“I’m glad we can finally catch up. What have you been up to lately?”
I smile at Dave Slovina’s friendly question, but remind him I’m here to interview him and not the other way around. We’re at a park in Old Town Alexandria, right on the Potomac River. A passing sailboat catches his eye, he smirks at the people aboard and surprises them with a salute.
“When I joined the Navy, I wanted to be a Seal. Tip of the spear, seeing the world, saving lives, all that stuff,” he begins. “I didn’t join so I could become a recruiter, and spend my days getting other people to join. C’mon, I was 18 – I didn’t want to be back in high schools at job fairs. But we figured out pretty quickly that I was better at talking than I was at shooting.”
A lot better. Slovina served in the US Navy for more than 20 years, retiring as a Master Chief Navy Counselor. At one point, he was a Command Chief Recruiter responsible for as many as 230 recruiters throughout the continental United States.
“The Navy has not been involved in open conflict, luckily, since World War II. But our presence keeps the waters safe. In fact, I think the reason there hasn’t been open conflict is because the Navy is so strong.”
While he didn’t serve aboard any battleships or aircraft carriers, he made sure they always had enough sailors.
“Every quota I reecived, I blew out of the water,” he stops. “No pun intended.”
But you left the Navy for Mission Essential.
“Yes, I did. After 20 years, it was time for a new challenge.”
Slovina has been Mission Essential’s Director of Recruiting since September 2007. Through his leadership, the company’s Recruiting Department has consistently exceeded all delivery orders ahead of schedule, maintained an average 95 percent fill rate, and supported the military and intelligence customers it serves.
At the height of overseas contingency operations, Mission Essential had 5,500 US hires on the ground – most of them found by Slovina’s department.
Do you miss the Navy? Do you feel that what you’re doing in corporate America is less important somehow than that?
“Your recruiters aren’t going to spread the gospel if they don’t believe it themselves. Treat them with honesty and respect, and train them to do the same.”
“No, absolutely not,” he intones. “That’s the great myth about contractors, that we somehow have a cushy life that’s apart from the servicemen and women we fight and often bleed beside. We have saved lives because of the quality of people we’ve sent over. I know that I’ve saved a lot more lives as a recruiter than I ever would have as a Seal.”
So what’s the key to recruiting? How can an organization consistently find the best talent with speed and value, positioned to anticipate customer needs?
“The key is to tell the truth,” Slovina says earnestly. “I had a recruiter lie to me. I had to find out the hard way that a bunch of his promises were not guaranteed.”
Not only does honesty help manage someone’s expectations in the short run, but it makes it more likely they’ll re-up when their contract expires – and better still, suggest a brother or a cousin or a niece you should talk with.
“Sometimes other companies get people to sign up because they’re less than honest about salary, benefits, and conditions abroad. We don’t. If you convince someone that going into a warzone will be a vacation, don’t be surprised when they quit. The goal isn’t to make a sale, it’s to build a relationship.”
I tell him he makes it sound easy.
“Well I hope it is for me after so many years,” he laughs. “But if it were really that easy everybody would be doing it. It’s about commitment: you can’t just talk about it, you have to do it every day. And the most important commitment is to your own recruiters.”
You’ve got to hold on to them? I ask.
“Absolutely. Other companies change recruiters like they change their underwear,” he says, a bit of the old sailor coming through. “Your recruiters aren’t going to spread the gospel if they don’t believe it themselves. Treat them with honesty and respect, and train them to do the same.”
In training his Navy recruiters, he learned the best goal wasn’t to be a boss, but a role model. He didn’t pull rank, he didn’t yell at his sailors, he didn’t belittle anyone, and he was always positive. He’s carried that philosophy over to Mission Essential.
“I don’t know what the word for that is,” he pauses. “Just being a nice person I guess.”
No, Master Chief, the word for that is leadership.
“If you insist,” he laughs. “It’s never about me. It’s still not about me. If you’re focusing on yourself, chances are you’re ignoring your colleagues or worse – you’re ignoring your customers. I’ve achieved what I’ve achieved because people have made me look good.”
He has to go. A group of recruiters he’s taking out to lunch meet us in the park. Each of them, some half his age, greet him with a high five. Before he leaves, he shoots me a look over his shoulder and throws me the same salute he gave the sailboat.
And I have to ask myself … is it too late for me to join the Navy?