What do voting, being a volunteer firefighter in Wisconsin, and enlisting in the military have in common? They are all milestones Josh Combs achieved soon after celebrating his 18th birthday!

Josh is the Senior Manager of Non-Employee Labor at Liberty Mutual—recently promoted from his previous role as Manager of Procurement Labor Operations—and I learned about his interesting career journey during our fabulous conversation on Parent. Boss. Leader. I encourage you to listen to the full podcast. Josh generously shares his career and life experiences, including his journey from military service to corporate leadership, and what he’s learned along the way.

Spoiler alert: He’s had a fascinating life and I’m bringing you some highlights here! You can listen to the full podcast on Spotify, on Apple Podcasts, or in the video below.


Firefighting and Airplanes

Josh told me that he always felt a passion to serve. “I know it sounds altruistic and made up, but it’s true. From a young age, I had a passion for service and knew that I wanted a career that allowed me to help people. I always wanted to serve in some way, to have a purpose, and be part of something bigger and more important than me.”

As a child, he dreamt of being a firefighter. Josh said, “My parents have countless pictures of me running with a little briefcase, hose, or other things I could pretend were firefighting apparatus.” He followed through with that dream on his 18th birthday, when he joined Elkhorn Area Fire Department in South Wisconsin as a volunteer. “It was the first job that gave me a sense of purpose, of doing something bigger than myself,” he said. “It really set the tone for who I was becoming as a person. I also loved the adrenaline rush of jumping on the truck and responding to a fire!”

Josh explained that it wasn’t long after that he made the decision to join the military and enlisted in the U.S. Air Force. “I was equally passionate about planes and flying as a kid, and the air force seemed like a great way to combine my passion for planes and my desire to serve into a career.”

After 21 years of distinguished service, Josh said he is nothing but grateful that he made that choice. His story is a wonderful reminder of how powerful it is when you are fortunate to do something you enjoy and also feel strongly committed to.

I think many of us share his desire to help others in our career, and I love that he and I share a career choice! When it came time to start transitioning out of the military, Josh chose recruiting as his first civilian role. Since then, he has moved on and up within the staffing and contingent labor industry. ATR International’s motto, which nicely sums up my feelings, is “making the world a better place, one job at a time.” It’s great to find like-minded individuals who see what we all do as a calling and a service to others. 

Good and Bad Bosses

I asked Josh how he thought his military career shaped him as a leader, and he responded, “As you move through your career, remember that everyone has something to offer you. Be open to that offer. Every boss you have is teaching you something about how to be a leader—good bosses and bad ones!” He explained that you can learn from both. “Be mindful when you’re working with someone you don’t want to emulate. Some people, you take what you don’t want to be, and others, you’re going to take the best pieces.”

Josh also stressed understanding the difference between being a leader and being a manager. “A leader puts their people first and empowers them, rather than dictating how and when things are going to get done.” That is such an important distinction.

Josh also shared that being agile as a leader is key. What works in the military doesn’t always work in business, and it’s important to be able to adjust your style—something Josh said he found out the hard way in his first job. A more authoritative style, something he saw a lot in the air force, isn’t the best way to motivate and get results in the civilian workplace. “It was a big change to make but one that was important for success and in my maturation as a leader in the civilian world,” he said. “What’s important to remember is that the best leaders give their team the guidance, trust, and autonomy to learn, grow, and succeed, without micromanaging.”  

Advice to Those Transitioning Out of the Military

Josh and I also discussed the challenges of transitioning out of military service and into a civilian career. From my work with The Honor Foundation and ATR’s special commitment to supporting our veterans and military spouses, I have firsthand experience with how tough making that leap can be. Josh’s advice? “Take every offer of help you get. TAP, other transition programs offered by the military or nonprofits, whatever program you can, take advantage.”

Josh also recommends finding mentors outside of the military, in the industries or jobs that you want to work in. “Don’t wait. Start before you leave service. And start networking—everywhere! Put yourself out there. It’s still the only way.”

Josh stressed that people are willing to help other professionals, especially veterans, but you have to ask. Most employees get a job because they know someone, so if you’re not networking, you are putting yourself at a big disadvantage. That’s great advice for anyone. Both Josh and I can attest that there are often hundreds, if not more, candidates for positions. All job candidates should help themselves “stick out and get noticed!”

Would you like to know the great advice Josh had about being your authentic self at work, and how it can help you balance the personal and professional sides of your life? Do you want to know more about his amazing nonprofit, Wardogs Baseball? Or how he’s raising his two daughters to be tough but compassionate humans? I wish I could repeat everything here, but space prevents, and you’ll just have to listen to Josh yourself. I know you’ll enjoy it! 

Listen to the full podcast featuring Josh Combs, or read more business lessons from our last podcast guests.

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