American business needs the Green Berets

Efficient, and terrible at bragging.
Efficient, and terrible at bragging.
Image: Reuters/Carlo Allegri
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I’ve been working on a pro-bono strategy project lately with my colleague Laura Robertson. The purpose? Help Special Forces soldiers (aka the Green Berets) transition after their service into the business world. There are plenty of other non-profits and efforts aimed at helping veterans move out of the armed forces, but there’s an especially strong match between this elite community and the private sector business—if we can translate between the two.

We’ve spoken to a range of transitioning Green Berets—those who have successfully launched business careers, civilian recruiters, as well as the staff of charitable foundations focused on transition. We’ve also immersed ourselves in the training, culture, structures and most importantly, the type of thinking taught to members of the Special Forces regiment.

First off, we determined there’s a significant branding issue that the community faces. The Special Forces (often referred to as “SF”) community exclusively refers to the Army’s soldiers focused on unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense, among other areas.

Other branches are grouped under the “Special Operations Forces” moniker (and include Navy SEALS, Air Force Pararescue, Marine Force Recon, and several others). The two names are often confused, even by the likes of former secretary of defense and CIA director Leon Panetta in a 60 minutes segment.

However, due to the high visibility of these other groups, there’s a lack of understanding among the general public about what the SF community knows and brings to the table. US popular culture tends to focus on the direct action/door-kicking stuff of action films and slightly less on those with the skills of battlefield diplomacy and nuance.

shaking hands with boy
Green Berets play a wide variety of roles in the field.
Image: Green Beret Foundation

This world is often less cut and dry, with more time spent on the ground and among communities. It’s less “get in and get out” as it is full-on immersion, teaching, living-by-wits and building networks. But these skills are undoubtedly why the Special Forces community are some of the strongest candidates to transition into the business world and make a big impact.

Our research and conversations unearthed a lot of useful information about how these individuals are taught to think and operate in highly uncertain situations.

According to Army recruiting information about SF:

SF, commonly referred to as Green Berets, are strategic, multipurpose forces capable of rapid response to various contingencies throughout the world. Their mission is to organize, train, equip, and direct indigenous forces in unconventional warfare and foreign internal defense.

The roles are many, but one of their core competencies is linking up with foreign forces, training and instructing them, and accomplishing missions. As a lot of this is happening behind enemy lines, there’s a required level of cultural sensitivity, as well as the ability to operate with a tremendous amount of ambiguity. To lead without formal authority, nurture relationships, and conduct battlefield diplomacy in some of the meanest parts of the world raises the question of what these people could bring to a high performing business environment.

A veteran Special Forces NCO told us:

On missions you’re usually working with less than half the people you’re supposed to have. In Afghanistan, I was on a split team of 3 guys, isolated, in a really remote location. Our fuel and food were dropped in by a helicopter. My only connection to civilization was a radio. Yeah, you had to solve every problem on your own.

Shaking hands with man
Relationships are a key a component to completing many missions.
Image: Green Beret Foundation

We also heard an anecdote from a transitioned SF officer, now working in finance, about how creative thinking saved the day in a less-than-ideal situation on a trip:

The Special Forces guy carved out this funnel out of this Coke can, after he recognized what the problem was […] and it worked awesome. And Joe [civilian business leader] nudges me with his elbow, ‘master problem solver.’ ‘Joe—would you hire that guy?’ ‘In a heartbeat.’

Throughout the selection process, from the arduous qualification (“Q”) course where they learn their specific specialties (comms, engineering, medical, etc) to their time on a team—or ODA (operational detachment)—SF soldiers are taught to hone attributes like teamwork, sacrifice, intellectual curiosity, cultural sensitivity, and communication. They also need to figure out how to solve problems without much direction and in highly uncertain circumstances.

green berets training
Green Berets must hone attributes like teamwork and precision.
Image: Green Beret Foundation

They are charcoal filtered throughout this entire process, at each step honing the skills that will set them up for success post-Army.

In our conversations with CEOs and other senior executives, we heard the same refrain: “I want someone who can bring order to chaos and get the job done at all costs.”

A C-Suite member of a payments company told us: “One type of person I always like to hire is someone who’s an independent autodidact. All I want is someone who can just get the Message to Garcia.”

In other words, someone as self-directed and capable as a Green Beret.

green berets with philippine soldier
Diplomacy and the ability to cooperate is essential.
Image: Reuters/Erik de Castro

So what are the obstacles to making this happen?

  1. More understanding within the general public and business world about who the Green Berets are, and what they can offer when they get out.
  2. Lack of understanding among civilian recruiters. We’ve found that CEO’s know (and want to work with) these people, but the initial, mid-level gatekeepers do not know enough, and need to be better educated.
  3. The SF mindset and shared culture of humility means that team guys do not brag or take credit for things they’ve done. They are called “quiet professionals” for a reason. An admirable trait, but not always the best one to get you hired in a competitive market. SF soldiers need to be able to tell their stories and share their strengths in a way that is harmonious with corporate culture.

So, working closely with a new initiative called The Next Ridgeline, part of the Green Beret Foundation, we’ll partner to help educate the public on what these men can bring to the table—and why they’re so vital for the business world.

While all veterans have unique attributes to bring to the public sector, we believe that the characteristics of the SF soldier lend themselves well to various sectors of commerce—particularly high growth areas (and in some cases, startups).

As we were concluding our research, we were reminded of the earlier quote alluded to about the “Message to Garcia.” It is a passage from Elbert Hubbard that sums up the value proposition and reinforces why Green Berets can be the resourceful leaders American businesses need:

My heart goes out to the man who does his work when the “boss” is away as well as when he is at home. And the man who, when given a letter for García, quietly takes the missive, without asking any idiotic questions, and with no lurking intention of chucking it into the nearest sewer, or of doing aught else but deliver it, never gets “laid off,” nor has to go on a strike for higher wages. Civilization is one long, anxious search for just such individuals. Anything such a man asks shall be granted; his kind is so rare that no employer can afford to let him go. He is wanted in every city, town, and village—in every office, shop, store, and factory. The world cries out for such; he is needed, and needed badly—the man who can carry a message to García.