledge—what is a database lock, what is regulatory review, start-up packets, interim analysis, and all of those functional tasks. We take these candidates and make them associate project managers (PMs), but they start with the basics of project associate work, in-house CRA work, and enroll them into an 18-month training program. To date, we've had a 100 percent success rate of candidates going through the program to achieve a PM promotion with zero percent turnover. It’s very mentor-intensive and we have multiple mentors meeting with the candidates on a weekly basis. We try to have two to three people a year in a single recruitment cohort.
Many of the past candidates are now project managers and some senior project managers are moving toward the director role. We've been going long enough that the initial candidates and participates are now the mentors for the new cohorts coming in. It’s basically feeding back on itself, and due to the success, the program is now self-supported. It takes people who’ve been in the military to actually conduct and lead this program, because they know how to translate the industry into military terms and provide examples that the candidates can more easily understand. That knowledge, experience, and coaching has a huge impact in creating that connectivity to teach them the skill sets as they transition into a civilian job.
JK: The thing that made me most happy was how much PRA was willing to invest into this program and continues to do so. There is a steadfast commitment to bringing veterans into our organization and into the industry—there's value in acquiring a lot of leadership and experience that we don’t always get from typical applicants. We’ve had nothing but support from the PRA Executive Management in building up this program. It’s overwhelming to see the amount of pride and ownership that the VLTP alumni have taken in this program. They’re completing the program, returning as mentors and recruiters, and are really driving it forward. They have a vested interest in seeing other veterans be successful in this industry.
JM: The recruiting process timeline takes a long time. We’re starting to recruit in October for April hires—six months ahead to hire the next cohort of two candidates. We do this because you have to identify people many months before they get out from their End of Term of Service (ETS) date. People retiring out of the military are doing these interviews now, so we have to forecast our needs, go to the bases, and recruit there far in advance. We interviewed about 12 candidates and only hire two each year who have the right skill set with some project management background.
Tell us about your experience with this program. What would you say are the most significant benefits of the program?
JK: There’s benefits to both the veterans as well as PRA. Veterans come into a fully supported organization with a new career pathway that's really well detailed and articulated. That path forward is not easy. It's tough, and transitioning into it can be a bit of a challenge. But we are now benefiting from a robust and experienced veterans’ team. They've got a support structure of people who’ve completed the journey that new employees are about to experience. These are people who’ve gone through that transition, understand some of the challenges that will be faced, and have the ability to create an environment where others feel more comfortable asking questions. We’re feeding untapped potential into our organization and into the industry.
JM: That transition out of service is not easy—you're living a very different life with your family as well as your job. People go from crazy combat situations where they’re running battalions with hundreds and hundreds of men and women to taking minutes on a call as a project associate. That type of transition is challenging—you’re going from a role where you had a tremendous amount of responsibility, accountability, and explicit trust in your decision-making in keeping people alive into a role where you're basically learning a new industry, hopping on conference calls for project teams, and doing the same job as fresh graduates (Army term – Desktop Ranger).
It’s really hard to understand the bigger picture and to see how their role will evolve into a leadership position, working on studies that will find treatments and potential cures to help people all over the world. It’s important for veterans to have other people who’ve gone through it and can tell them what the process is like. We have 11 employees who can explain where they are now and talk them through it. They share experiences as well as have the close support of a lot of the military families. Similar to how it is inside the military, they’re very supportive of each other. I think that close-knit community creates a bond and support system that’s made this program so successful.
If you had any advice for veterans considering VLTP, what would it be?
JM: There's a term in the army called high-speed withdrawal. It’s a process many veterans experience after being in the military combat situations and in high-adrenaline jobs. Once a veteran gets out of the military, the first four months out are great—you get to be with your family and love not being deployed. Then at month five or six, you start missing that adrenaline rush and you start exercising, doing Ironman races, and anything else to get that adrenaline rush and excitement back to fill that void. Then at month nine-12, you enter into a depression phase and feel that nothing will replace the life you previously had. Personal relationships get strained and it is an extremely challenging time for many. I remember going through this only after four years of active duty when I left the 82nd Airborne and started university.
That transition is difficult, but even though you have to start over again at a new job, you’ll be going through a new process much faster than others and drinking from a “fire hose.” You’ll start surpassing other peers because you already have 20 years of experience, but learning a whole new industry takes time, and you just need to have a little patience to transition through it.
JK: Patience is key to success for them. Many veterans fight through that period of transition. We try to be as transparent with them as possible and understand that there’s probably a couple of phases that they’re going to go through throughout this program. But I would recommend that they stay with it and lean on their mentors and the veteran community here. If they’re able to do that, they're going to be successful.
