This week I had the unique privilege to participate once again with Phil Dana and The Honor Foundation (https://www.thehonorfoundation.org/,) with the outstanding work that they do: helping train some of our most elite special forces operators (SEALs, Recon Marines, Green Berets, etc.) how to get a job when they move into the “civilian world.” Each of these operators are transitioning out of the military, and very few of them had ever had to actually look for a non-military job before. Unfortunately, despite their capabilities, all of the training in the world won’t help them get a job one bit if these amazing heroes can’t get their foot in the door.
The primary motivation behind this article is that these special forces operators don’t do what you think they do. I promise. Most civilians (and possibly even military veterans from other units) think that these guys spend their days behind enemy lines shooting at people and blowing stuff up; that they are given tons of direction and support, the budget, gadgets, and intel that they need. These beliefs define our perception. This opinion would cause most hiring managers to think, “What use do I have for that in my company? Why do I need those skills? We don’t have anything here that needs blowing up, and no evil villains that need taking out. We need creative thinkers and problem solvers who can do things on a budget. Their skills clearly don’t match the skills we need here!”
Wrong. In fact, one hundred and eighty degrees dead wrong. The first (and largest) error is in thinking that the only thing these guys know how to do is to sneak up on and kill people. Personally, I believe that the equivalent reasoning would be to have someone think that your biggest skill is brushing your teeth. After all, you do that really well from time to time. Why would anyone need to hire that?
The truth of the matter is that they spend only a tiny fraction of their time performing the types of actions that that we see in Navy Seals, Tears of the Sun, or Zero Dark Thirty. The reality is that they spend most of their time learning, planning, innovating, and training – but that is not the subconscious impression that we have. After all, that would make for some movies that were pretty darn boring….
After speaking with dozens of these guys over time, I have realized that they spend a large amount of their time either learning, or solving problems in ambiguous non-combat situations with little or no direction, no funds, and no prior experience. And they succeed. Spectacularly. Overwhelmingly.
Let’s consider some of the specific reasons why you should absolutely considering hiring one of these transitioning operators:
1. Failure is not an option. Ever. Ever……
Time and again, these guys told me stories about how they succeeded where the rest of us would have failed. I have dozens of stories about this. One example: a quad vehicle model that they were using showed a high level of injuries, so an Admiral strictly forbade their continual use. Stop. But the SEAL teams felt that their use was critical for the teams’ success. With no guidance or budget, one of these operators researched the technical specs, analyzed all the design, usage, and training aspects, consulted with the (somewhat resistant) manufacturing company that made the quads, found a civilian racing group that used these with lower injury rates, and developed a comprehensive training regimen. He also convinced the manufacturer to make some minor changes on future models, and sold the whole package to the executive powers-that-be to reverse the cease and desist order. This isn’t killing people; it is solving business problems.
2. Ability to create solutions with no guidance or budget
Another special operator told me that his commander told him that he needed to implement a tactical medic training program. No budget, no guidance. This person researched the subject matter experts outside of the military, persuaded a civilian hospital chain to participate, coordinated with multiple governmental agencies (DoD, Federal, State), enabled the subsequent buy-in for a budget, and developed and implemented an award-winning program and curriculum. I heard multiple stories from many of these special forces operators where they simply said “OK, we will do it,” under any circumstances – and they just did it. When failure isn’t an option, you make it work.
3. Ability to handle ambiguity and deal with the unknown
A common theme that runs through these guys is that they are not afraid of the unknown. From training through their career they were placed into ambiguous situations every day. Every one of them has the attitude that the unknown is very simply the not-yet known. Which brings us to:
4. The insatiable desire (and uncanny ability) to learn
One of the biggest misconceptions, is that these guys are mostly just “meatheads.” In truth, they are all extraordinarily intelligent. Very, very, very smart. I am not kidding. Very smart. One of them taught himself about algorithm development because he wanted to show a startup technology company’s CTO a better way to do things. Another operator learned dozens of technologies – from the manuals, mind you – to improve on some of the communications devices they were given using items found in an undeveloped country. Then there was the guy who learned a foreign language well enough in a few months to get away with passing as a native. (By the way, how many languages do you speak? Some of these guys speak 5….) One of them told me flat out, “I want to know everything about everything. I don’t understand why other people don’t find everything as interesting as I do!” One is a recognized concert pianist. They have the capacity to learn an amazing amount – quickly and thoroughly. I am humbled whenever I meet and speak with them.
