Why Your Business Doesn't Have a Seal Team Six

Posted on Harvard Business Review: May 31, 2011 10:17 AM

Think of a team of military commandos and an image of camouflaged, disciplined athletes in their late teens or early twenties might pop into your head.

But Navy Seal Team 6, the secret elite group that recently killed Bin Laden, is an "old man's club," according to one expert. Members tend to be well into their thirties, each one the product of years of intense and deliberate training that continuously separates elite performers from merely above-average performers.

You might think we're about to link Seal Team 6 to business. Imagining how your organization might develop such a team of exceptional players over the course of a decade to solve thorny strategic problems is an interesting thought experiment.

But organizations themselves can rarely, if ever, pursue the long-term approach to talent development described in the latest reportage on Seal Team 6.

Rather than creating a long development arc for talent, organizations educate people in short and often unconnected bursts. Our research of more than 1,800 organizations over the last two years suggests at least five reasons for this:

1. Business Uncertainty. The most straightforward explanation is that a focus on training and development correlates closely with short-term financial prospects and results. With 70% of organizations facing increased uncertainty, many are reducing their commitment to training and professional development activities, or make it a 'nice to have' perk for when profits are clearly in sight. Following the ups and downs of quarterly forecasts as a driver for training and education runs counter to the systems and structures that create, expand and sustain elite team performance.

2. Participation in many temporary teams. A second impediment is the increasing diffusion of employees' attention, skills, and knowledge across multiple teams at a time. Compared to 18 months ago, a strong majority of workers (61%) are collaborating on more projects outside their immediate or nominal work group; that's more than three and a half times as many as those that are not (17%). Rather than working and training in one tightly-knit unit to complete a single critical mission, workers attend to a portfolio of projects. For example, one respondent described how she now spends far more time interacting with an ever-changing cast of outside consultants and contractors than with her internal colleagues.

3. Autonomous learning in social networks. In this gig economy, workers are considerably more likely than not (55% versus 20%) to report that core pieces of their training and development now occur within the social and professional networks that perform short-term project work. Consider how an engineer in our study must tap networks each time she develops a new research proposal for grant funding. With each proposal she receives an informal micro-course in finance from network peers on whom has money now, how to craft the proposal to the arcane requirements of that funding source, and how to navigate their budget allocation process. This self-directed, idiosyncratic, and distributed way of honing skills is far from the carefully orchestrated progression of stretch experiences characteristic of Seal training. Moreover, constantly relying on oneself to identify resources and networks serves to increase distance from the organization's mission.

4. Customer exigencies. The need to quickly respond to often unpredictable customer needs is another factor disrupting training cycles. For instance, 71% of companies say customers are more demanding today, spurring organizations to retrain staff with each new unanticipated glitch, service offering, product feature. One respondent in the food and retail industry notes a chaotic pattern of training and retraining just to "ensure we are able to meet basic customer needs." This can leave workers with the impression that formal training involves sitting through a series of unconnected retraining events rather than following a deliberate development path focused on a broader strategic goal.

5. Strategies don't stay fresh for long. A final factor is the shortening shelf-life of a corporate strategy. In just the past 18 months, for instance, a majority of companies (51%) have adopted a new strategy. With each novel strategy comes a wave of enthusiasm to quickly build skills or acquire talent to execute it. With one wave, an organization might focus dollars on innovation education to support a growth strategy. With the next it might emphasize process discipline to implement a strategy targeting operational excellence. Notably, in our research, several respondents mentioned they're migrating to novel global strategies to grow share in emerging markets. As one respondent mentioned, their new strategy puts a premium on quickly "finding" local talent in these markets, but not on methodically developing that talent. The latter is barely an afterthought.

While an organization's current strategy won't last a decade or more, an employee's commitment to a developmental plan that she designed very well might. To achieve this, organizations can help new recruits to quickly identify with the company as an organic whole and to create enduring personal meaning and direction. You've got to "arm employees" with the responsibility to grow their careers while growing the top line, as one respondent notes.

Does your organization enable this sense of mission? Or do employees feel like they are just operating in the dark?

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