A business’ success lies upon the kind of people working behind it. Any business or organization that knows how to attract, develop, and retain great talent are well on their way to success, if not remaining as one. At the center of it all is a great leader who values the people they have. In this episode, John Livesay sits down with the co-founder, managing partner, and CEO of EF Overwatch, Mike Sarraille, to discuss how leadership skills are more important than a specific industry skill. He also talks about the importance of overcoming imposter syndrome and then dishes out on his book, The Talent War, which imparts some great wisdom from special operations around talent and how we are currently in a war to acquire the best talent. Join John and Mike in this conversation as they bring fresh insights around talent acquisition and leadership from the military perspective.
Listen To The Episode Here:
The Talent War With Mike Sarraille
Our guest is Mike Sarraille, the co-author of The Talent War. He’s an expert at helping companies find the right people and specializes in placing veterans in corporate jobs. Of course, he’s been a veteran himself among many things, being a Navy SEAL. We’ll talk about the importance of realizing how to overcome impostor syndrome you might be facing, as well as how leadership skills are more important than a specific industry skill. He said, “Great leaders are always there for the people working for them.” Enjoy the episode.
Our guest is Mike Sarraille who is the Co-Founder, Managing Partner, and CEO of EF Overwatch. He’s a retired US Navy SEAL officer and he’s the Founder and Board of Director for the VETTED Foundation, which is an education platform. He’s also a graduate of the University of Texas Business School, and the leadership instructor and strategic advisor for Echelon Front, which is a management consulting firm. Mike served fifteen years as an officer in the SEAL teams and five years in the US Marine Corps as an enlisted Recon Marine and Scout-Sniper before receiving his commission in the Navy.
Mike served in the SEAL Team 3, Task Unit Bruiser alongside Extreme Ownership authors, Jocko Willink and Leif Babin, where he led major combat operations that played a pivotal role in the Battle of Ramadi in 2006. Mike was again deployed with Task Unit Bruiser in 2008 and led a historic combat operation in Sadr City during the Battle of Route Gold. Following his return, Mike assumed duties as the primary leadership instructor for all officers graduating from the SEAL training pipeline, taking over that role from Leif Babin.
Mike was then selected for assignment to the Joint Special Operations Command where he completed multiple combat deployments in support of the Global War on Terrorism. Mike is a recipient of the Silver Star, 6 Bronze Stars, 2 Defense Meritorious Service Medals, and a Purple Heart. Mike continues to participate as a Veteran Transition subject matter expert on panels around the world. Mike, thank you for your service and for being on this show.
John, thank you for having me. This is great.
I would be fascinated to know that’s such a huge, impressive list of things that we instantly know about you in terms of resilience, tenacity, and passion. I would love you to take us back a little bit into your own story of origin. You could go back to childhood or your early days. Did you always know you wanted to be in the Navy? Start wherever you think would be a fun place for people to get a sense of who you were before you accomplished all of that.
I will tell you no. I don’t come from a military lineage. Of course, my grandparents served in World War II. My dad was in the Army for a short while but service wasn’t the mainstay of our family. I was born and raised in the Bay Area. I loved California growing up and I loved Silicon Valley and getting to watch that become what it is now, but I was a little guy in high school. I played plenty of sports and my parents kept me active but I remember I wrestled during my freshman year at 119 pounds.The definition of progress is inspiring the next generation behind you to be better than you were Click To Tweet
For a frame of reference, you look like you’re 190 of muscle or something.
You cut me by about twenty pounds. I’m 210. That is twenty years in the military and working out nonstop in the gym. I had great trainers. The one thing my dad said later on, “I didn’t know what you were destined for but you had this disdain for bullies.” It’s a stupid story but in high school, there were classic bullies that were picking on little kids. I remember because my dad had to come to school and get me. I got a running start from about 75 meters away and hit the bully with my shoulder in his back. I put them down but ended up getting roughed up by his friends because they were picking on a kid. It was my high school. I didn’t like people picking on other people. Let’s be honest, it’s the best recruiting tool for the military. Do you want to talk about the best pitch?
Top Gun or whatever, right?
