Six lessons from special operations teams that your business can benefit from


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Feb 8, 2007
Land of Swine and Maple Syrup
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Six lessons from special operations teams that your business can benefit from

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Martin Birt, Special to Financial Post | September 4, 2014 | Last Updated:Sep 8 12:04 PM ET
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AFP PHOTO/Handout/US NAVY“The only easy day was yesterday” is the unofficial motto of the U.S. Navy SEALS. It is meant to remind them they can never stop training and practicing their craft.
Internationally successful military special operations units from the British Special Air Service, to the U.S. Navy SEALS, the U.S. Army Delta Force, the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) and the Canadian Joint Task Force (JTF-2) all share characteristics and lessons that can help you find success in business.

Selection Specops units typically have a five to seven day selection phase that is designed to push candidates to their physical and mental limits and identify those who have the characteristics required for specialist training and operations. The week usually culminates in an extremely demanding exercise. Delta Force, for example, ends the week with a route march of more than 40 miles, done alone over rough ground and for which candidates are not given the pass/fail time, Eric Haney wrote in Inside Delta Force. In addition, candidate assessment and training is conducted by veterans of the unit as they have a vested interest in the quality of new operators. These units also take steps to eliminate bias in their selection process to ensure they don’t keep recruiting themselves over and over.

For businesses, the lesson here is to build your recruitment process on the foundation of a very clear understanding of the competencies and characteristics required by your brand and culture. Develop your selection, screening and interviews to identify candidates with those characteristics. Have “eyes on” by experienced employees to gauge fit but take steps to encourage diversity.

Training The basic training for special operators usually lasts more than six months. The training period for JTF-2, for example, is 10 to 11 months. During this training, candidates learn and practice the basic skills they will need as ”assaulters.” Candidates can be dropped at any time during the training period.

Businesses can adopt this by identifying training standards for every job family. They should also develop and demand excellence; build re-training and re-certification cycles into employee development planning; and assume the competition is training harder.

Engagement Specops unit members are expected to contribute to mission planning regardless of rank. In fact, discipline may be meted out if a member fails, for example, to identify and speak up about a planning mistake or missed opportunity, Andy McNab wrote in Bravo Two Zero. Highly trained special operators are expected to exercise their expertise and initiative when plans go wrong. For this reason special operations leaders want to have their soldiers understand the “why” behind a mission.

The take away for businesses is that they need to honour the expertise on their team. Give team members the context and background they’ll need to do the job. Implement a “long game” communications strategy. Encourage, no demand, employee input and then act on it. Recognize and reward those who identify opportunities and show initiative.

Practice. Practice. Practice “The only easy day was yesterday” is the unofficial motto of the U.S. Navy SEALS. It is meant to remind them they can never stop training and practicing their craft. SEAL Team Six (the team that took bin Laden) expend more ammunition in their training than the entire U.S. Marine Corps, according to Inside Seal Team Six by Don Mann with Ralph Pezzullo. Special operators who have written about their experience will often note that, as hard as selection and training might have been, staying in the unit is much harder. In specops units “selection never ends.”

At businesses, continuous improvement should be imperative for the business and the people in it. Establish metrics to identify new targets, gauge the competition and develop learning opportunities. The answer to the question “Is this good enough?” must be “No.”

This mission, and the next Special operations mission planners know two things: Their assets are extremely valuable and after one mission there will be another and another. Their plans will be focused on mission success and on keeping team members as safe as possible. Plans will always have options if things “go pear shaped.” Special operations leaders are very careful with their exceptionally valuable people. Their aim is to mitigate risk by putting smaller numbers of troops in harms way by relying on superior training and technology.

In business you will have this mission and then another and so on. Accomplish your objectives and work very hard keep your people safe, physically and psychologically. Ensure your plans identify safety risks and ways to mitigate those risks. Conserve your assets.

Unit values Special operations units consistently define a set of core values that they expect their members to uphold. For example, one unit has defined these: relentless pursuit of excellence; shared responsibility; humour in adversity; and humility.

A business’s statement of core values can be used like a constitution, as standards against which candidate and employee behaviours can be judged. These core values must be carefully designed to support the realities of your business and stand up during your own difficult missions.

Martin Birt is the president of and has been in the human resources consulting business for 30 years.

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