Tampa’s STAR Network bridges the gap from deployment to employment

In his last deployment to Afghanistan, as deputy commander for support with NATO Special Operations Component Command/Special Operations Task Force, Arch McLellan was too busy living in the present to think about his future. 

Two years later, in 2018, and back in the U.S. for his final assignment at MacDill Airforce Base, McLellan admits he was still skeptical at the whole concept of transitioning, even though his own countdown had officially begun. 

“I used to laugh when I would see former pro athletes, or Olympians, and they would talk about the challenge of transitioning. I thought, ‘You’re an Olympic athlete. You were the top player in your field. How can you have any challenges with transition?’ And then I went through the challenge myself and I wasn’t laughing anymore,” he recalls. 

As retirement from the military loomed, and the pandemic hit, McLellan was encouraged by a colleague to attend a unique dinner. Suddenly, transitioning was here, and, luckily, so was the Tampa Bay area’s STAR Network. 

Launched in 2015 by Mark Rosenthal and Anthony Weiss, STAR is an acronym for SOF Transition Assistance Resource, a local coalition of business partners, nonprofits, SOF alumni and other patriots, all focused on helping American heroes successfully move to the civilian business community, after retirement from the military. 

STAR Network started from the belief that SOF leaders offer a wealth of experience and skills to the Bay area. According to data from STAR, on average, they are 45 years old, hold master’s degrees, speak multiple languages, received over $1 million in leadership development and training and were selected for their emotional intelligence and intellect. 

With the headquarters for all Special Operations located in Tampa, it made sense to keep these seasoned executives as a part of the local business world. STAR Network connects these leaders with both corporate opportunities and practical support.

McLellan’s first STAR dinner opened his eyes to the complexities awaiting him. As he explains, being a part of SOFs is like being a part of an elite team and moving away from that team brings many challenges, both practical and emotional. 

“I’m a recovering Marine Raider,” McLellan says, “and when you’re a part of something great, you really never get over being out of it. I was in great organizations, throughout my entire career, with outstanding people. It’s such a team mentality that one of the first challenges of the transition is to think of yourself as an individual and what you can bring, individually, to a new career.” 

As in McLellan’s case, attending a STAR Network dinner, hosted by a different local business in the Tampa Bay area on the second Tuesday of each month, is often the first opportunity for transitioning SOFs to consider life outside of their team. 

McLellan admits he felt unprepared to articulate his hopes for a new career, at that first dinner, and it motivated him toward deeper reflections and some mentor-directed self-study. 

“The STAR dinners forced me to make sure that, for the second dinner, and subsequent dinners, I was prepared and had a good idea of what my plans moving forward were going to be,” he explains. 

With the help of STAR Network, McLellan eventually arrived at his current role, partner at Akins Fick Group in development and construction. He is also the executive director of STAR Network, a volunteer position leading the network to help other SOF leaders make the leap. McLellan has found a new civilian team while, simultaneously, helping the SOF individuals coming up behind him. Since STAR Network relies on a constellation of business partners to provide connections and support, McLellan emphasizes the importance of relationships within the network. 

“One of the things that has kept me committed to STAR Network is that I’ve really had the opportunity to see the benefit of relationships,” McLellan says. “Every single member keeps expanding the circle. We’re starting to see STAR alumni returning as business owners, in positions of significance in the community, and they want to contribute again to help someone else’s transition.”

In addition to being a business partner or sponsoring a monthly Star dinner, the network also offers operators the opportunity for job shadowing, or fellowships, with participating companies, both options allowing candidates a more intimate look at a future career. Finally, STAR Network partners with two local nonprofits, Project Transition and Tampa Bay Job Links, to ensure transitioning SOFs are given practical help during their job search with everything from industry advice, and honing in on individual skills, to resume building and interview techniques. 

“STAR Network is really about helping the next generation of SOF leadership gain the confidence to successfully transition into the local civilian job market, something so different from what we’ve grown up within the military,” McLellan says. “Constantly adding to our partners is really the most important thing that we can do to keep a fresh stable of energetic business leaders, and organizations, who are willing to open up their Rolodex and help the transitioning service members adjust into careers of significance, here in the Bay area.” ♦

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