By Deb Yeagle
The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent, by Mike Sarraille and George Randle, with Josh Cotton, PhD (Lioncrest Publishing, October 2020, 294 Pages)
Corporate America does not typically apply military principles and strategies to the business world. Even though both types of organizations face similar challenges in performing common functions (human resources, logistics, operations), most companies don’t consider the potential value of adapting military best practices to the business environment. While the battlefields may differ, one common concern shared by CEOs and senior military leaders is the ability to attract and retain a quality workforce. As Mike Sarraille, George Randle, and Dr. Josh Cotton point out in The Talent War, the business world can learn much from the Special Operations community’s talent acquisition, development, and management processes. Corporate leaders, recruiters, hiring managers, and hiring team members alike should read this book to understand why talent wins. Through the book’s in-depth presentation of Special Operations Forces (SOF) best practices in talent acquisition – translated into business hiring processes – companies can easily adapt and learn how to implement key SOF assessment and selection procedures to attract, identify, and select talent.
How to Win The Talent War
As Sarraille and Randle convincingly demonstrate, talent acquisition and talent management are indirectly the largest revenue generators in any business because they impact every other revenue-generating function. While the return on investment (ROI) and the costs of attrition are obvious, many companies still pay lip service to placing priority on talent or remain in denial about having a talent problem. As The Talent War clearly articulates, SOF is a talent magnet based on innovative, agile, and effective talent acquisition and management procedures. The book translates these procedures into key principles for businesses to win the talent war:
- Operate HR as a strategic function with business-savvy HR leadership to help build and grow talent, rather than managing HR as an overhead or compliance function;
- Regard hiring as an investment in long-term human capital through a dedicated talent acquisition team, as opposed to a reactionary, “butts in seats” recruiting or staffing activity;
- Place emphasis on talent and character as hiring criteria, instead of overly relying on industry experience;
- Follow potential-based hiring practices, screening people in instead of screening people out;
- Stay well ahead of potential growth to establish a viable talent pool;
- Attract (and seek out) talent through an organizational culture that recognizes achievements and makes people feel valued; and
- Apply a feedback loop to constantly adapt and improve assessment and selection processes based on candidate surveys, performance reviews, exit interviews, and changing environmental conditions.
Fundamental to a company’s ability to implement these key procedures and hire for talent is the presence of an firmly established talent mindset.
Establishing a Talent Mindset
As the book’s authors emphasize early and often in their book, the most critical step in winning the talent war is developing a talent mindset. This mindset is characterized by a deep belief that a company’s human capital – not its products or services – is its most critical resource. Your company’s people sets you apart and represents your true competitive advantage. With this mindset, a company is more likely to place talent acquisition and management as a priority across all levels of the organization, starting at the top and filtering down.
In addition to an unwavering dedication to talent, this mindset is also free of preconceived notions of what talent looks like. As defined in the book, the term talent collectively refers to high potential candidates who display the attributes and mindset necessary to become high performers within their respective fields. Each company will have unique attributes that help to identify talent, but based on the SOF assessment and selection process, Sarraille and Randle recommend nine core characteristics, all attributes of individuals with high potential: Drive, Resiliency, Adaptability, Humility, Integrity, Effective Intelligence, Team-ability, Curiosity, and Emotional Strength.
To help establish a talent mindset, the book describes numerous innovative strategies for identifying and attracting talent:
- Create role-specific profiles of talent based on an understanding of your top performers;
- Conduct workforce planning – to include forward thinking gap analysis and anticipation of future growth;
- Perform succession planning activities – to include mentorship and development for future leaders that builds leadership and talent redundancy;
- Implement rotational assignments for top talent from a variety of departments to be a part of the hiring team; and
- Develop a transparent Employee Value Proposition (EVP) – analogous to a business value proposition – that encompasses growth and development opportunities, work environment and culture, and compensation and benefits for your workforce.
Hiring for Talent
With an established talent mindset, an understanding of your company’s foundational talent attributes, and completion of the talent acquisition “prep work” that leads up to hiring, your business is well equipped to win the talent war. However, there are still battles to be fought during the actual hiring process itself. Sarraille and Randle share their wisdom based on SOF’s high level hiring strategy and lessons learned, with numerous key takeaways and warnings.
