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How to Select Candidates Like the Navy SEALs

August 1, 2022

April 21, 2022

Matt Maasdam, Ex Navy SEALs Instructor and Co-Founder at PECOS Outdoor, didn’t take the most traditional path to entrepreneurship.

In fact, his career journey matches few others. Maasdam started his career with the Navy SEALs, where he spent 20 years working in candidate selection and training. He later carried the nuclear codes for President Obama during his two years as the White House’s Military Aide. Since then, Maasdam has run strategy programs at Under Armour and worked as the COO of startup Revtown. Today, he’s the co-founder of PECOS Outdoors, an e-commerce company that produces outdoor gear.

The shift from Navy SEAL to startup leader might look surprising from the outside. But to Maasdam, the skills required to lead Navy SEALs training look a lot like the skills founders need at the early stages of building their startups.

“The startup world is a grind,” Maasdam told the Swarm. “The initial stages of SEAL training are very similar. It requires a lot of effort, and that same tenacity, resilience, and fight is applicable to corporations and startups.”

Of course, as the person who helped select future Navy SEALs, Maasdam has learned a few ways to recruit and select the grittiest talent out there.

1. Create a defining mission and story

The U.S. Navy offers recruits some fairly impressive enlistment bonuses and incentives — from paying off enlisters’ student loans to offering certain roles $38,000 enlistment bonuses. However, that’s not why anyone actually joins the Navy SEALs.

“Nobody says, ‘I want the hardest, most dangerous route possible to paying off my student loans,’” Maasdam says. “People join the SEALs because they want the challenge. They want to serve their country. They want to belong to a great group.”

By the time candidates join the Navy SEALs, they’ve already known about the team for years — whether through depictions in the popular media or stories shared by former SEALs like David Goggins. Not only do they have a clear mission and values, but belonging to an elite group like the Navy SEALs is a defining feature of a person’s life.

An early-stage startup doesn’t have the star power of the Navy SEALs, of course — but there’s a lesson here. To attract the best performers, you need to be equally certain of what your mission is, why it matters, and how working at your company will impact employees’ lives (both day-to-day and in the long term). Until your company has results behind it, your storytelling is what will attract talent to your ranks.

2. Get really clear on your requirements

The Navy SEALs don’t beat around the bush when it comes to the reality of what they do. Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL (BUD/S) training — which includes the infamous Hell Week, where candidates survive on under five hours of sleep while completing rigorous physical and psychological tests — isn’t for the faint of heart.

Similarly, startups shouldn’t sugarcoat what lies ahead for those who apply. This might mean clearly highlighting clear “challenges” instead of basic expectations in your job listing, and looking for candidates who feel up to the task — however ambitious it is.

“One of the things that’s nice about SEAL training is that most people know it’s really difficult,” says Maasdam. “If companies were transparent in saying, ‘Look, this job is hard,’ you’d see less attrition once companies have hired. Just knowing something is difficult is a filter all by itself. If you’re clear upfront, you’re in much better shape than most people.”

3. Always be hiring

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the U.S. Navy extends its culture of organization and rigor to recruiting — to great success. Maasdam credits the Navy’s headcount planning with that success.

“They have an open net all of the time, looking for great candidates,” says Maasdam. “They keep the candidate pool full and they put the best people through that they can.”

Especially in today’s job market, it can be difficult to fill a job need quickly — and needing to fill that gap can make employers cut corners in terms of employee qualifications. “You want to keep a constant flow of candidates ready to go, so you’re not making emergency hires,” Maasdam explains.

That means getting your headcount planning nailed down and networking consistently to ensure you’re not starting from zero when it’s time to hire.

4. Speed up your hiring process

Many companies have long hiring times that include multiple rounds of interviews. To get the best talent in the door, Maasdam encourages leaders to shave off any unnecessary steps.

“Hiring quickly is super helpful,” he says. “The Navy does a great job of that for the SEAL teams. If you can get people in the door quickly, you have a much better chance of actually retaining that talent.”

5. Consider a trial period

One way that the Navy SEALs differ from the corporate world is that, in the SEALs, the training program is the application. Only about 25 to 35% of candidates who enter SEAL training make it through BUD/S training. The rest don’t become SEALs.

Maasdam isn’t suggesting you fire your new hires three weeks into the job, but it might be worth considering a different approach to hiring, such as implementing a trial period or starting employees off as contractors.

“A lot of times, people will think, ‘Oh, this is my candidate. This one right here is my person,’” says Maasdam. “They’re great leaders, they’re good communicators, they’re physically fit. … But then they won’t make it, because they haven’t been through that gauntlet of bad days before. It’s interesting to see how people do when they find themselves in a challenging environment.”

How people perform during that trial or contracting period allows for a trial by fire — and those who stick it out are doing so with a much better idea of the type of work that lies ahead of them.

6. Redistribute where necessary

The 70% of candidates who don’t make it through SEAL training don’t get rejected from the U.S. Navy altogether. Instead, they go on to other roles within the Navy. “The Navy loves that the SEAL teams provided that for them,” Maasdam says.

Similarly, if an employee doesn’t work out in a certain position within a startup, that doesn’t need to mean you part ways with them. They may be a very competitive fit for a more junior role.

“If someone doesn’t do well in the job that they’re hired to do, it doesn’t mean they’re not good at things,” Maasdam says. “If you asked a fish to climb a tree, it can’t do it, but if you asked a fish to swim, it’s fast.”

7. Don’t forget about retention

It’s easy to think that once you’ve gotten someone through the door, your recruiting job is done. However, half the battle is making your strong employees stay — and that’s where benefits and culture come into play.

“People come to be SEALs because they want the challenge,” says Maasdam. “In order to keep people as they mature, we need the competitive salary and those retention bonuses. Knowing how much turbulence is going to be produced by losing good people, you need to do everything you can to hold onto the right people.”

That’s not only down to money, of course. During his time at Under Armour, Maasdam asked 400 call center employees what would improve their roles, and money wasn’t even in the top five requests. Instead, people asked for more time off, paid lunches, and parties.

“Listen to your people,” Maasdam says. “Ask them what they want and actually give it to them. That seems like an easy answer, but I don’t think it is.”

Learn to screen candidates like the Navy SEALs

Not everyone can hire like they’re in the Navy, of course. However, there are certain processes, tools, and software that can help early-stage founders zero in on the candidates that will actually move the needle for their business. Find our best tips in our playbook on screening candidates.