Absolutely. What do those all have in common? There are bad guys out there doing bad things to innocent people, and then the heroes come in. You don’t understand the price or the cost of war when you’re watching those movies. You can’t recognize that but it drew me in. The greatest pitch since the title of the show is such that is I met a Force Recon Marine. Back in the ‘90s, Force Recon was the special operations community for the United States Marine Corps. I was eighteen and this man was physically built. He was handsome, articulate, humbly confident, and respectful to everyone.
There’s an eighteen-year-old that’s now weighing 130 pounds and you’re looking at this guy who’s 190 and everything you aspire to be. I’m like, “I need to be a part of that organization now.” You question yourself, “Do I have what it takes?” There’s only one way to find out. That individual helped me get enlisted in the Marine Corps and I eventually became a Recon Marine like him. Every leader I had in the military, from my drill instructors to the Recon Marines that I serve for, each made me aspire to be better. That is the legacy of leadership. If you can inspire the next generation behind you to be better than you were, that’s the definition of progress. Progressives don’t understand that. You’re leaving a better situation for those coming behind you and you’re training them to be better than you were.
I love that the legacy of leadership inspires the next generation. I’ve also never heard someone described as humbly confident because a lot of people think they’re mutually exclusive, and they’re not. What a great description of someone and something to aspire to as well. You went to Stanford and then you’ve got your MBA at the University of Texas here in Austin. Through that process, you were also in the service. It wasn’t like you went to school and then joined. It looks to me like it was all happening concurrently.
I enlisted in the Marine Corps, which means I did not have my college degree. America doesn’t know two things. One, we put a precedence on knowledge in the military. Unfortunately, Hollywood, the best recruiting tool, also paints us as if sometimes we’re people in the United States that have no option other than to enlist in the Marine Corps, so we pride knowledge. The Marine Corps looked at me after a few years and said, “Do you want to become a Marine officer and be in charge of young Marines?” This is pre-9/11 and the answer was, “Absolutely.” They said, “We’ll pay for you to go back to school,” and they did. I went to Texas A&M where I finished my degree.
John, this is interesting. I went to a Jesuit high school in Santa Fe called Bellarmine and I graduated with a 2.9 GPA in high school. I went back to college a few years later and I graduated with a 3.7 from Texas A&M. I didn’t get smarter during those few years. The Marine Corps taught me how to lead. They taught me commitment and discipline. It was a steadfast commitment in how to accomplish the mission. Before I went back into the Marine Corps as an officer, I’d served with some SEALs. It’s inspirational. I said, “I’ve got to see if I have what it takes.”
I went to the SEAL training. I made it through that and then towards the end of my career, that’s when I attended Stanford. It was a certificate program called the Stanford Ignite, a one-month program at GSB. I did that one month before I started my MBA at UT, which was humbling because I was 39, surrounded by a bunch of 27-year-olds that were smarter than me and I learned more from them as I did the professor’s because each of them was high-performing individuals. I don’t think without them helping me here and there that I would have graduated from that program.
For those who aren’t familiar, it’s difficult to get into the Marines more than let’s say the Army. That’s fair, isn’t it?
The Navy SEAL is even more elite than the Marines itself, so it’s the elite of the elite.If you put a problem in front of a generalist versus a specialist, a generalist is more equipped to solve it. Click To Tweet
That’s roughly accurate. Each is good at what they do. They have slightly different flavors.
Different skillsets and things like that. There are different tiers. Since you’re in the executive search world, you’re constantly looking at someone’s educational background. That’s why I thought it was interesting to start there. That full circle, now that you’re out of the service, you’re helping find people with military backgrounds and placing them in a business where they’re using that incredible leadership skill. There are different tiers of way to go to school. There’s the Ivy League. It’s not just a location at Harvard and Yale versus Stanford. There’s that league.
I happen to go to the University of Illinois in Urbana–Champaign, which is considered part of the Big Ten but it’s not an Ivy League school. I certainly feel like I got a great education and I’m proud of where I went to school but it’s not an Ivy League school. I would say the same thing with the Army. It’s needed, wonderful, and great like a Big Ten school and the Marines would be a little more Ivy League. Is that honoring everybody or not? Is that too controversial to say it like that?
I will set the facts right here. The Army is the oldest in the armed services. They’re 244 years old and the Army has produced more leaders for this nation than any other organization. I didn’t go to a service academy and I did not have what it takes. The Air Force Academy, Naval Academy, West Point known as the Military Academy, Coast Guard Academy, and Merchant Marine Academy are the equivalent of Ivy League schools. It is 24/7 for 40 years. Some of the smartest Americans and some of the best leaders come out of those institutions.
