Recognizing and Honoring Milestones: What Companies Can Learn from the Medical Profession and the Military

The importance of formalizing and celebrating corporate milestones and achievements

People in a line in a

Perhaps it is time we formalize milestones in the corporate world. We welcome your thoughts and examples of where companies do this well.

I recently attended a very good friend’s U.S. Navy retirement ceremony. He was retiring with the rank of Captain after 30-plus years of active and reserve service. I had never been to a military retirement ceremony and didn’t really have any expectations. It turned out to be one of the most memorable events I have attended in quite some time. 

My friend’s Admiral was the keynote speaker. He walked and talked and looked like an Admiral. Poised and authoritative and compassionate, somehow all at once. He spoke in deeply personal terms about my friend’s Navy service. He knew the details of my friend’s posts and accomplishments. He spoke of the Navy being a family sacrifice. Then my friend spoke. He shared that he missed the birth of both of his children and his first five wedding anniversaries on overseas active duty. He was emotional but composed in thanking his wife and children. It ended with the reading of a poem and my friend asking permission from the Admiral to go ashore. ‘Go ashore, my brother,’ said the Admiral.

In the medical profession, there are some remarkable ceremonies, too, though more on entrance into the profession than on exit. Here at Harvard Medical School, like other medical schools, medical students take part in a white coat ceremony early in their first year of study. Each student is given an opportunity to share with the many assembled why they chose the medical profession. The stories are deeply personal and often involve loved ones who suffer from disease or illness. It is the signal that their journey has started. Then, upon completion of medical school, there is a ceremony when students have completed their studies and become medical doctors. In addition to swapping their short student white coats for a longer doctor white coat, many graduating students recite an oath that is adapted from the words of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, pledging to align their work with longstanding beliefs of the profession. 

The power of these ceremonies is that they are done in the open for all to see. Wedding ceremonies are also held in front of family and friends so that all can witness two people coming together. Ceremonies often signal a transition. One door closes and another opens. You are no longer in the military; you are a veteran and a civilian. You are no longer pre-med; you are a medical student. You are no longer a student; you are a doctor. 

What can the corporate world learn from all of this? In my experience of working in and with companies for decades, there are rarely meaningful entrance or promotion ceremonies in the corporate world. While there are sometimes exit ceremonies for long-time employees or senior leaders, they tend to be ad hoc and of variable quality. I suggest we think about making the investment in more public ceremonies in the corporate world upon entrance, upon milestones like promotion and certainly upon exit and retirement. People give so much to their careers. Let’s celebrate our careers as we do in other parts of our life. It will benefit those we are celebrating and those who are doing the celebrating.