Building high performance teams? What can SWAT teach you?

Are you focused on building high performance teams? For SWAT commanders, it's a life and death dynamic.

Making the Team

When it comes to SWAT, making the team is not easy. Maybe it's because there are tons of folks applying for a limited number of roles. But that's only part of it. The real challenge when it comes to making the team is the high standards required.

When it's a life or death situation—much like the dynamics of fire fighters—building high performance teams is essential. And so, to that end, most SWAT commanders will tell you there's a specific set of criteria that must be displayed before even a talented officer can make the team.

Four Factors for High Performance Teams

Sergeant Glenn French, now retired, is known, not only for his 24 years of service in Michigan, but also because he's been a sniper team leader, a SWAT operator, and wrote the best book on safety in 2012, Police Tactical Life Saver.

He describes the four factors critical for any SWAT operator as: training, teamwork, conditioning, and motivation.

He evaluates every candidate by asking questions about these dynamics—not if he hopes they'll have it, but how they've already demonstrated it. In an article on, he highlighted his questions:

  1. How trainable is the applicant?
  2. Does the officer operate with humility or does his ego prevent him from absorbing critical information during training?
  3. Does the officer display the necessary cognitive thinking skills required of a SWAT operator?
  4. What is the officer’s work ethic on the street?
  5. Does the officer display the appropriate social relationships with fellow officers?
  6. Does the officer display the “warrior spirit” necessary for special operations?

What this means for agile product teams

Having hired and fired hundreds of software developers over the last twenty years, I really wish I'd come upon Sgt French long ago. My experience, while different from his, results in the same four factors for product teams.


How well can a developer or designer learn something new? Do they fight the process or embrace it? Are they open to learning from people younger or older than themselves?

Even more than all of those questions, at the core I ask one simple question—are they committed to their own learning, such that they model a healthy intensity for always observing and asking questions that help them learn in any situation.


These days a lot of teams don't find themselves in the same office. The result of that means that communication can get more strained, be blamed more often for missteps, and ultimately hide a lot of poor team dynamics.

I don't mind if team members don't watch the same movies, read the same books, or have the same music taste. I do care, however, if any team member is friends with anyone on the team. The research is in—people who can say they work with a friend perform better.

And at the end of the day, when it comes to team, I'm looking for someone who isn't waiting for me to force them to be a team. I'm looking for someone who is already creating a sense of team among those they work with.


It makes sense to me that SWAT cares about conditioning. It also makes sense to me why so many technology leaders don't think much about conditioning because they presume that it means something about their team's ability to exercise.

But conditioning is best exemplified, in my mind, by Sgt French's question #3. When I'm building a product team, I'm wondering how well each member will handle ambiguity, stress, anxiety, angry customers, and more.

I want to know they can handle the stress that comes with creating products that may require moments of clarity in the midst of chaos.


High-performance teams are characterized by high capacity and high achievement. Do you know what they're rarely characterized by? Selfishness and self-centeredness.

You know what I'm talking about – the specialist that requires the highest salary ever that also talks down to others. That special gift need not apply to any team I'm building.

When you watch doctors and nurses work in an ER, you notice they're all motivated by the same thing – to save the patient. They know what's important and they know that they'll only get there when everyone is working together towards the same objective. It requires humility to know that you can't do it alone.

Building Products isn't SWAT work

The work we do when we build products isn't nearly as intense as what SWAT deals with. And we're often a lot more relaxed about who we let (or invite) on our product teams. But the truth is, there's a lot we can learn from them.

There's a lot that applies to the development of any high-performance team.