I don’t think the average person unless you’ve been in the service understands those distinctions. I’m thrilled you could clarify that. The Navy SEALs, that’s not an intellectual level as a whole, physically incredible like an Olympic athlete level of skills that are required. Yes?
It is. The military as a whole follows something called the whole person concept. We’re looking for people that are well-rounded mentally, physically, and emotionally. Someone who is balanced and proficient in all those areas to a greater degree with certain communities. SEAL training is some of the toughest training in the world. The attrition rate is high, anywhere upwards of 70% to 80%. The special operations communities that we’re not mentioning who I absolutely love is the Army Special Forces known as the Green Berets.
You have the MARSOC Raiders, which is an amazing group like the SEAL teams. The Air Force has something called Combat Controllers and also Pararescue. There are special operators that fly helicopters known as the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. To have served with all of them and to watch them on the battlefield is humbling. You want to talk about not feeling like you belong, and that’s the description of my career. Watching these guys on the battlefield and what they did, it was almost like, “How did I fool them to let me even step onto the playing field with them?” I’m not joking here.
Let’s talk about that, Mike, because if you’re talking to CEOs or anybody with a C-level job, if they’re being honest with themselves, we all have a little bit of the impostor syndrome from time to time. When you’re trying to convince someone maybe to take a little bit of a leap in their career at EF Overwatch where you are finding people who have amazing skills from their military background. Maybe they aren’t as qualified on paper as somebody else without that background, but they have more experience. How do you help them overcome the impostor syndrome because you’ve had to overcome it yourself?
It’s focused on what you know and what you know well. In EF Overwatch, it’s what we call a specialized executive search firm. We focus predominantly on small to midsize businesses, which can be as big as 1,000 employees up to $1 million revenue, massive companies. We do vet the candidates as much as we vet the clients and for the clients, I have to hear one foundational belief. We value leadership over industry experience. Trust me, there’s a lot of SEALs with twenty years in the SEAL teams that have a lot of industry experience for that domain and are not good. Industry experience does not equate to proficiency.
For the candidates, we do explain to them. One of the books we have for them to read is called Range by David Epstein. He makes an argument that generalists make the best leaders. The reason for that to summarize it is that they’ve dabbled in so much that they have such a broad range of experiences to draw from. If you put a problem in front of a generalist versus a specialist, a generalist is more equipped to solve it. For the CEOs and the C-Suite because I worked for Jocko Willink and Leif Babin’s company, Echelon Front, which we are going to make the world’s finest leadership consultancy. We work with companies nonstop on the leadership foundation side.
The common thread I found amongst C-Suite leaders is that they’ll admit they were not the best in their specific domain. “I was not the best salesperson. I was not the best engineer. I was not the best marketing director, but I knew how to form a team around me that was specialized and good, and direct them in a certain direction and say, ‘That’s what we wanted to achieve.’” They let them execute. Others knew they’re on top of their game and they knew they were the best salesperson, but they could not work with others. While they may drive the most sales, they’re ill-equipped to lead a team because they can’t let go of control. That’s what I have found.
This line that you gave about the industry experience does not equal proficiency, it’s the safe choice. “You’ve done this, so you can do it again here.” If you go back in history and look at Steve Jobs’ decision to bring in Sculley from Pepsi to Apple, he had no tech experience. You see a lot of people in the entertainment businesses that are running networks and studios saying, “We want someone with a completely different perspective to come in here and look at this from a different angle.” I see what you’re doing.
Let me give you one example. Guns aren’t exactly a mainstay in California. I never fired a pistol or a rifle growing up, and then all of a sudden, I ended up in the Marine Corps. I remember there are kids around me from Kentucky and Louisiana and they’re like, “I fire guns all the time because the instructors asked.” They know that a lot of those guys are being bad habits. For the guys that never touched a gun, the probability for you to score expert on the rifle range is higher because if you are trainable, they’ll teach you how to do it well.
