The Talent War, or How To Find The Finest Warriors

by | Nov 14, 2020


I stumbled across this new book while researching selection and assessment. So synchronicity was at play. It turns out that Mike Sarraille and Jocko Willink served with a good friend of mine whose triple thumbs up “Good To Go” bumped THE TALENT WAR to the top of my massive reading heap.

I read it through in one day.

Yes, it’s that good.

BLUF: I have a long standing interest in specialized selection programs. I’ve been very fortunate over my polymathic career to work with the designers of many high level selection programs. This book is a milestone as it details for the non-military audience the specific processes that produce elite military special operators. The authors do a fantastic job in making that information accessible to the lay audience, business leaders, and human resource professionals.

Some of the people and projects I’ve worked on that provided me with the experience to fully appreciate the value of this excellent book include:

DELTA/CAG/”Highly Selective and Specialized US Army SOF Unit”:  I worked for CSM Forrest K. Foreman in Korea in his first assignment after the start-up of Delta.  CSM Foreman was the founding S-3/Training NCO under COL Beckwith on the start up of what was then called DELTA. CSM Foreman, as did many of the senior VN-era SF and MACV-SOG veterans I worked with and for, contributed mightily to my education.

70s-era Marcus in Korea

22d Special Air Service Regiment: I worked for and with RSM John “Lofty” Wiseman in CQB Services, the company he co-founded with my friend and collaborator Dennis Martin. Lofty ran the SAS Selection Wing for many years. When I shifted into training and consultation he was incredibly generous in sharing a lifetime’s worth of experience in the selection and assessment cycle. Lofty was good friends with COL Beckwith who founded Delta, and was influential in the design of DELTA’s original selection program.

Rhodesian SAS and Selous Scouts: I worked with CPT David Scott-Donelan of the Rhodesian SAS who created the selection, assessment and training program for the Selous Scouts. David, my guest many times during various US visits, was very generous in sharing his insights and knowledge about the process. His observations about the evaluation of operators under stress were enormously  useful. Later I worked with Richard Smith, a close friend and collaborator, who’d been in both those units. We spent many hours designing superior training.

CQB Services: Left to right, Lofty Wiseman, Evan Marshall, Dennis Martin, David Scott-Doneland, Leroy Thompson, Tim Mullin

The junior team members working while the bosses got their picture taken.

NASA Astronaut Selection: I was the first “non-technical” i.e. non-Ph.D advisor ever hired to consult with the Astronaut Training Office. I had a seat at the table with the top psychologists and psychiatrists from within the military selection and assessment world. Among them were the psychiatrists and psychologists who chose fighter pilots, supervised SEAL/BUDS selection, Army SOF selection, Other Government Agency selection, and non-military experts on selection like well known Dr. Gary Klein. Case study HERE

Israeli Defense Forces, Various Special Operations Units: I’ve been invited to Israel several times to consult with and provide training to the top trainers in multiple SOF units. Due to the small numbers of operators involved, most of the high end instructors and trainers participate in selection for the elite units. ALL the trainers for the IDF intake classes (Israel has mandatory conscription, so EVERYONE participates in the defense of the country) are drawn from their elite units. Case study HERE

Target Corporation National Investigation Team: I created an intensive one-week (actually week and a half, but the first portion was separated by a month or so) selection, assessment and training program for Fortune 100 corporation’s internal team tasked with high level investigations. By the TARGET Corporations metrics, the return on investment in training (ROI) was the best in corporate history.  See case study HERE.

I was recently asked by a good friend in a SOF command position to consider ways that selection and assessment might be improved, and how a “creativity and out of the box thinking” mindset culture could be fostered within an existing body of highly experienced and combat-hardened special operators.

Cool challenge. I love those.

So finding this book at this time was a stroke of great good luck. This book is an extraordinary resource for anyone examining the issues involved in attracting talent, or looking to export these hard-won, battle-tested concepts of military selection into their world whether it’s business, the arts, or any endeavor that requires high order talent.

Some random takeaways:

Manage your expectations and open your mind. Talent doesn’t always look like what we expect or have been taught to expect. This is a huge insight for managers/leaders — the toughest guy in an organization may be a sweet faced kindly old man with gray in his hair and lines in his face, not the uber-athlete straining at the bit to prove he’s better than everybody else.

Look for character, train for skills. Start with the human and what they are like at their core, rather than what skills they bring to the table. They make an excellent point about the SOF model — no one comes into SOF selection as a SOF operator with the skill set. They learn that in training and with their unit AFTER they’ve demonstrated what KIND of human they are. 

A GREAT list of attributes that make up desired character:

  • Drive
  • Resiliency
  • Adaptability
  • Humility
  • Integrity
  • Effective Intelligence
  • Team-ability
  • Curiosity
  • Emotional Strength

One challenge I see upon completing the book is that of educating leadership and key management anywhere, from existing units to business structure, on the long term cost benefit of maintaining a comprehensive selection, assessment, training and feedback structure. It’s expensive in dollars and skilled manpower hours, and is a challenge to this day even in the units that fostered and brought up the leaders who wrote this.  Even more of a challenge translating it to a business structure focused on dollars and revenue.

Selection is an expensive program and there’s always the challenge of what to do with the potentially valuable people who don’t make the cut. One friend of mine who failed the DELTA Selection Course described himself as a member of the “second most elite unit — DELTA selection wash-outs” — he’d been invited, got to selection, failed, went on to be a superstar elsewhere because he didn’t let the failure break him down.

There really isn’t any good answer to the expense issue other than education, through seminars, books, and lots and lots of case studies tied to the metrics that matter for business:  revenue and return on investment.  That education should focus on reaching existing leadership to open their minds to the paradigm of finding, motivating and retaining the top talent in their field whatever that might be.

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the science of enhanced human performance, as FINDING the right people is just as critical a piece as improving the performance of the people you have.