Building an Agile Team With Team Diversity: Do You Have a Veteran On Your Team?



When leaving the military, it’s hard to know if your skills and training will translate in civilian life. Having just recently transitioned from flying Army helicopters to being an executive consultant at Afterburner, I am fortunate that I get to use my unique background and experiences every day. When consulting, I frequently use lessons learned or stories from my military career to help clients overcome their business challenges.


“I want my team to be like the Navy SEALs.”

This was what I was told by the co-founder of a major Silicon Valley tech company. At first, it wasn’t clear what he meant. The Navy SEALs are an elite team in the military world, but I struggled to see the similarities they would have with programmers and engineers. But, as we discussed his longer-term objectives, short term goals, and desired workforce characteristics, the need was clear. He wanted to understand how to build an agile team that executed impeccably under pressure, wasn’t afraid to question the status quo and could respectfully challenge authority if the mission called for it.

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I am not a Navy SEAL, but I was a part of a select group of helicopter pilots called the Night Stalkers. Like them, however, we had to be exceptional at flying helicopters, remain agile when new information was introduced into a situation, and adapt to dynamic conditions on the fly. If the situation had fundamentally and materially changed, we had to be comfortable executing what, in our judgment in the moment, was the best course of action — even if it wasn’t the order given by our commander.

With these criteria in mind, I helped him recruit for his new ‘elite’ team by sharing how we screened our Night Stalkers for the ability to quickly assess chaotic situations and think independently. We would start with typical interview questions but quickly pivoted to a line of questioning designed to elicit particularly ‘elite’ responses. For example, when we asked a candidate what they would change about their current company or what they thought their direct superior could do to improve, we weren’t looking for a polite answer; we were looking for respectful criticism and helpful solutions. From this process, we grew the team from four to eight outstanding members and the team is working to incorporate their engineering innovations into the business today.


During a recent planning session, I was approached by my client who was worried because she had identified a daunting two dozen threats to her team’s mission objective. Typically, you would identify only two to three real threats that stand in the way of mission success. She was concerned that there wouldn’t be any way to address all the threats with her team’s available resources.

During mission planning sessions in the Army, we had to think about missions in two different ways: was the mission to attack or protect? If it was an attack mission, we would deliberately plan to neutralize the threat in advance. During a protect mission, we plan for threats, but the threats are not addressed head-on as part of the mission.

I asked my client about the strategic objective. Was her team going on the attack or were they protecting a position? Once she thought about it, she realized she was planning a protect mission. Her team wasn’t directly going up against a competitor; they were trying to protect their market share. So, I helped her team prioritize their threats from most to least impactful. If they did come across any of the threats, I explained, they would know which to give their attention to and which were not pertinent to achieving their mission objective. I saw the lightbulbs go off in their heads when I explained that threat elimination and mitigation is important, but not if it’s at the expense of mission accomplishment.


Military professionals bring a unique set of skills and perspectives to the business world. They can filter through the urgent and immediate but not important to find the important and urgent. And because they have been through many challenging situations they know how to keep their emotions in check and don’t often get knocked off balance when challenged. Are you bringing their expertise into your business to build a competitive advantage? If you aren’t, you should.