Exceptional ex military professionals

Captain John Wills (Royal Navy)

XMR asked John Wills, a retired Captain (Royal Navy), a few questions with regards to the interview process. He also told us what he looks for in a CV.

John left the services a few years ago and currently works with many of the top Defence Naval Engineering companies in the UK and abroad.

Should I avoid being too military in interview?

The best bit of advice I was given is to have a “Lightness of touch and a cheerful demeanour”. The Military are used to giving orders and having them obeyed however heavy-handed the approach and this can come across as quite threatening to some people. Civvi’s have not been trained to obey!

Your leadership has to be more subtle, although firmness is still important. This advice has served me very well, and on occasion required me to bite my lip and think before I spoke. Leadership has many styles, of which the military is only one and it assumes the people you are leading have been trained to respond. People outside the military have not been brought up that way. It can be counter-intuitive at first. In my experience, listening well achieves more than giving orders.

Will I fit in?

I was told that I got my first job because I smiled more than the other person. I was being judged on first impressions and how I would fit into their workplace. Yes I could do the job, yes I wanted the job (as could all the others at interview) but would I fit in their workplace? How was I different to the other applicants? Open plan offices full of chattering, squeaky voices are not Ops Rooms. You have to be prepared to adapt.

Any tips for my CV?

CVs are one thing, but tend to be backward facing and historical. Your covering letter must look ahead and address every requirement of the Job description! Employers want to know what you can do for them in the future, how you can make a difference and they will be thinking: How much money can this person earn for me?

What does an interviewer want to know?

Employers want to know about You. In a way it’s strange at interview to be treated as an individual, when you have spent your previous career as a member of a Team. Your pride tends to make you speak of “we did this” and “we did that”. The employer needs to find out what YOU did and can do for him. A good exercise is to analyse your achievements three ways. What was the situation? What did I (not we, but I) do? What was the result? This helps to prepare for good and snappy interview answers.

Also consider thinking in commercial terms by preparing some financial “bon mots”. There is no harm in saying that “I did this” and “I delivered a cost saving of that”. You’ll find it odd at first, but you are not doing yourself justice until you speak up in terms that the commercial world understands.

How can I utilise my RN experience?

Today’s naval sector industry is facing a considerable shortage of skills and it will get worse over the next 10 years as the bulge of 45-55 age group retires. The companies that design and build our warships value naval experience and those who can maintain the dialogue with current serving personnel. Most of these employers belong to UKNEST (http://www.uknest.org). This one website gives links to the key companies seeking RN experienced staff.

Is it worth joining one of the Professional Institutions?  

The engineering industry increasingly values staff with CEng, IEng or EngTech and you can only achieve this through membership of a Professional Engineering Institution. It bestows a mark of commitment and professionalism. It is advantageous to register while still serving and to create your portfolio of experience. Former service people are likely to head towards Professional Engineering bodies such as IMarEST, RAeS, IET, IMechE, SOE and BCS. They all offer online tools to plan, record and help you to reflect on your experience. Tools such as “MyPath” are really useful in translating your experience into plain language, and form part of the ongoing journey of Continuing Professional Development now required in the industry. Details maybe sought via the Engineering Council (http://www.engc.org.uk) or the individual body.

Please tell us what you look for in a CV which is Naval Engineering Sector specific.

Less is more?

Less words that is – think about writing a poem rather than a story. Every line should have a meaning and add something to the whole. Let the reader join the dots – it’ll be punchier this way and more effective.

Make it relevant?

Make sure you’ve highlighted the relevant experience and skills for the specific position you’re applying for – your covering letter can’t do all the work here, the CV needs to back it up.


We’re sure you’re incredibly attractive, but we don’t need to see what you look like – nice to leave an element of surprise for the meeting.

Links and Social Profile?

You’re looking to get into digital media, so make sure your online profile is up to date – if you’re active on Twitter (even just for personal interest), put your Twitter username on there. Make sure there’s nothing on there you wouldn’t want future bosses to see!

Visas/work status?

If you’re a non-EU resident, it’s best to give some detail of your Visa status and any restrictions/sponsorship required.


This is your chance to sell yourself – your elevator pitch. It should be short, objective and to the point. Let’s get rid of ‘capable of working on my own or as part of a team’ for starters (people aren’t going to assume you can’t just because you don’t write it on your CV). This should be a simple statement, highlighting any relevant qualifications, key skills/achievements or experience, rather than a list of what you’re looking for in your ideal role. These are often more effective when written omnisciently/without person, for example:

“An aspiring digital marketer and a graduate in Economics with 6 months intern experience working for a start-up eCommerce site”


If you’re a fresh graduate or school leaver, this is the main thing you’ve got so make the most of it. Put your grades on there – you’ll be asked them anyway, and make sure you’ve listed dates as well. If your degree covered different modules, list them down (especially the ones which show relevance). If your dissertation covered a relevant topic, list the title and any further relevant information. If you were school captain, part of a society or team it’s often a good idea to note this down as well.


Put the dates down – month and year as a minimum. Make a note of jobs you had during education – shows an ability to balance and a work ethic. Don’t go into loads of detail about jobs that aren’t relevant – 2-3 bullet points are fine. If you have some relevant experience, make the most of it. If the company you’ve worked for isn’t well known, it’s often a good idea to write a short description so the reader can get an idea of scale. For example:

“[name of company] is a high end boutique fashion website which sells handmade jewellery”

Adding a link to the company’s website is another good way to achieve this.

For positions relevant to your application, aim for 5-10 bullet points and focus this on your achievements rather than a list of your duties. In these, give some information about:

  • The main function of your role
  • Who you reported to and dealt with
  • What sort of budgets you were working with
  • What impact you had – for example “Contributed over 50 articles to both website and for publishing on third party sites” or “Improved PPC conversion by 15%”
  • Any technologies/software you used


If you want to include a section on your skills, bullet points are best again. Keep this focussed around hard skills – your interviewer will determine whether you’re a good communicator or not. Think about scaling this so that the reader can easily see your strengths and limitations. Never exaggerate as you may be tested! For software examples, often good to give an example of your functional ability since ‘beginner/intermediate/advanced’ can be quite subjective. So, instead of:

MS Excel – intermediate

Try MS Excel – intermediate (concatenation, vertical lookups, pivots, recording macros, etc.)

Good to list any courses you’ve been on specific to these areas too. Other good things to include in this section would be technology, web languages, details of other languages spoken, Duke of Edinburgh awards etc.


Keep these to the ones you’re capable of working in and specify whether your capability is written and/or verbal.

Hobbies and Interests?

Your chance to show a bit of your character. Good to list any extra-curricular achievements – captain of the hockey team, 3 peaks challenge, etc.. Otherwise any unusual hobbies (beatboxing, needlework, taxidermy, etc.) can make effective prompts for conversation, find common ground with an interviewer and help to break the ice in an interview.


Unless you’re in employment and don’t wish to list your current employer, there’s not point in writing ‘Available on Request’ here. Think about two or three referees who will present you credibly (and favourably) – university lecturers, previous bosses etc.. Make sure you check with them so they know they may get contacted and check they’re OK for you to share their contact details.

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