Leadership Lessons from the Military: Learning from Special Ops

Coleman Ruiz is the chief operating officer and partner with Severn Capital Partners in Maryland. He’s also a former Navy SEAL who served as a trainer in the Special Forces. His military background gives him a different perspective on how to apply analytics.

Ruiz spoke recently to Cade Massey, Wharton practice professor of operations, information and decisions and co-director of the Wharton People Analytics Initiative, about what it takes to bring the best out of anyone. Massey is co-host of the Wharton Moneyball show onWharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111, and this interview was part of a special broadcast on SiriusXM for the Wharton People Analytics Conference(Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

 An edited transcript of the conversation follows:    

Cade Massey: It sounds like those different Special Forces are in more communication than they used to be and trying to learn from each other, right?

Coleman Ruiz: I’ll just say the war has broadly developed after 9/11. The way we work in Special Operations is so joint now and cross-functional across the service heads, whereas years and years ago you knew all the guys in the Navy, you didn’t know anybody in Army special operations.

I’ll give you an operational example. There might be 35 people in a troop that is going out to do something in the middle of Iraq or Afghanistan. In that troop, you might have 20 active duty, trained Special Operations, whether it’s Army Rangers or SEALS.  Also in that unit, you’re going to have a non-SEAL radio operator, you’re going to have an air controller who is in the Air Force, you’re going to have a dog handler that’s a professional in working dogs, you may have an FBI agent that’s an interrogation and negotiations expert. These folks are all going into the field together. They have different places in the field, they have different training, different responsibilities, so when I say we work jointly, it’s physically together in the field.

Massey: You’ve talked about the importance of that coordination and how it increases over time. What have you seen teams do that facilitated or impeded that coming together?

“If you don’t want to take it to the next level, you’re just not the right fit and that’s OK. It doesn’t make you a bad person.”

Ruiz:  The one major thing that impedes a coming together is training and rehearsals. If you have multiple units operating all over the country and then you deploy those units and you attach them together, you have to be very careful with how you use those attachments if they haven’t trained or rehearsed together. The units that work the best, whether they’re stationed in St. Louis, Washington, somewhere down in Alabama, Virginia Beach, they meet physically in the U.S. to train together, and then they come together. It would be like if you really wanted a killer People Analytics Conference, we would have gotten together three months ago, rehearsed it, trained it and then came and delivered it. That’s not practical, but that’s the kind of diligence that we have to put against some of these teams that we call mission critical teams.

Massey: What has been the trajectory of your interest in analytics? What is an example of how you are using analytics to improve your teams?

Ruiz: I would say we are probably average to below average compared to academic institutions and some of these well-resourced businesses like Zappos and Google in terms of how we look at analytics. But my interest started when I was a BUDS instructor — basic underwater demolition. That’s the training school in Coronado. I went back there in 2005 to be a first-phase instructor. First phase is where we do Hell Week. When I was an instructor, we started to work on correlations with what factors do we see when a person comes in and does it correlate to their success. Initially at BUDS, the correlations are not very good, maybe it’s because the raw materials are so raw.

Massey: Can you give us an example of something you’re trying to correlate? What are some of the inputs and how do you measure success?

Ruiz: Success is do they graduate from the first six months of training? Do they make it? Clearly, it’s an experiential screening process. The only two things that we really have when someone walks into a recruiting station in the middle of the country and says, “I want to be a Navy SEAL,” is the Armed Services Vocational Battery test and a physical test. The correlations aren’t that great, frankly, but they get better later.  The job performance skills translate better later. You have more data to look at. When a guy enters advanced training for one of our Tier 1 units, he’s eight years into a career. You have more data to work with.

Massey: You guys are famous for the physical demands of the job but also for the character and what many people would call grit. To what extent do you try to assess that?

“You have to be able to see something and very rapidly assimilate that into your current skill set and then use it at the next opportunity. If you can’t do that, then you’re going to be challenged by the pace of operations”

Ruiz: We’re just talking about Dr. Duckworth’s Grit Scale [a test developed by Angela Duckworth, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, which is designed to identify the traits that could help to predict success]. When I first read through the questions in the Grit Scale, I was thinking this is a fantastic measure of mental performance, what people broadly call mental toughness. It’s a tough scale for us to put to use, but my estimation is that professor Duckworth’s information would probably be very useful in measuring BUDS’s success when our raw material was so raw.

Massey: What separates the top performing SEALS or Special Forces from the average performer, which is already amazing?

Ruiz: I appreciate you saying that. It’s tough. The Navy has a performance management system that everybody uses, but we also have some informal metrics that we consider inside of Special Operations, and a lot of it is tactical. Even though all guys are in the SEAL teams together, some are better tacticians than others. Some have been more successful in dealing with complex problem sets overseas than others for various reasons.

Some of it is intuitive assessment. The commanding officer says, “You’re going to be a good fit for the next level,” so they go. And when that group goes to the next level, there’s an additional nine-month training program. The way I describe it to people is, when I was at SEAL Team 3, you do most of your free-fall jumps in the daytime from 13,000 feet with a little bit of gear. Not that big of a deal. You do your jumps at this advanced unit at 25,000 feet with probably 60 pounds of gear, on oxygen, on night vision with no lights.

So if you take that across the organization’s new problem set at this advanced unit, everything scales like that. When I use the terminology like, “see one, do one,” I’m kind of being a little tongue in cheek, but you have to be able to see something and very rapidly assimilate that into your current skill set and then use it at the next opportunity. If you can’t do that, then you’re going to be challenged by the pace of operations. Why? Because we’re dealing with complex and chaotic problem sets. You don’t have time to sit down and analyze everything. That’s for the experts to deal with. When we had those situations we really liked to use that analysis, but most of the time it’s a rapidly emerging problem set that changes very, very quickly.

Massey: What do you think business people can learn from Special Operations?

Ruiz: Remember, nobody in the teams is a superhero. We all have two arms and two legs. Folks started with some raw material, maybe measured by the Grit Scale, and then a lot of time and attention, training, mentoring, team dynamics. A lot of people talk about it but, in my opinion, don’t really do it the way we do it. We’re all adaptable, we’re trainable, if we’re honest about the level of training that is required. And if we’re honest about where we are, don’t pretend to be somebody you’re not. But when you have the opportunity to push it to the next level, if you don’t want to take it to the next level, you’re just not the right fit and that’s OK. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

Massey: What is something that you got better at over time when you were in the Special Forces?

Ruiz: That’s a really good question. I think I probably got more operationally patient and compassionate, even though our teams are notoriously non-diverse. Being very mindful of individual skill sets and how not everybody has to do the same thing. Individuals can flourish inside this non-diverse team and really be exponentially additive to the team. Initially, you come into the team and think, “Everybody just needs to do this!” Some of it comes with age and maturity, but when I really became more operationally patient with my teams, I realized how much more individuals can add.

Massey: Do you have someone in your experience who was especially effective at coaching  and developing you?

Ruiz: Yeah, I’ll mention one guy, not by name. He was my commanding officer overseas when I was in combat in Iraq in 2007-2008. Brilliant at giving clear and specific commander’s guidance, or CEO’s guidance, and just voraciously disciplined with not only being accountable to his own guidance and how we used it, but making sure he was clear about the direction he gave. He supported every action we took, if it was within the guidance that he gave us, and he gave us the flexibility to use our individual skills to help the team be successful. I appreciated that. He was so non-traditional Army leader. He was just like, “Here’s the four things I want you to focus on. Go get it done.”