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Navy SEAL and Commander of U.S. Special Operations Has This Advice for Entrepreneurs

February 14, 2017

Imagine leading the most elite team in the world—a team of 60,000 people with an annual budget of $10 billion, whose mandate is to protect and defend the United States of America. This was Admiral Eric Thor Olson’s role as leader of the United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). USSOCOM represents our military’s finest: Its servicemen conduct covert missions, special reconnaissance, counter-terrorism, unconventional warfare, counter-narcotics and foreign internal defense. All units—and especially its most famous unit, the Navy SEALS—have established themselves as among the most individually skilled and collectively disciplined fighting forces on the planet.

As Talent Partner at Menlo Ventures, I lock arms with entrepreneurs on day 1 of their journey—working with founders who implement their own forms of rigorous training and execution to beat out their competition. In the Navy SEALS, the strength of the team can be the difference between life or death. No one knows this better than Admiral Eric Olson, who was Commander from 2007–2011. He was the first Navy SEAL ever to be appointed to three-star and four-star flag rank, was awarded the Silver Star for his role in the Battle of Mogadishu (commonly known as Black Hawk Down), and was the Commander of Special Operations during the Bin Laden raid. He was the first naval officer to become U.S. Special Operations Commander, and held the moniker of “Bull Frog,” the longest-serving Navy SEAL on duty. Now retired, he serves on the Board of Directors for Under Armour and Iridium Communications.

Admiral Olson sat down with me to discuss team strategy, effective leadership, and what it takes to achieve success. Below are some key insights from our conversation. You can listen to the entire podcast here.

Some of the best ideas come from the bottom up

“I think a defining element [of a good leader] is a courageous thoughtfulness, the ability to learn fearlessly and be open to different ideas.”

—Admiral Olson

Olson’s advice is useful for entrepreneurs at all stages. When you are building a business from the ground up and can adopt the absolute best practices, why not spend some time soliciting ideas from team members who work for you? As you grow and begin to tackle complex problems, it is valuable to see those problems through multiple lenses. The more perspectives you take and the more nuanced the consideration, the better your ultimate decision will likely be.

When the map differs from the terrain, you’ve got to go with the terrain

“Leaders who fall in love with their own ideas and their own plans to the point where they can’t fall out of love with them can be dangerous…. When theory collides with reality, reality always wins. Any good leader has a responsibility to go outside of his or her own brain to listen to whatever input can be solicited.”

—Admiral Olson

Whether you run a lean team or a high-growth startup, most founders can relate to how quickly things evolve in the business; goals change, products mature, customer bases grow. Founders must be willing to trust the opinions of those on the ground, and adjust their strategies in response.

Everybody should have a voice, but everybody should not expect to have a vote

“Leadership is not democratic…. The leader listens carefully, considers options, asks questions, and makes a decision…. When it comes to actually making the decision, the leader’s got to be courageous enough to take all the input, thank everybody for what they had to say, and make a decision that may be contrary to some of the input he or she received.”

—Admiral Olson

Ultimately, accountability lies with the leader. Olson’s advice resonates with me. Founders often find themselves having to make difficult business decisions with a management team comprised of friends and peers from prior companies. While it can be challenging to take a contrarian position in those situations, leaders must trust in their position of authority and rely on their intuition to make the final call.

Loyalty and trust separate the good from the great

“The SEAL community takes eager volunteers and has them pass through a number of filters over an extended period of time. It’s pretty easy in the first week of SEAL training to figure out who’s strong and even who’s smart, but you can’t figure out who’s really tough, who’s determined, who won’t leave their teammates behind….”

—Admiral Olson

A company is only as good as its founding team. Entrepreneurs should surround themselves with the best people who will work hard to meet objectives. But hard work is table stakes. Surround yourself with people who truly believe in your cause, and most importantly who believe in you. A loyal teammate won’t just be your yes-man; he or she will challenge your way of thinking and broaden your perspective. Do a gut check in your Monday staff meetings: when you look around the room, ask yourself if each member of your executive team brings a unique perspective and makes you and the Board smarter at the mission at hand.

Having a never-quit attitude makes people successful in the long run

“There is no consistent DNA [across the SEAL teams] except in attitude. It is a never-quit attitude…a fierce desire to succeed that overwhelms any temptation to quit.”

—Admiral Olson

According to Olson, there is an extremely high attrition rate during SEAL training. Fewer than 25% of the candidates that pass the initial rigorous tests make it past training to eventually pin the SEAL trident to their chest. Entrepreneurs should have a similarly selective process that allows them to screen for the best possible candidates. Many founders just focus on the resume. When you’re interviewing people, go beyond the resume and understand the makeup of the individual: their trajectory in life, their weaknesses and what makes them tick. Before making key hires, get in the trenches with executives by designing working sessions or special projects that will help you better understand how they process information. Sometimes you will have the right team and all the right elements in place, but still fail. Founders must embrace failures as opportunities to learn, grow and be better-prepared to succeed the next time.

LEAD is a podcast by Menlo Ventures for the next generation of entrepreneurs that focuses on best practices around leadership, culture, and building world-class teams.