The Unexpected Navy SEAL: A Lesson in Identifying Talent

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Before I became a SEAL, I was a Recon Marine and scout sniper, having risen to the rank of sergeant. I was a skilled soldier and an experienced leader, and I thought I knew what it took to succeed in the military and Special Operations in particular.

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Then, newly commissioned as a naval officer, I went to Naval Special Warfare Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S). There, I met Ryan Job, a man who challenged everything I thought I knew. It was a brutal lesson in humility and how to identify talent.

It’s a lesson I’ve carried with me from my time in the military to my work in the business world today. In business, just as in war, the talent of your people is the deciding factor between victory and defeat. The greatest competitive advantage you can have is your people. But as I embarrassingly discovered firsthand, talent doesn’t always look like what you think it will.

BUD/S: Where Talent Is Revealed

BUD/S is more than just training; it’s an intensive, 6-month assessment and selection process, with 80%–85% of students dropping out before the end.

Before BUD/S, the Marines had taught me how to lead a team, and I foolishly and arrogantly believed this naturally led to the ability to determine which candidates would make great SEALs and which candidates didn’t deserve to be there.

Among the candidates I believed didn’t deserve to be there was Job.

Job didn’t look like a SEAL. He was on the heavier side—for a SEAL, at least—and nobody knew how he’d made it through the initial physical standards to even get into BUD/S. I looked at Job, and I made a snap judgment. This guy’s not going to make it, I thought.

I wasn’t the only one who thought so. The rest of the class and the SEAL instructors all thought Job didn’t fit the mold of a SEAL.

Because everyone expected Job to quit, the instructors decided to speed the process along. They threw everything they could at Job—within ethical and legal means, of course. BUD/S is already among the most intensive physical and mental training a person can endure, and it was even harder for Job. The instructors made him run extra miles and do more push-ups. They forced him to be cold, wet, and sandy longer than the rest of the students.

By the end of Hell Week, approximately 2 months into training, the class had gone from 250 students down to 35. Recruit after recruit rang the iconic bell three times, signifying a DOR, a “drop on request”—or, in layman’s terms, they quit.

Only 35 guys were left, and I was one of them. I felt like I was truly part of an elite organization, a brotherhood. As I looked down the line of the physical beasts standing alongside me, I was astonished. A few candidates to my left stood none other than Job, smiling.

On the Battlefield: Where Talent Is Tested

Later in our careers, Job and I both reported to SEAL Team 3, and we eventually deployed together to Ramadi, Iraq, where we fought in the Battle of Ramadi in 2006—one of the fiercest battles during the Global War on Terror.

Job performed as an automatic weapons (machine gun) gunner during his days in Ramadi. After months of fierce fighting, Job was critically wounded during a major operation in south-central Ramadi, a contested area held by Al-Qaeda forces. He was shot in the face by a sniper while laying down machine gun fire to cover a squad of SEALs closing on the enemy.

Days after Job was wounded, doctors declared he would never recover his sight. Adding insult to injury, he also lost his sense of smell and taste, but it didn’t slow him down.

After his injury, Job displayed the same drive and resiliency he demonstrated during his days at BUD/S. He refused to quit or feel sorry for himself. Despite all the setbacks, he finished his bachelor’s in business with a 4.0 GPA. He ascended the 14,411 feet of Mount Rainier, and he even shot and killed a trophy buck—all without his sight, smell, or taste.

Job underwent countless surgeries and rehabilitation in the years after Ramadi. In 2009, the same week he found out he was having a baby girl with his wife, his high school sweetheart, he aspirated and died during his 22nd surgery for his injuries.

He became what SEALs call the “last fatality of the Battle of Ramadi.” He was the third SEAL from his task unit to die. Fellow soldier Marc Lee was the first, and the second was Michael Monsoor, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for jumping on a grenade to save two SEALS, one of which was me.

It’s hard for me to believe now that I ever doubted Job. I was always waiting for a time to apologize, and I found that time while we were in Ramadi. After I apologized, Job said, “It’s OK. Everyone’s been misreading me all my life.”

What Is Talent?

When I judged Job in BUD/S, I made the same classic mistake that all business leaders or HR managers make when they toss a résumé into the trash because the candidate doesn’t have the exact education or industry experience required. I judged a book by its cover.

Talent isn’t something you can easily see and identify. It’s not the soldier with the biggest muscles or the candidate with the shiniest résumé. Talent is people like Job—individuals who never give up, who perform in high-pressure situations, and who will win when others say it’s impossible.

In order to identify candidates like that, you have to look deeper, at character. If you dissect the attributes that made Job (and other high-performing Special Operations soldiers) so effective, you will find they are the same attributes that make high-performers successful in any industry:

  • Drive—the unrelenting need for achievement and constant self-improvement
  • Resiliency—the ability to persevere in the face of challenge and bounce back from setbacks
  • Adaptability—the ability to adjust according to the situation, learn new things, innovate, and try new methods
  • Humility—self-confidence in one’s ability while understanding there’s always room for improvement and that others’ experiences and knowledge are valuable
  • Integrity—an adherence to not only what is legal but also what is right
  • Effective intelligence—the ability to apply one’s knowledge to real-world scenarios
  • Team-ability—the ability to function as part of a team, placing the success of the whole above the needs of the self
  • Curiosity—a desire to explore the unknown and question the status quo in pursuit of better, more effective solutions
  • Emotional strength—a positive attitude, high empathy, and control over one’s emotions, especially in chaotic and stressful situations

These traits are how you identify talent, not what someone looks like or how he or she presents on a résumé.

The Power of Talent

The power of talent when you find it is undeniable, but talent may not look like what you think it will. Job didn’t look the part of a SEAL. In the business world, his résumé would have been immediately discarded, and he never would have made it to the interview.

How many Ryan Jobs have you passed over for a role, simply because they didn’t look like you thought they should?

Talent will not and should not fit in a mold. If you want to hire talented individuals, you have to get rid of your preconceived notions about what the right candidate looks like. You need to look past the surface to the deeper traits of character.

For more advice on identifying talent, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired U.S. Navy SEAL officer with 20 years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command.

George Randle is a Strategic Advisor to EF Overwatch, a former U.S. Army officer, and Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. Randle has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms.

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

Randle and Dr. Cotton helped contribute to this article.

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