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What Silicon Valley Wants From Navy SEALs and Army Rangers: Leadership Lessons

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Seaman Jumar T. Balacy/Navy file photo

In Silicon Valley, where rapid expansion plans for businesses abound, companies are desperate to hire managers who can lead small teams, make quick decisions, adapt easily to change, and stay calm in the face of stressful situations.

It turns out there’s a group of people trained for those exact purposes: the soldiers and sailors in the US military’s special operations forces. Veterans of these elite units—which include the Navy SEALs and Army Rangers —are now being groomed for careers in tech fields in increasing numbers, and finding homes at companies ranging from small startups to the likes of Google and Facebook.

“The biggest scarcity in the Valley is great leaders,” said Don Faul, the chief operating officer of Athos, a wearable technology company, and a former platoon commander in a Force Reconnaissance company, the Marine’s version of SEALs. “The Valley has started to really discover what a valuable asset they can be and what a great fit they are.”

The skills needed to succeed in the special operations forces translate particularly well to Silicon Valley, said Faul, 39, who took part in the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan before working at Google, Facebook, and Pinterest. “It’s very fast moving, it’s decentralized decision making with small teams, and you need to juggle a bunch of different skills.”

He estimates that Silicon Valley is hiring about 100 former members of the special forces annually.

The transition isn’t always easy. Veterans have to adjust to the free-wheeling environment of Silicon Valley, where T-shirts and jeans are the norm, hierarchies are fluid, and employees often come and go as they please. Their co-workers, in turn, are asked to accept new colleagues who may have sharply different views than is the norm in Silicon Valley when it comes to politics and culture, and whose previous line of work involved killing enemy combatants.

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Since September 11, 2001, the US military has depended more and more on its special forces to wage its wars. And the special forces troops have grown rapidly, from about 33,000 in 2001 to about 70,000 today.

The troops are among the most highly trained in the military, but because their focus is on combat, many don’t develop transferable skills, like equipment repair or emergency medicine, that apply to civilian life. Every year about 10% of the special forces leave the military needing jobs, says Joe Musselman, the founder of The Honor Foundation, which helps train the veterans for life and careers after the military. Fewer than 13% of exiting SEALs have a job waiting for them, he said, less than the overall military population.

The Honor Foundation, one of a handful of similar programs for vets and current service members planning their futures, offers a 15-week program to prepare them for a job hunt and the modern business world. The course includes modules on how to manage change, how to sell themselves to employers, and the basics of modern finance. It also helps with resume writing and interviewing techniques.

One common issue the course addresses is the tendency of special forces veterans to be self-effacing and modest about their accomplishments. “Self-promotion is a serious hurdle,” Musselman said.

The Honor Foundation, founded in 2014, was one of four groups working to place veterans in tech careers that received grants from venture capitalist Marc Andreessen earlier this year. Of the 31 Honor Foundation graduates who have left the military, all have found jobs; five now work in tech.

Not everyone leaving the special forces is interested in the business world. Many pursue jobs in law enforcement because the culture and objectives are familiar, said Keith David, 32, a former SEAL who took the Honor Foundation course last year after nine years in the Navy. Many of his teammates are now working for agencies like the Drug Enforcement Agency or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. David knew he wanted something different for himself and the course helped him figure out his direction. “They helped in crystalizing my intentions and my desires,” he said. “It was priceless.”

He landed a job in October at Anki—a San Francisco robotics company with 130 employees—as a program manager, coordinating the work of multiple departments. As a SEAL, David served as a joint terminal air controller, or JTAC, responsible for working with multiple military units to call in precise air strikes against insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. That role, he said, was the perfect preparation for his new one.

“At Anki, we have everything in house: hardware, software, marketing,” he said. “We have lots of teams that have to work together. It’s extremely complex and very challenging. There’s a direct correlation with what I did. JTACing is multi switching. It’s the ability to split your mind into different processes simultaneously. It’s a great skill set that prepared me for this job.”

His biggest challenge was realizing that hierarchy in Silicon Valley is far more flexible than in the Navy.

In the military, “the formality of rank and leadership is so absolute,” David said. “In a startup in San Francisco in the tech sector, you have to be level with the CEO and work with the executive suite all the time. You can’t be afraid to deal with them as equals— you have to get out of that mindset.”

David said he spent his first few months at Anki dispelling stereotypes about SEALs with his new co-workers. Because his background wasn’t widely known at first, rumors spread. Finally, the company had a all-hands meeting to discuss it.

“I’m happy to talk because it’s important to break down stereotypes,” he said. “One of the biggest misconceptions with special ops, they think you’re going to be some super rough-and-tumble guy, wrestling people to the ground. We’re just average guys with a more than average desire to succeed.”

David was an unconventional hire for Anki, said Craig Rechenmacher, the company’s chief marketing officer who first met David at an Honor Foundation event. David was one of hundreds who applied for the opening, and he beat out candidates with far more tech experience.

“He didn’t come in on a level playing field,” Rechenmacher said. “If you look at the job specs, he didn’t check a lot of boxes, but what he did an amazing job of was showing how his skill set would be applicable to our company.”

In the end, he was “the most qualified guy for the job,” Rechenmacher said. “It’s not a ceremonial hire, where he’s out there guarding the lobby—he’s inside doing things.”

Faul, the Athos COO, took a different path when he left the Marines in 2003. He enrolled in business school at Stanford, but struck out in his job search, failing to land a single interview offer from companies conducting on-campus visits. He finally prevailed upon a connection at Google—a fellow veteran—who got him an interview.

Faul’s transition from leading marines to leading Googlers was difficult, he said. In combat decisions, commands had to be obeyed quickly and without discussion, and Marines had to trust their commanders’ judgment. Not so in Silicon Valley.

“I discovered that explaining context and bringing people along is really important here—making sure people understand the ‘why,'” he said. “Tech and Silicon Valley is much more about consensus decision making. People feel they should be involved in making decisions. I had to discover how [to] ask opinions, how to get input.”

Veterans trained to make quick decisions under duress can also struggle with asking for help, said Jorja Leap, an adjunct professor at UCLA who leads one of the Honor Foundation’s courses.

“It’s part of the culture of people who work in high-risk situations,” she said. “It’s not that they don’t want to be seen as weak, but that they are used to being the decision makers.”

If those cultural obstacles can be overcome, the strengths of managers who have served in special operations forces can align well with the needs of their employes.

“Guys like us, we realize what needs to be done and we go do it,” says David.

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