Winning the Talent War #2: Bring in the SWAT Team

Discover the value of having a pool of unassigned workers who are cross-trained and ready to take up work where and when they are most needed.

When my team was interviewing professionals in the merchandizing organization at a large retail store chain, we found that many people were frustrated with the rigid hierarchical one-size-fits-all career path. There were nine levels on the buying food chain, and the hierarchy was as strict as any I’ve ever seen. In one interview after another, individuals spoke fondly of the organization and of their merchandizing profession, but it was clear they hated the “up or out” career path available to them. One person after another—whether it was buyers of shoes or sweaters or cosmetics, it didn’t seem to matter—told us, “I’d love to keep working here, but I think I’m going to be moving on soon.” So our interviewers asked each person, as they do in our ongoing research, “Is there anything that would convince you to stay?” And one person after another said the same thing, “Well, if I could join the SWAT Team, I’d probably stay.”

“The SWAT Team…” our interviewers inquired repeatedly, “What’s that?”

It seems that several smart managers had been confronted one at a time with some very talented people who wanted to opt out of the merchandizing organization’s rigid career path. These talented individuals were not acting in concert in any way. But each was prepared to say, “Thanks for everything… But I’m going to be leaving.” And, of course, each of them had different needs and desires, but they were all sick of going to the same place every day during the same hours and doing the same work in the same position in the hierarchy and waiting to move up the ladder. Each person was looking for a greater mix of responsibilities, exposure to different aspects of the business, new learning opportunities, contact with people other than those in their immediate department, and some more control over their own schedules. And none of them really cared about moving up the ladder (except for the fact that it seemed to count for so much in the organization). They all were looking simply to grow their careers in their own directions and in their own ways.

How did their managers respond? Rather than saying, “That’s just not the way we do things around here,” their managers decided not to lose these people altogether. “Maybe we could create a special working relationship that would give you what you need, and meet the organization’s needs, as well,” they must have said. And one by one, these special relationships were created. Each person was taken out of the traditional career path, but they remained exclusive employees of the retail chain. Instead of going to work for other companies to reinvent themselves, they would do it in the merchandizing organization on an ongoing basis. They were put on unassigned status and they would remain available to fill gaps in the staffs of the nine different divisions (shoes, cosmetics, etc.) internally as those gaps occurred.

Those gaps occurred a lot. In many cases because talented people were leaving (and their managers weren’t gutsy enough to create special working relationships with them). But mostly because different departments would be very, very busy sometimes and not so busy other times. While some of these fluctuations are easy to predict (toys in December, bathing suits in the June), others are not so predictable (fluky trendy stuff). Of course, the staffing levels of the various divisions, in the traditional model, certainly couldn’t take into account sudden unpredictable demand for very specific merchandise. So the divisions were overstaffed plenty of the time and occasionally they were plunged into a staffing crisis.

When those staffing gaps did occur, you can imagine, these unassigned individuals were sought after and much appreciated. After all, they already knew what they were doing, for the most part. “We are scrambling to get all this work done,” people in the toy department might have said. “Isn’t Joe unassigned now? Let’s see if Joe is available to help us out.” If he were available, of course, Joe would come in…like a police SWAT Team…and take the pressure off. That’s how the SWAT Team got its name. Still, the SWAT Team was small. More often than not, Joe wasn’t available. He was busy helping the women’s clothing team acquire a bunch of skirts or filling in somewhere else for somebody who had just quit, or for somebody who was out sick, or whatever.

In no time, those in the SWAT Team, that band of roving unassigned talent, became some of the most valuable people in the merchandizing organization. When we asked managers if there was one thing they would do to improve their staffing situation, almost every one of them said, “We need more people in the SWAT Team.”


Now when talented people want to opt out of the traditional career path, this retail chain has a great career option for them and a great way to retain them. It’s working like a charm. What started as an ad hoc solution to retain a handful of talented people grew into a successful solution to deal with a whole range of flexible workforce issues. The SWAT Team became one of the most important staffing strategies in the company.

In addition to helping this retail chain manage its unpredictable staffing needs and providing talented people with more flexible work arrangements, the SWAT Team promotes knowledge sharing and best practice migration across divisions because members have such broad exposure throughout the company. This exposure, and a proven ability to adapt quickly and achieve tangible results (required traits on the SWAT Team), also puts members high on the list of managers seeking core groupers for their divisions.

It is now common for people who have served on the SWAT Team to be hired away from the team into high-level positions, often leap-frogging rungs on the traditional career ladder. Now the most ambitious stars in the company realize they can move back and forth between the SWAT Team and the core groups of the various merchandizing divisions, and so the SWAT Team (not paying one’s dues and climbing the ladder) has become the fast-track career move of choice.

The SWAT Team is here to stay at that retail chain and its value to the organization is precisely that its numbers can rise and fall as necessary. They have successfully created a high-profile, high-prestige, highly flexible, highly rewarded alternative to the old-fashioned career path. And they’ve met some of their most pressing staffing needs in the process.

The essence of a SWAT Team is that it is made up of unassigned internal talent, people who can be moved around wherever and whenever they are needed, so long as they are available. It will work differently in every organization, but you can create your own SWAT Team and discover the value of having a pool of unassigned workers who are cross-trained and ready to take up work where and when they are most needed.

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Tulgan is the best-selling author of numerous books, including “Not Everyone Gets a Trophy” (revised and updated, 2016), “Bridging the Soft Skills Gap” (2015), “The 27 Challenges Managers Face” (2014), and “It’s Okay to be the Boss” (revised and updated, 2014). He has written for The New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training magazine, and the Huffington Post. Tulgan can be reached by e-mail at; followed on Twitter @BruceTulgan; or via his Website,


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