Hiring For Attitude Over Skill: What Your Business Can Learn from the Navy SEALs

Hiring For Attitude Over Skill: What Your Business Can Learn from the Navy SEALs

Hiring For Attitude Over Skill: What Your Business Can Learn from the Navy SEALs

If you want to take over a small nation, secure a beach head, or hunt down a terrorist, you should probably talk to the Navy SEALs.  If you want to dominate an Excel spreadsheet, really nail your next presentation, or accurately predict what kind of people to hire, the SEALs may not be the best place to turn; or are they?

As it turns out, the qualities that make a successful Navy SEAL are not that different from what makes a great new hire. While the process of hiring the right person for that hard-to-fill position is far from an exact science, there are several key factors that you can look for; and a big hint is that skill set is not one of them. In fact, according to a study conducted in Britain, two-thirds of employers polled said that if they had to reduce their workforce, they would fire someone with the “perfect” skill set before someone with deficient skills but a great attitude. So what sets the SEALs apart, and how can you harness the power of SEAL attitude in your workforce?

Navy SEALs

The Navy SEALs are universally recognized as one of the US Military’s finest combat units. The training program to become a SEAL is called BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL Training), and is easily the most difficult training course within the US military.  For every 1,000 Navy enlistees who take the screening test to enter BUD/S, only 15 will actually pass.  Getting into BUD/S, however, is still no guarantee that you will become a SEAL; of those who do get into BUD/S, more than 70 percent do not complete the training.

What kind of people graduate BUD/S?  All kinds apply, and most of them are in excellent physical condition. There are the muscled Hulk clones, the super-athletic, and those just looking for prestige; but none of those factors give any kind of predictable measure of who will graduate. In fact, it is often those super athletic and physically strong enlistees who drop out first. One difference is, of course, attitude.


While it is impossible to isolate a single characteristic of successful BUD/S graduates, having a good attitude is absolutely essential; the same is true in business.  James Reed, author of ‘Put Your Mindset to Work’, shares an important bit of insight gleaned from his research into the subject.

“Employers told us that someone with a winning mindset was, on average, seven times more valuable than a normal employee.”

An employee with a winning attitude is typically an employee who adapts well to change, is coachable, and will change with your business. Compare Reed’s thoughts to those of Navy SEAL, Walter Diatchenko, BUD/S Class 48: “I think the key to making it all the way it is to keep a positive attitude at all times. Never have a negative thought…period end of story. Once a negative thought gets into your head you’re done…because one negative thought leads to another and then it’s a slippery slope to quitting.”

Attitude is something that is ingrained from very early on in our lives, and is very difficult to change.  It can be done, but it is a difficult process that often involves unlearning things before being able to learn something new. On the other hand, learning a new skill is easy with the right attitude. If you can find candidates who have the right outlook, you’ll be able to train them for any work.

Start With the End in Mind

Translating what makes a successful SEAL to the business world does not mean you should go out and  hire your own “army” of SEALs. Ann Rhoades is the manager responsible for a lot of Southwest’s hiring practices. She believes that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior. The idea that she based Southwest’s hiring methodology on is that what you know (skills) changes, but who you are (attitude) does not.
To really find out who your applicants are, you need to go beyond the standard interview questions.

Know what kind of people you want to hire.  This should go beyond the Excel, analytical, and communication skills that are so commonly included in job descriptions.  Ask yourself what kind of person you would like to work with. What values and character traits does that kind of person have? Do you have anyone in your organization who is a great model of the type of applicant you are looking for, and how can you hire more people like him/her? To find those applicants, think about the right questions that will draw out the answers you are looking for. While there is no set of perfect questions you can use, here are a few that companies like Southwest commonly ask:

  1. Tell me about a time you used your sense of humor on the job.
  2. Tell me about a time you failed, and what you learned.
  3. How do you have fun at work?
  4. Describe a time you have dealt with an upset customer.

Open-ended questions like this create a constructive dialogue between the interviewer and the interviewee, giving the candidate the opportunity to really demonstrate how they would function and fit in on your team. They go beyond the “what”-based skills questions to dig deeper into who the candidate is and what they can bring to the business.


You need to make sure that your questions are designed to help you identify the people, personality types and attitudes you are looking for.  Skills and job descriptions will change over time, no matter what industry you work in, so you need to hire someone who can change as your business does.  Start with a list of what the right applicant looks like for your organization, and then build the hiring process around attracting those kinds of people.

Hiring is not just an important proposition, but an expensive one.  From start to finish it can cost several thousand dollars to attract and train the right people. If the greatest predictor of a sound investment is someone with a winning attitude, then your recruiting efforts should also be focused on attitude before skill.

Steven Spencer
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