All members of your company’s hiring team should be trained in your hiring process – to include the valuable techniques for assessing and selecting talent presented in The Talent War. Beyond the tips provided for more effective interview questions (standardized to ensure a consistent layer of quality and compliance with hiring regulations), the book offers insight on how to channel your hiring methodology to reveal talent. The authors recommend a gate process, with the first gate involving the Minimum Requirements Screening – to include hard skills, experience, and education – and the second gate to address the often overlooked – yet critical – Character Assessment. This assessment includes activities involving interviewing, observing candidates in action, administering subjective and objective assessment tests, and conducting deeper reference checks. The book’s suggestions for use of scenario-based and behavioral-based interview questions, role play exercises, and case studies – all based on SOF assessment and selection techniques – are directly applicable to the business world and can be adapted as corporate talent acquisition techniques.
The Talent War instructs us in building talent through a two phase process: Talent Acquisition and Talent Development. With a heavy focus on the talent mindset and preparatory activities for the talent acquisition process, the book winds down to an anticlimactic conclusion, briefly touching on the talent development process. While not intended to be the primary focus of the book, talent development is the catalyst from transforming a hire from high potential to high performer. As the authors warn us, you can have the most effective talent acquisition program in the world, but if you don’t properly develop your talent, then your organization will most likely still fail. Businesses must foster a culture of continual individual improvement through investment in professional development and growth. Most companies who don’t make this investment have unfortunately realized the adverse impacts to retention. To be able to win the talent war through effective talent development, readers will be craving more SOF wisdom on training, mentoring, coaching, and leading by example by the end of this book.
Talent + Leadership = Victory
Like developing and retaining talent, leadership is not a central theme in The Talent War – even though the book emphasizes that building and retaining talent is a leadership responsibility. In order to fix the talent problem, you must first fix the leadership problem. Based on the fundamentals of SOF leadership, the authors stress the importance of leaders in the talent acquisition and management process:
- Leaders set the example for properly assessing, selecting, and developing talent;
- Leaders that implement and constantly evolve talent acquisition, development, and management processes demonstrate commitment to growth and establishing a culture of learning; and
- People, especially highly screened and capable talent, will not tolerate poor leadership – simply stated, bad leadership destroys the retention of good people.
Corporate leadership must also maintain cultural integrity. Too often, leaders’ actions do not align with the company’s stated cultural values. Leaders who do not “walk the talk” and companies with fraudulent cultures detract from winning the talent war. Never forget candidates are interviewing you and your company the same time you are interviewing them, and they can usually sniff out fake cultures and poor leaders.
Realities of The Talent War
Sarraille and Randle believe that the strategy of “hire for character and train for skill” is clinically dead in today’s business environment – this belief was the motivation for writing their book. Successful companies understand that “Talent Wins” while others make futile attempts to break out of the bad hire cycle. Failed attempts at embracing the talent mindset – such as simply changing a title from “Recruiting Director” to “Talent Acquisition Director” – result in losing the talent war. And sacrificing quality for quantity and speed – when pressured to fill time-sensitive contract positions with the “butts in seats” mentality – will also lead to failure. This hiring efficiency – conducting candidate screening by flagging resumes based on the number of keyword matches returned by Applicant Tracking System (ATS) software – almost always comes at a cost of hiring effectiveness. Far too many companies say talent acquisition and management are important without actually demonstrating its importance through investment in the required processes. On the other hand, many companies have successfully adapted SOF assessment and selection processes to win the talent war. Many firms – particularly those who support the Special Operations community as Government contractors – use character assessment techniques in their hiring process to demonstrate their differentiation as a SOF-focused company.
The advice provided in The Talent War is indispensable for success in business, but challenging to put into practice. Talent wins with leadership’s commitment and investment to implement and continuously improve processes based on SOF best practices in talent assessment and selection.
Deb Yeagle is President of Plan To Win, Inc., an independent business development, capture and proposal consulting firm supporting federal government contractors. She has nearly 40 years of experience in the federal government contracting community. Deb served as a DOD civilian for over 25 years, leaving civil service as a GS-15 to join the government contracting industry. During her 13 year career in industry, Deb has held a wide variety of business development and operational leadership roles in the Defense, Intelligence, and Federal Civilian markets. Deb volunteers for numerous organizations to support transitioning military and Veterans in starting successful businesses. She has also held the toughest job in the Navy: Navy wife. Deb can be reached via Linked In and email.
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