A Special Operations Guide to Hiring: A Series of Gates

December / 2020
Author: Dr. Josh Cotton, Brian Decker, George Randle and Mike Sarraille

The following is adapted from The Talent War. 

Following the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, Army Special Forces units (colloquially known as Green Berets) were among the first boots on the ground in Afghanistan.

They were faced with a seemingly impossible task. Working in just twelve-man teams, they were to form alliances with local warlords and begin to take ground from the Taliban. 

In unfamiliar, strange terrain against an inscrutable and difficult-to-identify enemy, they rose above the odds and secured important early victories.

How did they do it? Their people.

In business, just as in war, victory relies upon your people and your hiring process is the front line in the war for talent. 

If you want to improve your hiring process, who better to learn from than Army Special Forces, which has a proven track record of selecting incredible talent?

While businesses cannot replicate every aspect of the Army’s Special Forces Assessment and Selection (SFAS) process, there is much you can learn from their world-class assessment and selection process—in particular, the importance of gates.

Gate #1: Minimum Requirements Prescreening

The first week of SFAS is objective. Intelligence, psychological, and physical testing with a checklist of minimum requirements each candidate must meet. For instance, if a candidate’s IQ or tests of physical ability are below threshold score, they are not passed to the next step in the assessment process.

Once a candidate passes the minimum requirements, the first gate is closed. The information is archived and the candidates start the next week with a clean slate.

Similarly, in your hiring process, you need an initial minimum requirements prescreening. It will save you and your candidates time and energy. 

Due to the ease with which people can apply for jobs online, a single position can attract an unmanageable number of applicants. The best way to deal with the bulk of applicants is to use “knockout questions” to filter out the clearly unqualified candidates—the candidates who do not meet the minimum requirements for hard skills, experience, or education.

Ideally, this initial gate will be automated with applications being run through a screening tool that eliminates the unqualified candidates.

This initial prescreening is necessary, but be careful with your knockout questions. Your screening criteria should only cause attrition if tied to success in the role. Also, be sensitive to those who are screened out. You may unintentionally create a lack of diversity in your team and worse, screen out candidates who bring other breath of other talent and experience to your business.  Your minimum requirements should be the true qualifications needed for succeeding in the role. Objective measures of talent tend to have a threshold in the data where once passed, the data is no longer increasingly predictive of success. 

Gate #2: General Company Fit

At SFAS, passing gate one ensures you have the requisite talent for success, week two is designed to answer the question, “Can we train you?” The instructors put the students through land navigation classes and exercises to assess their ability to develop and apply the talent identified in gate one. The ability to develop your talent is critical, so much so, it is considered a talent itself. As we select and train for a future where the rate of change and uncertainty is accelerating, the ability to grow in your role is critical for success as a Green Beret.

After passing that test, the second gate is closed like the first, and the candidates start the third week fresh. Less than half of the candidates will move on to the final hiring phase.

In the business corollary, the second gate assesses general company fit. This takes place in the initial candidate interview with HR. This interview, typically only fifteen minutes and completed over the phone, assesses whether a candidate should be brought in for a more in-depth interview. It can cover everything from salary requirements to job location to work culture. 

Like the prescreening gate, this gate is designed to make sure you’re not wasting your or the candidate’s time. You essentially want to answer two questions: Is this candidate a good fit for the job and company? And is the job and company a good fit for the candidate?

Gate #3: Character Assessment

Gates one and two are designed around efficiency to “select out”. The third week of SFAS—“Team Week”—is when the meat of the selection process really begins. At this point we know you have the requisite ability and can be developed, now it is time to “select in” future members if the organization.

During Team Week, instructors assess behaviors against the eight Army Special Operations Forces attributes critical to the career success of a Green Beret. The selection process focuses on perseverance, team player, adaptability, and personal responsibility in a team setting. Integrity, courage, professionalism are assessed as needed. Capability is developed and evaluated in the training courses that follow. 

To reveal these characteristics, instructors place the students in emergent leader environment to replicate the unstable, complex environment they will operate in as Green Berets. Everyone is a leader, but none are identified prior to the exercise. The team self organizes around the problem and the leaders emerge based on the merit of ideas, behaviors, and ability to influence their teammates to accomplish the mission.

In the business world, this gate is interviewing, in which you have the opportunity to assess candidates’ underlying character. In interviews, it’s important to move beyond superficial information, like hard skills and years of experience, to deeper character. You can do this by asking scenario-based, hypothetical questions and observing candidates in action, through role play or challenge-based activities (like preparing a short presentation).

The outcome of the process are qualified candidates who possess both the talent and character you’ve identified as leading to high performing teams and individuals.

Close the Gates

The most important thing to remember in this series of gates is at each new level, the gate closes, and the information used for that gate does not impact scores in the next gate. 

Anything above and beyond the minimum requirements is typically not indicative of better performance. For instance, the 2020 minimum required number of pull-ups for Green Berets is six. One student might do exactly six, while another does twenty. Going forward, they will be treated and evaluated exactly the same.

During team week, the student who did only six pull-ups might show great character—perseverance, team player, adaptability, and personal responsibility—while the one who did twenty does not. It is the first student who is far more likely to become a high-performing Green Beret, and so he is the one who will be selected.

By designing your assessment process around a series of sequential gates, in which you start fresh with each new gate, you can avoid being swayed by information not truly predictive of performance. Instead, with each stage of the process, you get more and more refined, zeroing in on the greatest indicator of performance: talent with character. 

For more advice on building an effective hiring process, you can find The Talent War on Amazon.

-Brian Decker is the Director of Player Development for the Indianapolis Colts and former Commander of Army Special Forces Assessment and Selection. 

Mike Sarraille is the CEO of EF Overwatch, an executive search and talent advisory firm, and 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

George Randle is a Manager Partner at EF Overwatch, former US Army officer, and Vice President of Global Talent Acquisition at Forcepoint, a human-centric cybersecurity company. George has more than two decades of experience in talent acquisition at Fortune 100 and Fortune 1000 firms.

-Dr. Josh Cotton is an expert in talent assessment and employee effectiveness. He has designed scientifically valid candidate selection practices for the US Navy SEALs and Fortune 100 companies and has advised leaders at DuPont, Omnicom, CSX, and Flowserve.