The situation is tense. the stakes are high. Time is short. Who do you call for help? If you're a police officer facing a hostage crisis, you call in a SWAT team. If you're an executive at Mervyn's California facing the Christmas rush or the loss of a key manager, you call in - yes, a SWAT team!
Mervyn's is a department-store chain with 32,000 employees and 270 locations in 14 states. Its SWAT team consists of 19 managers - most in their thirties and forties - who race from division to division, usually at a moment's notice, to help with the crises that inevitably erupt in a high-pressure retail environment. SWAT-team members must have expertise in at least one specific discipline: buying, merchandising, or advertising. Assignments are as short as a week or as long as six months. And don't get the wrong idea: SWAT-team members don't travel around in an armored personnel carrier or brandish automatic weapons. But last fall, they did attend the company Halloween party in combat gear.
The SWAT team "is a group of highly trained people who can be deployed anywhere in the company's buying divisions, at any time, wherever they are needed," says Michael Shenk, 43, director of inventory management for Mervyn's and coleader of the SWAT team. "They can perform jobs quickly and efficiently, without a long learning curve."
Life on the SWAT team is hectic - and varied. Mervyn's has nine merchandise divisions, all run out of company headquarters in Hayward, California. Jacie Rubenstein, 48, an early SWAT-team member, has had assignments in eight of them. "I've done footwear buying - women's, children's, men's and boys'," she says. "I've done jewelry buying - gold, silver, and diamonds, as well as fashion jewelry and watches. I've been in the accessories division, buying handbags and wallets and small leather goods. I've been in sportswear, buying everything from denim to dresses. I just work my way around the building."
Mervyn's created the SWAT team three years ago as an experiment to deal with workforce issues such as flextime and parental leave. If a full-time manager had to step out, a SWAT-team member would step in. But according to author Bruce Tulgan, founder of Rainmaker Inc., a research and consulting firm, this experiment has become something bigger. "SWAT-team members are some of the most valued employees in the organization," he says. "The SWAT team helps Mervyn's manage its unpredictable staffing needs, meet the requirements of its erratic markets, and seize unanticipated opportunities. I think it is the future of this company." Indeed, this spring Mervyn's will nearly double the team's size, to 34 members: 24 merchandise coordinators, 6 merchandise planners, 4 buyers.
Just as important as the problems the team has solved are the lessons it has taught. With hiring, for example, Shenk has learned to look for particular attributes in SWAT-team candidates - attributes essential for other jobs as well. "I'm looking for people who have a bias for action," he says. "They have to hit the ground running. I want people who can walk into a department, assess what the problem is, and not be afraid to ask, 'What do you need? Where's the information? How do I get to it?' They also need lots of self-confidence. That's a unique individual."
SWAT-team members aren't just good at learning fast, Shenk adds - they're also good at sharing what they've learned. Recently, for example, during a stint in the boys' department, Rubenstein noticed that the merchandise team's weekly meeting didn't include a detailed review of that week's advertising schedules. Such a review was standard (and effective) procedure in several other divisions. She suggested making it a regular part of the agenda. And now it is. "The SWAT team gives me a broader perspective," Rubenstein says. "I can see an entire department and how it functions. I can learn a team's best practices and give the team the benefit of all the practices I have picked up elsewhere."
The SWAT team has also become an effective vehicle for moving talent around the company. In fact, the team's biggest problem is turnover: Members are frequently hired away for full-time positions by managers whom they've impressed. "These people are highly sought after," Shenk says. "They've had a lot of exposure to different areas in the company. And they've shown an ability to think independently. We always try to fill jobs with the best people, and in many cases, those people are SWAT-team members."
Not surprisingly, Mervyn's employees have noticed that trend - which is why joining the SWAT team has become a high-priority career tactic for young people who want to move up and for veterans who want a change of pace. Ana Nobrega, 36, worked in the credit division for 10 years. But she wanted a new challenge - specifically, a career in advertising. So she joined the SWAT team last fall as a coordinator of merchandise and advertising. The move was a way for her to change direction without having to change companies.
Tulgan calls this phenomenon "opening the escape hatch." Nobrega calls it "an avenue to learning how each department works. I've met a lot of senior managers and gotten a lot of exposure." These days, she is often stopped in the halls by colleagues who want to move in the same direction. The SWAT team, says Shenk, offers "a tremendous opportunity to get additional exposure - and a chance to move into a new position."
Peter Carbonara email@example.com is a frequent contributor to Fast Company.
A version of this article appeared in the April/May 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.