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HR Lessons Of The U.S. Army’s Special Operations Forces

Chief Executive caught up with Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frank Kearney to talk about the biggest mistakes leaders make when letting a high performer leave their organization and more.
Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frank Kearney
Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frank Kearney

CEOs may not have the time and resources that the military has when it comes to recruiting and retaining high performers, but Lieutenant General (Ret.) Frank Kearney says there are lessons to be learned for business executives.

Kearney has more than 35 years of insider knowledge into how the U.S. Army’s elite special operations forces identify, recruit, motivate and retain some of the toughest, smartest people in uniform. He will be speaking on this topic at the CEO Talent Summit, held in West Point, N.Y. on Sep 24-25th.

Chief Executive caught up with Kearney ahead of this keynote, to talk about the biggest mistakes leaders make when letting a high performer leave their organization and more.

How can the military be used as an example for CEOs on how to retain high performers?

Military recruiting and retention is part of a larger process, particularly with our Special Operations Forces (SOF).  I describe the process components as: Identification, Assessment, Training and Acculturation.  This process ensures the Army and our Army SOF attracts and retains the best men and women into our organizations.  For the Army, our professional recruiters identify and begin the assessment process at Recruiting Stations throughout the United States and at our Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS).   We like industry, go to high schools, job fairs, colleges, and major entertainment venues to educate potential recruits.

Once identified, recruits begin their assessment by taking the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) comprised of multiple choice testing in four areas: Arithmetic Reasoning, Word Knowledge, Paragraph Comprehension and Mathematics Knowledge.   Since all high schools are not created equal, the Armed Services use the ASVAB much like colleges use the SAT/ACT to normalize the high school experiences.  So being a high school graduate may not be enough if your ASVAB scores are not high enough.  At our MEPS stations the recruit further receives a medical and dental physical examination, as well as the Occupational Physical Assessment Test (OPAT) which uses the standing long jump, seated power throw, dead lift, and lateral aerobic shuttle run to points 20 meters apart for a full mile or 43 shuttles.

The medical evaluation ensures we don’t access soldier with medical challenges that cannot be mitigated and create risks in training and future operations.  The OPAT scores determine what occupational specialties you qualify for based on your physical abilities, since an Infantry soldier needs more physical strength than a Cyber soldier.  Recruits whose ASVAB or OPAT scores are not competitive for certain occupational skill specialties can retake the tests to improve scores or can be offered opportunities for which their scores are acceptable.  The last function at the MEPS station is to take the Oath of Allegiance and commit to service to the nation; this is a critical step for the recruit recognizing they are now belong to a special organization with a worthy purpose. This is just the beginning as recruits who sign a contract begin their training process with continuous assessment though basic and advanced individual training.  Those who later in their career seek or those who enlist for SOF units will be again identified, assessed, trained and acculturated.  For example with few exceptions Special Forces Green Berets are accessed as non-commissioned officers and officers having served 3-5 years in the Army.  They volunteer for Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) and must have General Test (GT) score from the ASVAB of over 110; then attend a 4 week assessment course which includes physical and mental stress events, intellectual and psychological testing, language aptitude testing and are observed both by cadre and psychologists culminating in a board where questions about course performance, previous service, background check issues and potentially other questions.  Further a psychologist gives an opinion on the candidates’ character and mental disposition as well as other behavioral aspects affecting the candidates potential to serve in this demanding field.  If the candidate passes SFAS they are then scheduled for the Special Forces Qualifications Course (SFQC) that continues the assessment, trains the candidate in specific skills and language.  The acculturation process occurs throughout the SFAS and SFQC and the candidates gain a deep appreciation of their purpose and the culture that supports it.

Join Banks and others at the annual CEO Talent Summit, held Sept. 24-25th, 2019 at West Point N.Y. Register here.

For the CEOs:  while you may not be able to spend weeks and months in the recruiting and retention as the Army and SOF do, what can you do to insure that you hire and grow the employees and leaders needed?  For the Army every soldier who stays after their first 3-year enlistment they will be a leader, so the process of identifying, assessing, training and acculturating our soldiers is the most important thing we do. Is it the most important thing your company does?

What are the biggest mistakes leaders make when letting a high performer leave their organization?

I believe every employee departing my organization should be viewed as an ambassador for your company or corporation. I have seen the full spectrum of leader behaviors when a talented teammate or subordinate wants to leave; the worst tell them they are disloyal and can never come back and the best insure they know what their opportunities are in the current company while supporting their desire to seek new opportunities.  How you handle departing talent transmits how you value your people immediately and has impact on the whole organization rather than just the departee. If you have your talent departing as ambassadors who value your company and speak well of it, they will recommend people to your organization. You can bet someone treated poorly and not being thanked as a valued departing member of the team, will not send any talent your way nor speak highly of the organization. I also believe if we have hired someone to our team, we are responsible for whether they succeed or fail. So we share blame in bad hires as well as the good ones; when someone we hired isn’t succeeding, then candor as to why and offering to assist in finding a new job should be our response.  Tough love and a soft landing are a duty not a luxury.

Do your methods work for every aged employee/person in your organization or do you tailor them based on age and personality?

The short answer is yes to both aspects of the question.  First, the United States Army has assimilated every generation since 1775; the veterans throughout the ages tell us they miss camaraderie and sense of purpose when they leave military service.   The sense of belonging and purpose are valu es that cut across the generation and age spectrum. I strongly believe that self-discipline and disciplined processes create agile organizations, and that teaching people how to think rather than what to think is critical to success in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environments.  The Army and SOF, lead, train and empower our teams and team-mates to use disciplined processes, critical and creative thought to deal with the challenges their missions provide, unique to their operational environment.  We teach doctrine but not cookie-cutter solutions because we cannot foresee the operating environments of the future nor can leaders be ubiquitous on the battle- field to answer subordinate leaders questions. We give them our intent, and have them briefback how they plan to execute but also expect when conditions change, they will adapt inside of our intent. Our organizations are all multi-generational and likely always will be so our processes cannot be serve only one generation with another process for the next.  But…we know each soldier and subordinate leader is unique, motivated by different goals and aspirations, seeks differing opportunities and it is our duty as leaders to know what those motivations are and to provide an inspiration to each uniquely to achieve theirs and their families” goals.

What are a couple of things you look forward to discussing at the CEO Talent Summit?

Sharing details of how the Army and Special Operations Forces identify, assess, train and acculturate our talent.  I sense companies and corporations don’t believe they can invest the time, treasure and talent in doing what we do, but I believe they can.  Second, I always enjoy the opportunity to debunk the stereotypes about leaders and how we lead in the military; we are probably to most empowering and decentralized executing organization in the world while retaining our discipline and values.


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