5. Ability to analyze
Special Operators have an uncanny ability to quickly analyze situations and come up with an optimized solution. This can range from knowing what someone is going to do before they do it, to where someone will be and what they are thinking. It also includes deep knowledge about people’s motivations and behaviors. This ability is not limited to behavior, however, it also includes the ability to quickly determine the best solution to technical, logistical, business, and interpersonal dilemmas, defining an optimized solution, and quickly implementing it. They are very good at gathering and presenting metrics, at convincing stakeholders about the right course of action. It is what they have been doing – with tremendous outcomes at stake.
6. Patience and stability
These Operators uncannily focus on “the win,” and stay focused on it – even when it requires nearly super-human patience. Some of the things they have achieved required them to be patient beyond reasonableness, yet stay absolutely focused the entire time and seize opportunities right when they arose. This also requires them to be extremely stable – they exude a calm confidence that inspires a belief that everything is going to work out just fine.
It was widely agreed among the executives, recruiters, and HR specialists who participated in the program, that most of these operators resumes would not have made it past the initial screen. Their job titles, duties, and some of their tools they used don’t readily translate to the civilian world. Part of the problem is that our jargon is just as confusing to them as their acronyms are to us. The keywords just don’t match up. Most of them struggle to translate the things they have been doing into a language that the corporate world understands. They also must deal with the misconceptions that the corporate word has about who they are and what they really do. Unfortunately, most cursory glances at their resumes makes them seem like a terrible fit. Interestingly, however, these same civilian professionals also agree that they would strongly advocate hiring almost all the people that they met. Only when someone meets and interviews these operators in depth do their characteristics for success shine through. You don’t hire resumes, you hire people. Meet them. Talk to them.
Special Forces professionals are among some of the most screened and highly trained people in the world. They have had to take and pass psychological, physical, emotional, intelligence, aptitude, drug, criminal, and ethical screens and tests constantly — for their entire career. They are the only ones who remained standing after undergoing all of these rigorous tests in a competitive environment. They are the best of the best, and the US government would not invest up to five million dollars each to train them if they weren’t.
At the Honor Foundation event this week, I interviewed three of these special forces operators in depth. If I had open positions, I honestly would have hired any of the three of them. I would bet my career on the success of all three of them – if they are given a chance. If you want to hire a drone who can only perform when they are told exactly how and what to do, and who only know how to commit war, don’t hire an operator. If you want to hire a success-focused, creative, persistent, adaptable, intuitive, winner, who will succeed no matter what, with or without budget, with or without direction, under any circumstance – hire an operator. If you need a lieutenant to whom you can offload a large quantity of tasks, a Chief of Staff, an effective Sales or Business Development Manager, Designer, innovator, problem solver, learner, or doer, hire an operator.
If you are not able to hire someone, at least please help educate and spread the information to other hiring managers and companies. Once again, these heroes can only get hired if people are willing to interview them – if people can look past the operators’ main mission tasks to the underlying qualities, personalities, and characteristics that make them so successful. Most of the preconceived notions we have about who these people truly are can be summed up in one word: incorrect. Encourage support for The Honor Foundation and its mission. It isn’t just the smartest business move that you will make for a long time (which it is!) it is also the very least opportunity we can provide for people who have done and risked so much for us.
If you can hire someone, however, talk to a special operator. Look past the resume to the personal qualities – to the capabilities and success characteristics. Take a chance. Call The Honor Foundation and arrange to speak to one of these highly screened and trained professionals. Give it a try. They will win you over – just like they have been winning for us, out in the field, for years and years. I guarantee it.
– Evan Donaldson is the co-founder and CEO of Talentry, running a Technical Services, Software Development, staffing, and management training practice based out of San Diego, CA. He has worked in technology project management, training, and placement for nearly 20 years. He has managed projects, trained, and identified resources for companies to meet their critical technical needs. Evan’s company currently focuses on software and mobile development, systems integration, headhunting, and training. Home