February 22, 2021

The 5 Special Operations Truths Your Business Should Adopt

Written by Mike Sarraille, George Randle and Dr. Josh Cotton

The following is adapted from The Talent War.

From the use of the Green Berets during the initial invasion of Afghanistan to the rescue of Captain Phillips to the raids on Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—US Special Operations Forces (SOF) have proven their effectiveness again and again.

People have long been fascinated by these operators’ discipline, drive, and determination, who routinely deliver results, no matter what challenges they face. The business world, in particular, has been drawn to Special Operations because it is exactly what every business strives to be: innovative, agile, and effective.

Where many businesses get it wrong, Special Operations gets it right, leading business leaders to search for the answer to the all-important question: What makes Special Operations so special?

There are five fundamental SOF truths. These axioms guide everything Special Operations believes and does, from day-to-day activities to long-term strategic planning. They are at the core of what makes Special Operations so unique. If you want to win in war or business, these truths are where you start.

#1: Humans Are More Important Than Hardware

SOF units are outfitted with the latest technology and equipment. While this hardware certainly offers a competitive advantage, it is nothing compared to the advantage of the humans behind it.

“Technology is just an enhancer,” says General William Boykin. “We win with people, end of the story.”

Hardware (and software, too) is only a competitive advantage until your competitors acquire or reach the same capability. Your company’s product or service is part of your hardware and cannot offer a long-term competitive advantage in business. It’s only a matter of time before another company provides the same—or better—product or service. To continue to thrive, you need to adapt, and that requires the right people.

Human capital is your most critical resource, not your product or service, your only true competitive advantage.

#2: Quality is Better Than Quantity

Quality is better than quantity. As Colonel Charlie Beckwith, founder of a highly selective and specialized Army Special Operations unit, said, “I’d rather go down the river with seven studs than with a hundred shitheads.”

History is filled with stories of more minor, talented teams defeating far larger forces in both war and business. Our society has become enamored with volume, like the obsession with social media followers, but the pursuit of volume often reduces your standards. Quality will almost always win over quantity. Ten talented salespeople can outsell an untalented team of fifty or even more.

This means that your hiring efforts should be about talent, not headcount. If you have ten positions that need to be filled, rather than filling all ten seats with whoever you can find, it is better to fill five positions with talented individuals and keep looking.

#3: Special Operations Forces Cannot be Mass-Produced

Special Operations Forces cannot be mass-produced because operators are not “produced” at all. Instead, they are revealed during the assessment, selection, and training programs.

There are specific characteristics required to become an operator—traits like drive, resiliency, adaptability, team-ability, and more—and these attributes cannot be taught. Either someone has the requisite character, or they don’t.

You could put someone through every training course—Special Operations Combat Medic Course, Breacher Course, Sniper Course, you name it—but if they don’t have the fundamental mindset needed to be an operator, they will fail in high-pressure situations.

The same is true in the business world. While you can mass-acquire warm bodies to fill roles, you cannot mass-acquire talent. Talent is rare and cannot be manufactured. No matter how good the instructors are, no matter how good the training is, you cannot create talent where it does not already exist.

#4: Competent Special Operations Forces Cannot be Created After Emergencies Occur

One of the most critical emergencies Special Operations faces is a declaration of war. Every time a war starts, like clockwork, the president and secretary of defense want more SOF operators, and the SOF leaders always refuse to deviate from the assessment and selection process.

When an emergency like war occurs, time is limited. You cannot build talent into an organization under time pressure. It takes a long time to turn a high-potential individual into a high performer. Talent selection is only part one; developing that talent into a high performer is part two.

For this reason, successful talent acquisition requires well-thought-out, forward-thinking planning. It is an eternal pursuit, not something you can turn on and off whenever an emergency occurs.

Additionally, emergencies require fast, decisive action. Suppose your competitor releases an innovative new product or service that jeopardizes your sales. In that case, you don’t have time to waste searching for the right people to develop your product or service in response. You need talent to already be in place when an emergency occurs.

#5: Most Special Operations Forces Require Non-SOF Assistance

An incredible number of people supports Special Operations Forces. Some people gather and analyze intel to guide missions, people who handle logistics, people who run administrative tasks, and more.

Operators are incredibly respectful and appreciative of their non-SOF support because they understand that they would not succeed without this support. Non-SOF assistance allows them to focus on their strengths and primary mission—winning our nation’s battles.

Non-SOF support members are heavily screened, not just for security reasons but also to identify talent. Non-SOF support is critical to the success of the Special Operators, so they, too, must possess the attributes of talent.

In your company, you likely put a priority on specific departments. For most companies, it might be sales, marketing, engineers, or coders. It is okay to prioritize these roles, but you need talent in every function across your organization.

Company results don’t occur in a vacuum. Everything is part of a larger team, so you need talent in all departments and levels.

5 Business Truths

The five SOF truths have led to a foundational talent mindset that drives the success of Special Operations.

These truths directly translate to business truths:

1. Human capital is your most critical resource, your only true competitive advantage in any industry.

2. It’s not about a headcount; it’s about talent.

3. Hard skills can be taught and thus mass-produced, but talent cannot. Talent is innate and hard to create where it does not exist.

4. Successful talent acquisition requires well-thought-out, forward-thinking planning. It takes time to develop a world-class talent pool.

5. It’s a team effort. All supporting business functions, all departments are crucial to your business’s success.

By adopting and living by these truths, you can begin to build the talent needed to achieve Special Operations levels of victory.

For more advice on building an effective hiring team, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Founder, Managing Partner & CEO | Website | + posts

Mike Sarraille is a retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer and a former enlisted Recon Marine and Scout-Sniper. A graduate of the University of Texas McCombs Business School, he is the founder and CEO of Talent War Group, a specialized executive search firm, and talent advisory that finds high-performing business leaders for senior, executive, or other critical leadership positions. He is co-author of ‘The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent’ and a columnist for Men’s Journal and Men’s Fitness under ‘The Everyday Warrior’ column. He founded and served as a board of directors for the VETTED Foundation, a cutting-edge executive-level transition program.

Mike enlisted in the Marine Corps and later became a Recon Marine and also served as a scout sniper. He was selected for a Marine officer program, but after finishing his bachelor’s degree at Texas A&M University, he sought a commission in the Navy to try out for the SEAL Teams.  He is also a recognized keynote speaker and subject matter expert in leadership development, talent acquisition, and talent management.

Managing Partner & Co-Director of Talent Advisory | Website | + posts

George Randle is an experienced talent executive, veteran, coach, mentor, and leader known for selecting, building, and reorganizing teams to reach their full business potential. George has 20+ years of Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 global Human Resources and Talent Acquisition experience building elite teams. George began his professional life by enlisting in the US Army Reserves.  While serving in the USAR, he received his bachelor’s degree from Missouri State University and was commissioned an officer. His career assignments included Berlin, US CENTCOM, and III Corps with deployments to Africa (Somalia and Kenya), Central America, and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Following his successful military career, George transitioned to the corporate world, experiencing many of the same challenges the Military and Veterans face today. These challenges along with the recognition that building elite teams are his true passion, George ultimately transitioned to the Human Resources and Talent Acquisition function. He later went on to create one of the largest and most successful Veteran Hiring Programs for a Global Fortune 50 firm. Collectively, the teams George has built have hired over 85,000 professionals, including over 2000 executives. He is also a Hogan (HPI, HDS, and MVPI) Leadership Assessment Certified coach.

George currently resides in Austin, Texas, and is the co-author of the best-selling book, “The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent” and the Host of "The Talent War" Podcast.

Website | + posts

Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies, and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.

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