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Veteran Voices: Tony Groff

Veteran Voices is a series that gives our veteran employees a chance to discuss their time in the military and how it prepared them for careers with Highmark Health companies. In this post, Anthony Groff, supervisor of quality and audit control, and vice-chair of the organization’s business resource group for veterans, talks about transitioning to a civilian career after a 20-year career in the U.S. Army.

The transition from military service to a civilian career presents some challenges that people may not comprehend unless they’ve experienced them firsthand.

Tony Groff has plenty of examples, both from his own experience coming to work at Highmark after retiring from the U.S. Army, and from his efforts to help other veterans enter the workforce. Now a project manager in Highmark Health’s corporate diversity department, Groff says that some adjustments are as basic as the language used.

“In the military, I could carry on conversations where virtually no words were spoken, because we have many acronyms and everyone knows what they mean,” he explains. “But you come back to civilian life and those acronyms don’t mean the same thing. My first day at Highmark, my boss asked for something EOD. I thought, what’s the bomb squad have to do with this? In my mind, EOD was an acronym for Explosive Ordnance Department.”

Family photo of Tony, his wife, and his two sons

Tony (second from right) with his wife and two sons.

He adds that he ended up developing a personal dictionary of sorts to help remember civilian and corporate terms and acronyms. He says that other adjustments can be difficult in part because things tend to be less precise in the business world than they are in the military.

“I’ll be honest, when I re-entered civilian life, I had to look up the definition of ‘business attire’ — but then the confusing part is that the dress code in organizations isn’t always as clear or consistent as you get used to in the military,” he says.

Punctuality is another example. “For civilians, a 30-minute meeting is a 30-minute meeting, and it’s not uncommon for someone to show up a few minutes after the start,” he explains. “I join a meeting on time and apologize — because in the military, early is on time, and on time is late.”

For these and other adjustments that military veterans face, Groff says it’s important to remember that, just as in the military, you can often break things down into a series of small but important questions — a set of “whats” and “wheres” that guide your next steps. When “whats” and “wheres” aren’t clear, he encourages veterans to draw on the resourcefulness and natural get-it-done mindset that is part of military culture. “Whatever the situation — and many of these men and women have been in challenging, even life-or-death, situations in the military — sometimes you just have to make it work,” he explains.

The Choice to Serve in the Military

Groff grew up in rural Iowa, where his graduating class had just 80 students. Knowing that “if I didn’t go to college right out of high school, I would never go,” he entered Coe College to study history, with thoughts toward possibly becoming a teacher. He joined the Army Reserves as a junior, participating in its delayed entry program.

Tony Groff meeting with group of people in outdoor setting in Cameroon, Africa

Tony Groff on the ground in Cameroon, Africa.

After graduating with a B.A. in history, he spent a semester shadowing a teacher and quickly realized that it wasn’t for him. From there, he found work in retail — and also married a woman he had known since college. As their lives together continued, Groff says they both realized that he wouldn’t be content with a retail career, and his wife was “all on board” when he decided to become active duty in the U.S. Army.

That decision started a highly successful 20-year military career — much of it focused around health care. Initially serving as operations manager and then director of human resources for combat support hospitals, he also held positions in health care recruiting, and was operations manager for a training division that had locations in 21 states. In his last assignment before retiring, he served as chief operating officer for a 248-bed combat support hospital staffed by more than 600 people.

From Health Care in the U.S. Army to Health Care at Highmark

When Groff retired from the military in 2014, he took some time to “reset and figure out the ongoing journey.” He credits a mentor, David Clark, with helping him to narrow his search to two basic questions: what and where.

“I met David through someone who was helping me translate military language into the kind of language that works for a civilian resume,” Groff says. “David was the chief administrative officer at Mon Valley Hospital at the time, and much of his career was in personnel, so he had a lot of knowledge and helpful insights. We would get coffee once or twice a week and just talk, and those conversations really helped me break everything down.”

One thing that became clear during these conversations was that he wanted to continue working in the health care field. That was his “what.” His “where” — Pittsburgh — was a relatively easy choice because his family was there and because “it’s a hot spot for the medical and health care industry.” As for choosing Highmark, Groff says he saw an opportunity here to use much of his skill set, such as working with decentralized teams, as well as his expertise in organization and planning.

At the same time, there were some key differences between working for a health care corporation and managing operations for military field hospitals.

“In the field, I didn’t worry about revenue,” he says. “The combat hospitals I worked with were 250-bed operations that folded into a box. We took them anywhere in the world.”

Although the transition to a civilian health care career has been challenging, he says it has also been rewarding, and he is committed to doing his part to help other veterans make similar transitions. He currently serves as vice-chair of the organization’s V.E.T.S. Business Resource Group (BRG), which, among many other things, works to raise awareness of veterans’ strengths and improve processes that impact current and future veteran employees. One effort, in tandem with the Highmark Health diversity and inclusion team (led by another veteran, Lonie Haynes), has been to educate hiring managers on the value of hiring veterans, particularly as project managers.

“Mission planning equates to project management,” Groff says simply. “Veterans may not have the same terminology or be familiar with a certain software, but they’’ve lived the work itself for years.”

He adds that there is a good commitment to veterans at Highmark Health, right up to top executives, but, “I’d like to see us continue to get better at bringing veterans in and understanding their strengths.”

Tony and a group of people in Cameroon, Africa having a discussion in front of a blackboard

In Cameroon, Tony’s unit conducted a joint training exercise with that country’s military.

Military Lessons That Are Valuable Anywhere

Groff strongly believes that, whatever challenges may exist in the transition from military to civilian life, veterans are equipped with unique skills and experiences that are valuable in almost any environment. He says that two of the most important lessons he learned in the military were how to plan effectively and how to adapt to new environments and work with all types of people.

“Some might say I plan too much,” he jokes. “But in the military, planning is so important — when you miss something, it can have critical consequences. If you’re moving people overseas, or you’re coordinating a medical mission that’s deploying to Panama or Honduras, for example, if you don’t plan and backwards plan every step, you can get stuck or have problems in achieving the mission.”

He says the military also taught him how to work with different people — right from day one. “I came to training camp from rural Iowa — my little corner of the world where everybody was the same, and everybody knew each other,” he says. His first roommate at training camp, on the other hand, was from an inner city background. “We spoke different languages, and acted completely different. You learn fast how different cultures can be, even within the U.S. — and you also learn to adapt and work together regardless of differences.”

Similarly, when Groff became active duty, he was initially stationed in Brooklyn, New York — a move he admits caused some culture shock. But his military career eventually took him all over the world, including projects in parts of Africa, Korea, Italy, Panama and Hawaii, as well as living in four different states in the U.S.

He highlights another lesson that came out of adapting to so many new environments and working with so many different types of people during his military career: listen before you speak. “Sometimes it’s best to just step back and listen,” he says. “That’s to make sure you’re getting and understanding information, but it’s also how we learn where our own biases are.”

A Teacher After All?

When Groff thinks about his future, he says he’s excited to continue developing his civilian career and expanding his professional network. Recalling the value that his mentor had during his transition from the military to Highmark, he adds that he also hopes to be that kind of mentor for others and provide the kind of support and guidance that can make a big difference for veterans trying to decide the “what” and “where” of post-military life.

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