U.S. Special Operations Consistently Finds Top Talent. What’s Their Secret?

Aug 5, 2021

My father’s service in the Marine Corps was a defining factor in his life. As I’ve shared previously, it has also been a defining factor in my life. Being raised by a veteran shaped not only my childhood, but my professional life as well. So, when I come across professionals who have been in the service, my ears perk up. I know they have experiences which apply beyond the military that often contain hard-fought lessons worth learning from.

Such was the case when I had the opportunity to interview Mike Sarraille and George Randle who are respectively, a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and a former U.S. Army officer. They are executives at EF Overwatch, a specialized executive search firm and co-authors of The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent.

Inspired by how U.S. Special Operations Forces select and develop their world-class talent, Sarraille and Randle have unique insight on how to attract and retain the best people with the right strategy and mindset.

Chaka Booker: How do you define a talent mindset?

Mike Sarraille: When a small force of high-performing, highly trained soldiers goes up against a numerically superior force and consistently decimates that numerically superior force, and delivers strategic impacts, then you have a high-performing team based off one thing—people. In Special Operations you learn it isn’t about the best technology, it isn’t about the best systems. A talent mindset is the belief that the greatest competitive advantage any organization has is its people.

George Randle: You know you have a talent mindset when you treat your human capital as rigorously and with the same focus and discipline as you do your financial capital.

Booker: You also use a specific term, VUCA. How does it apply to talent?

Sarraille: VUCA stands for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity—environments that not only Special Operations, but business leaders need to thrive in. People draw distinctions between combat and business. To us it is very similar. When things are chaotic or fast paced, the information is constantly changing. If you don’t have a workforce capable of maintaining calm attitudes, prioritizing, and executing as problems are being thrown at them, then you’re going to lose in a VUCA environment.

Randle: Covid-19 is changing how the workforce operates, acts, and communicates. So, you want people who can operate in a VUCA environment. People that say, “Let’s start planning and adapting, but never lose sight of what we’re trying to accomplish with our revenue, service, product, and how we take care of our people.” That type of talent cures uncertainty in times like Covid-19.

Booker: In your book you mention “No one has prior Special Operations experience, so raw talent must be the selection criterion. The most effective selection is based on mindset and character.” You contrast that to hiring based on personality…

Sarraille: People tend to think the best SEALs are the loud and aggressive guys. It’s actually the ones that are quiet, almost unassuming. It’s little guys who are always observing. But in an interview if a candidate is quiet, people think, “They have a bad personality, I don’t like them.” Personality drives likeability, but likeability should never be a hiring factor. Patty McCord and Reed Hastings at Netflix have said they’re not building families, they’re building high-performing teams. People index on personality because they’re trying to build families. People choose personality because character is hard to judge.

Randle: Be careful with personality because it becomes a bias. If you like somebody because of personality, then the rest of the interview tends to bias towards finding a reason to say yes. It takes you away from evaluating the characteristics. People gravitate towards personality, they start rotating on likeability and don’t dig into character. It’s the halo effect.

Booker: You mention nine characteristics you should hire for. Share a few.

Randle: Resiliency. We interviewed Tracy Keogh, the CHRO of HP. One thing she is dead set on is, “I don’t want people who haven’t failed.” You have to ask where they failed, why, and what did they learn? People who haven’t failed haven’t been challenged enough, aren’t being authentic, or aren’t being truthful.

Sarraille: Sometimes someone hasn’t failed because they are too cautious. If somebody avoids risk altogether, how are they going to push the organization forward? In Special Operations we’re trained to see the upside of risk, not the downside. Then take calculated steps, test, learn and iterate as quickly as possible. Look for a candidate who does that.

Randle: Team ability is important. Ask them what happens when their idea isn’t chosen? Special Operations puts mission and team above self. The same applies in business. Whether it’s engineering and product design, where it can be difficult to work as a team or sales where egos can come out, everybody is part of the ecosystem so you better screen for team ability.

Sarraille: If I had to pick one more, humility. Arrogance is the enemy of great leadership. You are never the smartest man or woman in the room. We see it all the time, we saw it in the SEAL teams. When you lack humility, you are a cancer to your organization, and you will bring it down.

Booker: Another thing you discuss is whether high IQ matters…

Sarraille: Brian Decker, director of player development for the Indianapolis Colts, is well-known in the Special Forces community because he led their assessment work. He recognized the data provided no predictive value of what makes a great Green Beret. So he brought in an industrial organizational psychologist and they found intellect matters, but past a certain level, intelligence didn’t equate to higher performance. You can have somebody with a high IQ who can’t make decisions. “Effective intelligence” on the other hand matters because that is about knowing how to apply intelligence to solve uncommon problems for which no book solutions exist and then execute.

Booker: You call bias the “enemy of accuracy.” How can you address that?

Randle: First, a very standardized repeatable process. Every candidate gets asked the same questions and is scored the same way. Second, get a team member—who isn’t in that department and not in that leadership chain—to assess. Without knowing much about the role, have them assess through the lens of mission, attributes, and overall organizational goals. Third, if you’re interviewing employee referrals, friends or any type of nepotism—put them through the exact same process. Those are some starting points because that’s where bias can make its way in.

Sarraille: You rarely see companies train a sales, operations, or marketing leader on how to hire. But suddenly, they’re thrown into a hiring manager role. You have to train people. Brian Decker did this with the Special Forces evaluators. These are Green Berets who’ve been to battle, been in Special Forces for years. Still they trained them on biases so they could self-identify, “Wait a second, I think I’m suffering from the halo effect. I need to reevaluate.” Training also lets you call each other out and say, “I think you’re showing this type of bias.”

Booker: What are your thoughts on culture fit?

Randle: It goes back to the personality issue. Fit generally evolves from personality and likeability. But when you’re hiring, you want a culture based on attributes—performance, teamwork, winning, etc. If you focus on evaluating those attributes, you will get the culture and talent you want. If you want a culture of empowered people, then you want people who own the things within their realms and deliver results. Hire for those attributes and that’s the fit you want.

Sarraille: Culture fit should be a question of whether their values align with yours and whether they exhibit those values in their behavior. Regardless of all other circumstances, ask yourself whether they demonstrated those day-to-day behaviors in the interview.

Booker: There is an idea in the book cautioning against “fighting the last war.” What does that mean?

Sarraille: Once you have a process that works, you tend to get comfortable and complacent. In Special Operations, I’d be in Iraq for one deployment and then next in Afghanistan. We had to be cautious and remind each other, “Do not fight the last war.” What worked in Iraq doesn’t lead to success in Afghanistan. We knew we had great operators in Iraq and Afghan, but what made them successful is different from an operator who will be successful in 10 years. From a talent perspective, start creating a profile for what might be required five or ten years from now.

Randle: To do that, you need a feedback loop. Special Operations is always asking about the profile we need for the future. Keep asking what you might need several years down the road, keep evolving. If you’re hiring for the problems of today, you’re not prepared for when Covid-19 hits, or the next change in market conditions.

Sarraille: After my second deployment, I was sitting with a Vietnam SEAL who had faced a much more violent war. He said, “You guys are better than us.” At the time, I couldn’t understand that because they’re the generation that got me to enlist and become an officer. Now I understand. When I look at the next generation of SEALs, as proud as I am of my 10 combat deployments—these guys are better than us. They’re better because the process kept evolving for the asymmetric wars that were coming. That same mindset is needed to succeed in the asymmetric business conditions coming our way now.

The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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