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Mark Norman, former head of the Canadian navy and vice-chief of defence staff, recognizes all too well that not every veteran is in the same boat when it comes to transitioning out of the Canadian Armed Forces.
“When people leave the military, everyone leaves for different reasons,” says Norman in an interview to discuss his new role as senior defence strategist with Ottawa-based strategic consulting firm Samuel Associates. “Some are ready to leave, some leave earlier than they need to, some hang on to the last second.
“You have to respect that everybody’s journey is different.”
It’s been almost two years since the vice-admiral entered into retirement, after serving almost 40 years in the Canadian Forces. Rather than pivot immediately into the private sector, he took time to consider the opportunities that were being offered to him.
“To be honest, there’s an element of responsibility that comes with having options and I wanted to contribute in a responsible way,” says Norman, who was looking to accept roles that were intellectually satisfying, of help to others and that boosted Canada on a broader scale.
Samuel Associates, led by president and CEO Goran Samuel Pesic, was one of several companies courting Norman. The retired vice-admiral says he liked how Pesic ran his business and was attracted to his leadership team and to the company’s interesting projects and clients.
“I said, ‘Let’s do this,’" recalled Norman, whose role is purely advisory. “Samuel Associates is a great crew. At the end of the day, it’s all about what you are working on and who you're working with. If both of those things are interesting and exciting and you enjoy it, it’s a fairly natural transition.”
Norman is also a volunteer champion with the Royal Canadian Navy Benevolent Fund, founded in 1942. As well, he took on the role of industry advisor last year with Chicago-based global management consultancy Argo Consulting.
Born in Ottawa and raised in Kingston, the son of a military officer earned an economics degree from Queen’s University before rising up through Canada’s military ranks – eventually becoming the second in command while in his early 50s.
He's also been forced to navigate the rocky shoals of the justice system. He was charged with breach of trust in 2018 in relation to leaked details of a large shipbuilding contract. The highly publicized case ended when the Crown stayed its charge in 2019 – a move Norman has said "exonerated" him of any wrongdoing.
Not a day goes by when Norman doesn’t miss the navy, especially the people.
“Notwithstanding the fact that I’m past my best-before date,” he jokes of the physically demanding duties required of a sailor. “I like to keep in touch and live vicariously through their experiences.”
Transitioning out of the military can be a real challenge, he stressed. Some veterans feel a loss of identity or purpose. He says they may continue working because they can’t afford to retire, or because they need to fill a void.
Norman used to provide guidance to his men and women on the transitioning process, back when he was at a senior level of his military career and they were reaching key points in their own careers. He would remind them that the day would come when they would no longer wear their uniforms.
He would tell them: “Try as much as possible to be in control of the circumstances under which you take off your uniform. Don’t allow yourself to be in a situation where you have no control."
Says Norman: “I think this is what happens to a lot of people and where they get themselves into trouble; they’re pushed out or they hang on too long, or whatever the case may be.
"When I describe how fortunate I feel, it is really genuine."
Norman grew up sailing on Lake Ontario. These days, the resident of the Ottawa suburb of Orléans spends his free time mountain biking and road cycling, downhill skiing and working on his classic sports car, a 1974 Alfa Romeo.
It seems his wife, Beverly, isn’t as keen on sailing as he is, which explains why he's sticking to land.
“I’d have a boat in a second, but that’s OK,” he says, affably.
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