SC: I didn't have much knowledge on the VLTP due to my location, but speaking to the transition—I would agree with David and Josh completely. Once you learn the language in the corporate atmosphere, especially the clinical and regulatory terminology at PRA, life is much easier. I was looking for a home after I retired from the Army and not just a job, and I feel like I found it here at PRA. My teammates are my extended family. My knowledge base within the corporate culture has achieved a level where I feel it should be. I still retain the military thought processes, so I’m always applying effective strategies to aid the leaders I support.
What's it like being a veteran at PRA? Can you tell us a little bit about the community of veterans working here, and the importance of PRA's Veterans Support Group (VSP)?
SC: During my first year, I was trying to keep my head above water, and like every new employee, learn the ropes. But then I started noticing some other people talking and asking questions about Veterans or if I knew about this person or that person, so my network grew. My manager Jennifer Linnell, Director of Human Resources, has provided tremendous support and training for me to get in front of every challenge I was facing. She was able to answer any question or allow me to talk through a situation, providing guidance and direction along the way. Jennifer had come up with the ideas and her and I and I initially started working on a veterans’ group a few years ago, but time allocations and other obstacles pushed that idea aside. With the VSG being initialized through the Employee Network Channel in Microsoft Teams, which was an established and clear launching point, the intent became clear—provide a strong, global support channel for the military, military spouses, and anyone who wants to step in and show support for all the employees who served globally in any country’s military units.
The VSP initially started off as a chatter group and moved into Microsoft Teams very quickly. Now with tremendous assistance from Francisca Burtenshaw, Director of Human Resources - Human Resources Corporate Services in Europe and Emma Lewis, Director of Clinical Operations in Europe, we have created and launched the VSP Teams Channel. We want to get it out in in front of everybody, but there are still lots of things that need to be done. It’s a great tool to bring everyone even closer together. We share anything from a “Thank you” to a “Hello, how are you?” We provide resources to veterans with educational opportunities or volunteering opportunities to mentor and help other veterans. People can ask those questions and understand each other better.
JM: I embraced the idea of being a veteran here a long time ago when I talked to Colin Shannon, our President and CEO, about bringing in the veteran program. He was in full support and told me to go for it. As long as they saw success, PRA’s leadership team was engaged and supportive. I think that's really great from an organization. Within project management, we occasionally have veteran get-togethers where we invite veterans from other departments and the company provides appetizers and supports the meetings. Those type of things mean a lot and I think that the veterans recognize it. They talk very highly of our company within the military circles.
JK: I would agree with John’s comments and because of that, it's really taken off. When I first started, it was a small community. It's grown and people are much more active with social gatherings and Q&As than when I first started here a few years ago. I know for those still active in military service, they get incredible support from PRA. When we get deployed or activated/mobilized, the last thing that PRA wants us to be thinking about is our responsibilities here. PRA has gone out of its way to make sure that my family and I are supported while I’m gone and made sure that I smoothly reenter the workforce when I get back. To me, that says a lot about the company and the support that we have here as active members of military.
November 9 also marks UK Remembrance Day. Can you speak to this and why it’s important to recognize this as well as Veteran’s Day?
JK: For me, it’s not just an American holiday. During my career, I have had the opportunity to serve alongside of service members from various other countries. I know those that serve, regardless of the country that they live in, have made a commitment to excellence, service, and sacrifice. As part of a global organization, I think it’s important that we recognize that.
JM: I was in the UK last year for Remembrance/Veteran’s Day. It doesn’t matter which country you served in, it's about sacrificing your time and potentially your life for your country. I think it needs to be recognized from that point of view regardless if people agree with the decisions, deployments, or who's the Commander In Chief. The soldiers don't make those decisions—they follow those rules and orders and sacrifice for the freedoms we sometimes take for granted.
SC: The world really is just one military service now. We're serving with people who are going through the exact same hardships that we went through. Some still are, they’re just from a different country with a different uniform—here at PRA, we’re one family. We recognize that, so that transcends that boundary of language and distance, and we hold reverence for each other that is unique only to that group of people. I think it's fantastic that we're able to, as an organization, celebrate everybody—not just one service but the world.
PRA’s VLTP gives Officers and Non-Commissioned Officers looking to transition out of the military the training and mentorship needed to ensure a smooth and confident transition into their new careers. Since starting the program in August 2016, we’ve successfully transitioned veterans into project management roles within 18-24 months while also welcoming them into our supportive community.
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