What Corporate Executives Can Learn from the U.S. Marshals Service

By Lenny DePaul, Joseph Calandro, Jr. and Eric Trowbridge

Imagine you’re a law enforcement officer, and that you and your partner have cornered a dangerous fugitive.

Just as you’re about to handcuff him, his twelve-year old daughter emerges from a side door with a gun pointed straight at your partner yelling, “Let my daddy go!”

What do you do? 

This is the kind of question you might be asked if you apply for a job with the U.S. Marshals Service.

There’s no one correct answer: If you shoot the child, how would you deal with the news headline, “Deputy Marshal Shoots Twelve-year-old Armed with a Water Pistol”?

Alternatively, you might try to talk to the girl, and ask her to put the gun down. But, if she shoots and kills your partner, how would you explain your decision to his (or her) family?

The ability to handle such “no-win” situations is critical to any decision-maker.

That’s why the Marshals distinctive take on strategy, leadership, and talent selection is so fascinating.

And as the Marshals strive to gain an edge on fugitives, its approach to selecting motivated employees, gaining an information advantage, and making the most of finite resources are equally interesting, and useful to corporate executives.

From George Washington to 9/11 and Beyond

President George Washington established the Marshals Service in 1789 as the Federal Court system’s enforcement arm.

Wild Bill Hickok (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
Wild Bill Hickok (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

However, it wasn’t until the time of the Old West that the exploits of legendary Marshals such as Wyatt Earp, Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson, Bass Reeves, and others brought the Marshals to widespread public renown.

Over time, following the establishment of other federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), the Marshals Service generally settled into policing the Federal Courts by securing and transporting prisoners as they moved their way through the system.

This radically changed after the tragic September 11th terrorist attacks, as Congress decided it needed to deploy stronger and more coordinated intelligence and law enforcement resources to tackle both terrorist and conventional criminal threats.

Firefighters make their way through the rubble after two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York bringing down the landmark buildings Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo Credit: Shawn Baldwin, AP)
Firefighters make their way through the rubble after two airliners crashed into the World Trade Center in New York bringing down the landmark buildings Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001. (Photo Credit: Shawn Baldwin, AP)

Following the establishment of the New York and New Jersey (NY/NJ) Regional Fugitive Task Force (RFTF) in May 2002, the Marshals Service has taken on a greatly expanded role in bringing the “worst of the worst” fugitives to justice, including murderers, rapists and violent repeat offenders.

When the NY/NJ RFTF was created it was staffed by twenty-five investigators from ten different law enforcement agencies.

It has since grown to 380 investigators drawn from ninety-two different federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies who track down and arrest more than one-hundred fugitives per week.

Other RFTFs have also been created around the country over the past fifteen years, and they have been equally as productive.

Relentless Pursuit

U.S. Marshals are “manhunters.”

Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories, by author Vince Emery
Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories

To understand what this means, consider the words of author Vince Emery in his introduction to Dashiell Hammett: Lost Stories.

By way of background, Hammett was a legendary crime novelist whose books include The Maltese Falcon.

Emery noted that before he was a novelist, Hammett “had been a manhunter [with the Pinkerton National Detective Agency].

No other writer of his day had been…

Hammett’s novels stand or fall by the quality of their manhunters as manhunters [italics original].

Manhunting is always volatile, unpredictable.

Men do not like to be hunted. They often turn back and try to make the hunter the hunted.

As a result, in fact and fiction, true manhunters are a “rare breed.”

What makes a good modern manhunter?

Lead author Lenny DePaul served as commander of the NY/NJ RFTF and Chief Inspector of the Marshals Service from 2002 to 2013.

He was therefore directly involved in selecting, training and leading the Marshals under his command.

The reality TV show, Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force, which featured DePaul, profiled various activities of the NY/NJ RFTF (the show’s Facebook page has more information: https://facebook.com/manhunters/).

(Hear Lenny tells us a little bit about what it takes to be in charge of the US Marshals Fugitive Task Force for NY/NJ. Courtesy of A&E and YouTube)

When DePaul first met with the show’s producers, they asked him describe the activities of the Marshals Service.

He reminded them of Samuel Gerard, the Marshal portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in the movie version of The Fugitive.

When Gerard cornered fugitive Richard Kimble (played by Harrison Ford), Kimble passionately professed his innocence. It was a very compelling speech and you couldn’t help feeling sorry for him.

But, when he finished, Gerard responded matter-of-factly: “I don’t care.”

That’s the Marshals. They don’t care if you killed three people or are totally innocent.

Their job is to find you and bring you to justice – hopefully safely.

(See the scene. Courtesy of Warner Brothers Home Entertainment, Byron Elton and YouTube)

This laser-like focus could inspire corporate executives to be equally as clear and focused when establishing their firms’ strategic objectives. 

