Executive Insider

What Your Business Can Learn from Special Operations’ Success

US Special Operations Forces

The US Special Operations Forces community is arguably one of the most adaptable, efficient, and effective organizations on the planet today, and it’s because it prioritizes one thing above all else: talent.

On the battlefront, the difference between success and failure can mean the difference between life and death. With such high stakes, the Special Operations community has a deep understanding of just how critical your people are. Ultimately, wars are won and lost not by weapons or technology, but by people.

In business, as in the military, the only competitive advantage you can hope to achieve and maintain is your human capital. Nothing is as important to your company’s success as your people. Not your product. Not your service. Your people.

Your Product is Nothing Without Your People

Blockbuster was once a behemoth but no longer exists. They failed to adapt to the rise of on-demand video, mail-order rental services, and automated kiosks like Redbox. Blockbuster even had a chance to purchase Netflix for $50 million but declined to do so, believing that their business model was sound and there was no need for innovation or change. Now, Blockbuster is a relic of the past, and Netflix is the Fortune 500 company.

Enron was named “America’s Most Innovative Company” by Forbes for six consecutive years.  The service they provided was in high demand, and it seemed they would continue to thrive. Then the company was rocked by scandal due to ethics violations committed by its leaders.

Blockbuster and Enron believed their services and products were enough for them to succeed. People, however, make the choices that drive growth or trigger decline. Blockbuster didn’t have people who could adapt, and Enron had the wrong people in leadership positions making unethical decisions. The fundamental issue was a lack of talent.

Any good business leader will tell you that people are the most important factor in a business. Products and services come and go. If you want long-term, lasting success, you need to select and invest in the right people. The who is almost always more important than the what. It’s not what you sell that determines if your organization will be great; it’s who you have doing it.

People make the products. People deliver the service. People innovate and adapt. People solve the problems.

Do You Have a Talent Problem?

Despite knowing—or at least saying—that people are important, the vast majority of companies fail to attract and select quality talent. Worse, many of these companies don’t even realize they have a talent problem.

Here are six signs that you have a talent problem:

  1. SALES are down or stagnating, which means revenue is suffering.
  2. LABOR EFFICIENCY is abysmal, leading to high costs and wasted resources.
  3. PROFITS, as a result of signs 1 and 2, aren’t growing fast enough. Worse, they’re declining.
  4. CUSTOMER SATISFACTION is plummeting and resulting in customer and market share loss.
  5. EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT/SATISFACTION is declining because no one works as a TEAM. As a result, ATTRITION is rising, and the CULTURE is becoming toxic.
  6. INNOVATION is lacking or nonexistent. Individually and organizationally, there is no GROWTH MINDSET.

In the simplest terms, a talent problem leads to underperformance, and just like the military on a battlefield, you can’t afford underperformance. Absent a talent mindset, your company will fail.

The War for Talent

Whether you realize it or not, you are currently in the middle of a war with your competitors: the war for the best talent. It is the most important war you will fight within your business. And if you want to win, you need to commit to selecting and developing exceptional talent.

If you get the right people, with the right mindset, and foster a culture of leadership, results will follow. Having the right people means greater profits, more satisfied customers, and better opportunities for innovation and growth. It doesn’t mean you won’t encounter problems, but with the right talent, those problems will be solved.

With a focus on people, just like in Special Operations, your business can retake the advantage and win the talent war.


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Mike Sarraille
Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and a leadership consultant with Echelon Front. He is a former Recon Marine and retired US Navy SEAL officer with twenty years of experience in Special Operations, including the elite Joint Special Operations Command. He is also co-author of a new book out in November, The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent. Mike Sarraille is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.