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May 13, 2011

5 Lessons Entrepreneurs Can Learn From the Navy SEALs

There has been a surge in interest with the world of the Navy SEALs since the Osama bin Laden action (this piece in the WSJ was a particularly good profile) and I confess to being caught up in it myself.  One of my portfolio company CEOs, Will Tumulty of Ready Financial, is a former Navy SEAL (1990-1995).  Will was kind enough to introduce me to a SEAL classmate of his, Brendan Rogers (SEAL 1990-2000), who joined me and 20 NYC CEOs/founders from the tech scene last night to talk about the SEALs - the training, the planning and the operations behind their combat operations - as well as draw out some relevant lessons for entrepreneurs.  Brendan went on to HBS and McKinsey after the SEALs and then started his own hedge fund with a partner, so he had an interesting, multi-faceted perspective.

The discussion was wide-ranging and entertaining.  The five key lessons Brendan highlighted were as follows:

  • What's hard is good.  SEALs go through an intensive 6 month training program called Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training (BUD/S).  That training program is designed to test a candidate's physical and mental limits.  Traditionally, by the time of SEAL graduation, the attrition rate is as high as 70%.  SEALs quickly learn that the punishment and pain of training hardens their minds and bodies and adapt to embrace the tough environs.  Brendan pointed out that start-up executives who go through hard times should learn to relish them, recognizing that the hard times will toughen the team and train them properly for "battle".
  • 80% training, 20% execution.  SEALs are incredibly well-trained and when they are not on acutal combat deployments, they are spending the vast majority of their time training for a number of different types of missions.  In contrast, at start-ups, executives typically spend 100% of their time executing and 0% of their time training.  Brendan emphasized the importance of training and practice in all areas - employee onboarding, management practices, etc.  He commented on the importance of training for unexpected situations.  The simultaneous shooting of three Somali pirates at sea as part of a hostage rescue two years ago was an example of the kind of outcome possible when  SEALs train under all possible conditions.  The CEOs in the room had wide eyes and were certainly thinking hard about their training regimens and scenario planning after that example.
  • Every seat counts.  Brendan pointed out the price of settling for mediocrity, even in a big organization.  Every SEAL needs to know with 100% confidence that the man behind them will be able to save their life and get them out of a bad situation.  The CEOs in the room were asked if they could say the same about their management teams and if those management teams, in turn, could say that about their lieutenants.  One CEO objected that he had 1000 employees in his company and couldn't possibly hire all "A's".  Brendan replied by citing the example of DDay.  Eisenhower planned DDay with a small number of subordinates who he turned to and said, select 12 men underneath you who can trust with your life to execute this mission.  Each of those men did the same.  And so on and so on.  That cascading effect resulted in the successful employment and combat engagement of over a 2 million troops throughout Europe.  The lesson?  Don't let a large organization be an excuse for mediocrity.
  • Everyone is expendable.  The SEALs are trained in a nearly identical manner and no one SEAL is indispensible to the unit or the mission. The nature of combat is that anyone can be lost at any time.  Entrepreneurial companies have a harder time executing on this philosophy since there are specialists and superstars, but Brendan's message was to make sure contingency plans were thought through for any set of personnel circumstances.
  • You never know the measure of a person until they are tested.  As mentioned earlier, the SEALs training program weeds out 70% of participants.  Brendan conveyed that the people he thought would never drop out did while others proved to be more resilient and tougher than imagined.  Until your people are really tested (see "what is hard is good"), you can never be sure who will step up and who will falter.  One sure sign, based on pattern recognition, is that those that talk tough and are full of bluster are predictably those that are the first to blanche in the face of adversity.  Quiet strength and determination in a start-up are invaluable.  When you see it in your people, bottle it.

Everyone left with a great appreciate for those brave men who serve our country so ably, and the system behind it that produces such a consistent, excellent "product".  Brendan is also the co-founder of the Navy SEALs Foundation, a non-profit that helps take care of the families of SEALs when things don't go as smoothly as they did in Pakistan a few weeks ago.  I was inspired to make a donation to the organization immediately after the dinner.  You can read more about them here.

One final humorous note - Brendan observed that the spouses of Navy SEALs are as tough as nails themselves and impossible to impress.  They still make their spouses take out the garbage, do the dishes and change diapers - no matter how impressive their accomplishments in the field of battle.  I suspect many start-up executives have similar, appropriately humbling marital arrangements!


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Interesting that there is no mention of the special forces focus on "accomplish the mission". This characteristic more than all the rest separates them every day people.

Several years ago Discovery Channel followed a class of prospective SEALs through BUD/S (http://amzn.to/l8MytG) - I've never seen something that looked more brutal. Lots of guys who are in good shape but subjected to the loss of all comforts to the point where they decide they don't want to be a SEAL *this badly*. Made me think about the difference about performing well when on 8 hours of sleep, in a good mood, etc vs having to perform well when you're exhausted, cold, hungry, miserable.

A leftist quoting Navy Seals doctrine, now I have seen everything.

Too bad you don't apply the same values to who you vote for.

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It is amazing the impact of sleep
deprivation and the extremes that these guys goes through.

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Good point.  It’s not just about process –
it’s about outcomes (at all cost).

Excellent article. Thank you for posting.

Fascinating stuff, and it rings quite true. The few SEALs I've known have consistently been among the calmest, humblest, and friendliest people I've met - and also among the most capable. I doubt this is a coincidence.

good articel jess, so we must have come people like seal ? :)

Being an entrepreneur, knowledge and skills are needed on this type of career. We know that many would like to enter this field. In order to be successful on it, you should be willing to learn more things that would help you to be a better and successful entrepreneur.

We can all learn from this, regardless of whether we want to be an entrepreneur or something else. In order to be successful, you need to learn the hard way. But always be open to welcome helping hands.

The grueling days of the Navy Seals' training and the pain they had endured are unimaginable. All of us, not just entrepreneurs, can learn a thing or two from the Navy Seals. Their hard work and perseverance are certainly to be appreciated considering they protect our freedom beyond enemy lines. As an entrepreneur, I certainly find the message of this post inspiring. By testing my abilities beyond the limitation of my expertise and trying to overcome all the challenges that come my way, I may become better in my field of expertise.

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