There are no bad habits to break. There’s no hubris. “I know what I’m doing. Leave me alone.” It’s like, “Show me the right way to do it.” I totally get that. I’ve seen it multiple times. The wonderful new book you’ve co-authored called The Talent War: How Special Operations and Great Organizations Win on Talent is something I am fascinated about. Let’s start with the concept of where did the title come from because there’s always been a talent war going on. Like the real estate industry, there’s sometimes perceived as a buyer’s market or a seller’s market. What people don’t realize about the executive search industry is you can’t just find someone who agrees to take the job. That person has to stay in that job for a while for it to be considered a successful sale. It’s not just getting the yes. It’s a longer-term process.
It is. The Talent War is the realization that we are all, as organizations and leaders of organizations, in a war to acquire the best talent. The war for talent is a term coined by Steven Hankin of McKinsey back in ‘97. We’ve seen all the transformations of our economy. There was a study in 2019 of 600 CEOs and something like over 800 other C-Suite leaders, and they asked them what’s their number one challenge. Unanimously, it was attracting, hiring, and retaining the talent to win the new guys a victory like the book or movie, Moneyball. This is why colleges put money and effort into NCAA football trying to acquire the best talent.When a company has a talent mindset, the priority is the people. Click To Tweet
Google is doing the same exact thing. The last I checked, Google spends 2 to 3 times more than their closest competitors on talent because they understand if they can get the best coders, they can get the best leaders and the rest takes care of itself. When you have the right people in the right positions with your organizations, they will solve the problems, seize opportunities, and drive the vision of the senior leaders to achieve it. That’s why I’m fascinated with this. The book uses a case study example and special operations are the heart of the case study. Special operations, Navy SEALs, Green Berets, and MARSOC Raiders, let’s be honest, the business world is fascinated with them.
They become one of the most recognizable, efficient, agile, and adaptive organizations in the world. They don’t hire for industry experience because it doesn’t exist. By nature, it became good at assessing people based on potential or what we say attribute-based hiring. It’s like, “Mike Sarraille has never been a Marine but does this kid have drive? Does he have effective intelligence? Is he emotionally stable? Is he resilient? Is he a team player?” If you can set up a process that identifies the behaviors that drive the values of your organization and people are trainable, you can build a team that will dominate its respective domain.
We can’t teach people to be resilient or passionate. You can teach them a skill, but they have to come with that. I have three questions from what you said there. I’ve heard about EQ, emotional intelligence, but you describe something as effective intelligence. Can you describe the definition of what that means to you?
Each of the special operations communities have a set of attributes they’re looking for. As one military psychologist said, “Navy SEALs, MARSOC Raiders, and Green Berets are all looking for ice cream just slightly different flavors.” We did research and interviews and we’d love to have the MARSOC community to describe this. Brian Decker, who was a Special Forces commander who led the assessment selection is the director of player development for the Indianapolis Colts described it like this. He said, “It doesn’t matter what your IQ is. What matters is what percentage of your intelligence you can use effectively to solve real-world problems for which no book solution exists.”
What they found was a baseline intelligence requirement. If you talk to any business leader, they’ll tell you that intellectual horsepower matters. What they found is that over a certain IQ score, it did not equate to increasing performance. When they look at intelligence, as long as somebody hits that baseline, that gate closes and that’s no longer an assessment or hiring criteria. Now they have to see how they utilize that intelligence to solve problems.
That reminds me of the research where after you make a certain amount of money, you don’t get happier. If you’re making $100,000 and you’re living in a place that you’re not stressed out with your overhead and this and that, and then suddenly, you have an offer to maybe move to let’s say New York or something and make $150,000 or $200,000. You think, “I’ll be twice as happy.” The research shows you’re not, and then other things come into criteria.
The other thing you talked about was Google’s realization of how important talent is. When I was speaking at the Coca-Cola Summit in Silicon Valley, they had a partnership with Google, and we went and toured that. They had someone come and talk to us about why they feed their employees, free food, and amazing food. In other countries and cities, it’s cultural cuisines even, and how much money they spend on that.
It all came down to this one sentence which is, “You feed the people you love.” I thought, “They value their employees to be able to show them and not just tell them, ‘You’re valued here.’” Now, it’s a whole another level of how do you do that when a lot of people aren’t working in offices at the moment, but that stuck with me. I was talking with the CMO of Domino’s Pizza and I asked him, “What’s your biggest marketing challenge?” I expected a marketing challenge as related to market share or messaging to consumers or whatever. He said, “Getting tech people to work here because we’re not in Silicon Valley.”
