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 / Winter 2009 / Issue 57(originally published by Booz & Company)


What’s So Special about Special Ops?

1. Creating recruiting gravity. One of the secrets of special operations is their ability to attract large numbers of recruits at the front end of the system. How many businesses have a similarly elite image with prospective employees? I believe that with some effort, both large and small organizations can create a highly desirable “employment brand.” Google, Apple, Procter & Gamble, and some others have already achieved this, as have smaller organizations like Teach for America, which attracts disproportionately large numbers of highly qualified undergraduate and graduate students.

2. Reinventing training. Companies in the United States spend more than US$100 billion on training each year. Much of it is little more than a one-time classroom experience punctuated by PowerPoint presentations. At the same time, it is well established that the skill improvement and behavioral changes that would truly affect on-the-job performance require a sustained program of interventions consistent with the concept of deliberate practice. Corporate training needs to become more realistic and sustained.

3. Developing an all-for-one culture. The notion of teamwork too often means helping others as long as it’s easy and convenient to do so. In researching my recent book, All for One: 10 Strategies for Building Trusted Client Partnerships (Wiley, 2009), I identified three specific factors that help create a true teamwork culture. First, leaders have to model the collaborative values and behaviors that they seek to instill in employees, and communicate them relentlessly. Second, the organizational systems and processes — such as assessment and reward and information management — must support and reinforce teamwork. And third, in global organizations, Web 2.0 applications and collaboration technologies need to be leveraged to facilitate teamwork across boundaries. A sense of shared purpose underpins all these efforts. Business leaders cannot always invoke a purpose as weighty as fighting for one’s country, but they can always be sharper and clearer about what their mission represents, besides earning a return for shareholders — a goal that, in itself, rarely motivates employees.

In SOF, finally, selfish behavior will get you kicked out, whereas in private-sector organizations it may very well be tolerated as long as the individual is perceived as making money for the company. Punishing the wrong behavior is just as important as rewarding the right behavior — studies have shown that when executives publicly reprimand freeloaders, greater organizational collaboration will result. Business leaders must get much tougher about doing this.

4. Creating your own special operations teams. An opportunity undoubtedly exists to increase the use of small, powerful teams that are focused on specific, high-value tasks — not unlike the 12-person Operational Detachments Alpha of the Army Green Berets or the six-person Navy SEAL teams deployed on critical missions. These SOF teams, as we have seen, are made up of individuals who possess deep operational experience — people who in conventional units would be leading large numbers of men and women. These experienced individuals are empowered to make rapid decisions and use a variety of tactics in order to achieve their missions, and they often remain together as a unit for several years or more. Some engineering, manufacturing, and high-technology companies use a similar team concept for product development programs (for example, Apple’s development of the iPod), but there is no reason it could not be applied to more general management issues, such as strategy, customer relationships, marketing, and human resources.

The secret of special operations forces is, in essence, the strategic development of human capital. If companies want to leverage these lessons, they must commit to longer-term investments in their people than is often the norm today. The high-performance system that SOF represents thrives because of a multiyear investment strategy by military commanders and their civilian overseers; it would surely founder if it were subject to the start/stop approach, hazy measures, and lack of accountability characteristic of many corporate programs.

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