Talent Summit Roundup: Creating A Culture That Never Quits

At the 2019 CEO Talent Summit at West Point, attendees learned what it really takes to hire the best of the best in a fiercely competitive job market.

2019 CEO Talent Summit at West Point, New York on September 24, 2019. (Photo by Ben Hider)

First of a two-part series. 

CEOs can count on one thing heading into 2020: There will be no return to business as usual. The unprecedented speed and complexity of change has created a climate in which constant disruption is the new normal. To stave off obsolescence, CEOs need a cadre of gifted leaders in their ranks who are able to see around corners, spot looming threats and identify new opportunities for growth.

Just how to attract, nurture and retain that top talent in a fiercely competitive market was the subject of the 2019 CEO Talent Summit at West Point, where top business and military leaders shared secrets for recruiting and building extraordinary cultures that thrive in change.

That illusive competitive requirement—great culture—was at the heart of the discussion during the two-day conference. “That is the DNA,” said Nigel Travis, chairman of Dunkin’ Brands, where he led as CEO for nine years until 2018. Travis, the author of The Challenge Culture: Why the Most Successful Organizations Run on Pushback, explained that a challenge culture requires constant dissatisfaction with the status quo.

Nigel Travis, former CEO and current chairman of Dunkin’ Brands.

“What exists today is not going to help you in the future—even if you invented it,” said Travis, who was also president and COO of Blockbuster until 2004. He explained that the video rental giant ultimately went bankrupt because it failed to identify the threat from a single scrappy startup. “We studied Netflix passively. We sat there and watched it—you can’t do that,” said Travis. “You have to constantly anticipate your potential demise.”

To do that successfully, you need a culture that welcomes dissent and inspires spirited questioning and effective listening. “Do you, as CEOs, provide your people the opportunity to question the status quo?” he asked attendees. “Because that’s what helps you anticipate the future. Think of vigorous discourse as a way of life.”

At Dunkin’ Brands, Travis instituted weekly “coffee chats” with junior employees so they would have a safe space for honest and transparent communication. CEOs must be authentic leaders, he added, noting that the tone should indeed be set by the CEO, “but you can only do that with your actions—with what you do every single day.”

Retired Lieutenant General Frank Kearney
How Delta Does It: HR Lessons of the U.S. Military’s Special Operations Forces

Most companies would kill for the retention stats of the U.S. military’s Special Operations Forces. Through a grueling 19-year war in Iraq, under treacherous conditions, highly skilled men and women keep on coming back to serve. “And they love what they do,” said retired Lieutenant General Frank Kearney, former deputy director for strategic operational planning at the National Counter-Terrorism Center and now a faculty member at Thayer Leader Development Group. “Why do they do that? Why do they continue to sign up to work in oppressive heat, extreme cold, under fire?”

Perhaps more importantly, how can CEOs inspire the same commitment, enthusiasm, drive and loyalty? Kearney suggested borrowing a page from the military playbook by following these steps:

1. Hire right. Special Ops puts applicants through a battery of tests—physical, intellectual, psychological, medical, stress-testing—to ensure they’re getting people with the competency and skills to engender trust on the part of their fellow soldiers. While Kearney acknowledged most companies can’t apply such rigorous testing, they still need to do more upfront screening. “If you are using the interview as your primary source to recruit, identify and hire people, you are not doing enough to make sure you’re getting the right talent that will stay in your organization.”

2. Train well. In the military, soldiers are constantly trained for the next level up, and they know what they’re being trained for, which improves learning. Kearney cautioned CEOs not to let training go to waste by failing to create opportunities for those new skills. Investing in talent is another way to tell valued employees you care about them. “You can’t guarantee them a job, so how do you make them feel secure? Send them to training. Give them challenges. Give them counseling, coaching, feedback. Make that a priority.”

3. Create ambassadors. Only 10 percent of those who enter the special mission unit training actually make it through to Delta Force, said Kearney, “but 100 percent say, ‘This is the best training experience I’ve had in my entire career.’” Companies need to make sure all employees—even those who ultimately are not a good fit—have a positive experience and feel cared for. “Your organization’s reputation is the No. 1 weapon you have to recruit talent,” said Kearney. “If everybody buys into that, that reputation will precede you.”