Mike, you could have pushed me over with a feather. I said, “I never thought of a marketing challenge that you’re responsible for recruitment.” He said, “We used to say we’re a pizza company that has tech.” They’re known for their app that tracks the pizza. “Now we say we’re an eCommerce company that happens to sell pizza.” I go, “That sounds like Amazon having to sell books at first.” He goes, “Exactly.” I thought you’d love that reframing of how this whole talent thing is related on many different departments.
It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. We talk a lot about talent mindset where a company has a talent mindset the priority are people. When you prioritize your people, the mission naturally starts to come first and the mission is accomplished. I guarantee Google feeds their people because that keeps their employees engaged and appreciative of the company that they do that. These companies overlook this whole talent piece, from the talent acquisition to the talent management. The indirect costs of a bad talent program within the company is what drives them to failure. The last statistic on employee disengagement was that a company that has bad employee disengagement costs the company $3,400 out of every $10,000 of salary. If I’m feeding my people and that costs me maybe $1,000 an employee and their engagement is higher, that’s a higher ROI. That makes total sense to me.
I know in the talent where you talk about this amazing formula that is applicable from your background as a Navy SEAL, which is talent plus leadership is where victory happens. If I had to describe to somebody why they should want to buy and read The Talent War, that would certainly be one reason that stands out to me. If you’re not using this formula, aware of this formula, and need examples of this formula in action, then that book would certainly make you a better leader and recruiter. Is there anything else? Did I nail that close?
You did. Here’s the thing. Do you know the Dunning-Kruger effect?
The Dunning-Kruger effect is when somebody does something for the first time, their confidence skyrockets but their knowledge is low and they end up on Mount Stupid. That’s the description of my life. Maybe I’ll reach enlightenment one day. Twenty years in the Marine Corps and fifteen years in the SEALs watching how they approach talent and how they lead their people, I’ve gained a lot of experience and with that experience, a lot of humility and battle scars.
Here’s what I’ll say to business leaders. It’s not your fault. When somebody is the CEO of a company, what are they concerned with? They’re driving revenue. Maybe they’ve got a board of directors or maybe they’re a publicly held company. People are down their backs to hit quarterly numbers. You’re focused on sales or marketing that you tends to forget about people. What do all CEOs say? People matter, but their actions don’t necessarily reflect their words. It’s because there’s limited time.Great leaders always made time for their talent. Click To Tweet
Great leaders always made time for their talent. If you read this book, it’s not a prescriptive book that’s going to be like, “Do X, Y, and Z and you will succeed.” What it’s going to do is you’re going to read this book with your senior leaders and you’re going to have a discussion. How special operations approach their talent? Getting the right people in the door plus leadership which is the talent management piece. How do you develop and manage your talent? Leading them to victory is what matters.
The feedback we’ve gotten from some prominent business leaders that we gave in pre-releases have been, “This is simple. You wrote this in such a simple way that this is good.” First off, I’m praised because you begin to hate your own book. I wrote it for two years and I’m like, “I hate this thing. It’s not ready. We’re not going to put it out there.” Eventually, my other co-author, we did have an industrial-organizational psychologist who does assessments for a living. They’re like, “We’ve got to get this out there. It’s ready.” I hope, if anything, it provides an impact. I’m not worried about the number we sell. I’m worried about if it provides some impact on 1,000 companies. That’s a victory for me.
What a great catalyst for conversations. This is such a great way to end the episode. Great leaders always make time for their talent. Mike, I can’t thank you enough. The book again is called The Talent War. If people want to find you or follow you, where should they go?
LinkedIn, of course, Mike Sarraille. You can find the book anywhere books are sold. John, I want to say thank you for the opportunity to speak with you. I’ve had fun.
- The Talent War
- EF Overwatch
- VETTED Foundation
- Echelon Front
- Extreme Ownership
- Mike Sarraille – LinkedIn
Wanna Host Your Own Podcast?
Get your FREE Sneak Peek of John’s new book Better Selling Through Storytelling
John Livesay, The Pitch Whisperer
Share The Show
Did you enjoy the show? I’d love it if you subscribed today and left us a 5-star review!
- Click this link
- Click on the ‘Subscribe’ button below the artwork
- Go to the ‘Ratings and Reviews’ section
- Click on ‘Write a Review’
- John Livesay Facebook
- John Livesay Twitter
- John Livesay LinkedIn
- John Livesay YouTube