The Right People for the Job

Because operational efficiency depends on having the right people for the right job, prospective Deputy Marshals undergo a rigorous selection process.

The nature of this process is instructive to corporate executives as they look to attract and develop talent who can deal with today’s volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, along with the associated need for constant innovation and adaptability.

The “do you or don’t you shoot?” no-win scenario that was profiled in the introduction is typical of the tough, scenario-based questioning candidates face.

USMS (Image courtesy of Wikipedia)

Significantly, there is no one right answer to such questions, but there is a right (and wrong) way to answer these questions.

The Marshals are not looking for either Rambo-like bravado or self-righteous replies because they’ll make an inherently bad situation worse.

Instead, interviewers look for candidates who can make a decision under duress and then respond cogently to pointed questions pertaining to the consequences of their decision.

Just about every organization can apply this technique, especially with regard to conflict of interest/ethical lines of inquiry.

In fact, such an approach could be significant in both corporate and governmental selection processes.

Consider, for example, the ethical lapses currently (as of mid-2017) being revealed as part of the ongoing Glenn Defense Marine Asia scandal.

(Learn about the Glenn Defense Marine Asia scandal, courtesy of IEN Magazine and YouTube. Posted on May 25, 2017)

Once selected, training is part of every Marshals’ career. Training programs draw on insights from real-life experience, which includes injuries and fatalities sustained in the line of duty.

Each lesson that is learned in the field is vital and therefore subject to intense after action review, the findings of which become part of ongoing training programs.

This is a practice that could be widely applied.

The Money Formula: Dodgy Finance, Pseudo Science and How Mathematicians Took Over the Markets

For example, considering the similarity of the 1987 stock market crash, the 1997-1998 market disruptions emanating in Asia and Russia, and the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the financial services sector could seemingly benefit from historical scenario-based training programs (see Wilmott, P. and Orrell, D. (2017), The Money Formula: Dodgy Finance, Pseudo Science and How Mathematicians Took Over the Markets, for an insightful perspective).

Force Multipliers

Funding constraints are a fact of life for all government agencies, including the Marshals Service.

As a result, the Marshals have a long history of developing creative ways of making the most of their limited budget and manpower.

One of the most celebrated examples is a sting operation in the 1980s that was called “Gem Tours,” in which fugitives received an offer of a free trip to Atlantic City at their known past addresses, family addresses, etc.

Many fugitives couldn’t pass up such a great offer, and they were promptly arrested when they showed up to claim their prize.

U.S. Marshals used another fictitious invitation using Redskins tickets to bust fugitives in a 1985 sting. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)
U.S. Marshals used another fictitious invitation using Redskins tickets to bust fugitives in a 1985 sting. (Courtesy of The Washington Post)

Significantly, nationwide sting operations did not occur all at once as a major strategic program.

Rather, the concept of a sting was initially prototyped on a small-scale that was assessed and honed before being widely rolled-out.

Evaluating concepts on a tightly controlled, trial basis could prove equally useful to companies seeking to upgrade their middle and back office capabilities while avoiding the risk of making significant investments that may not pay off.

The Marshals’ success in leveraging its capabilities is also evident in the way the Service brings in extra personnel when they are needed.

In the days of the Old West, this included forming a posse of volunteers to hunt-down fugitives.


Today, this “force multiplier” approach forms the basis of the RFTFs.

To be part of a RFTF, a municipality, state agency or Federal agency allocates one-to-two people to the task force on a full-time basis.

In return, the municipality, state agency or Federal agency is provided with state-of-the-art fugitive apprehension equipment and the resources of the entire Task Force to help retrieve their most dangerous fugitives.

In business, the “force multiplier” concept could be used to increase operational leverage.

By way of background, “leverage” comes in two broad forms: financial leverage or debt (measured by, for example, debt ratios) and operational leverage or efficiency (measured by, for example, turnover ratios).

Managing these two forms of leverage over time is not easy. Indeed, some companies leverage-up financially but operate inefficiently, which can seriously impact performance over time.

One way to increase operational leverage is through the select use of corporate task forces.

For example, many firms employ outside consultants on a project-by-project basis.

However, relatively few firms use consultants as a source of longer-term operational leverage to improve overall efficiency.

One useful approach that some firms have employed is to select a small number of consulting firms with both project-specific and strategic expertise who are locked-in for two-to-three years of project activity with key company employees.

For the consultants, the allure of steady long-term work is enticing.

Further, the threat of losing a long-term client due to service shortcomings helps to ensure superior delivery quality.

Once the project team meet’s the company’s strategic needs, the consultants are rolled-off; in other words, the corporate task force is disbanded.

Such an approach has produced more successful project portfolios for a number of firms over time.

Information Advantage

The lifeblood of every manhunt is information.

To gain a sustainable “information advantage,” the Marshals Service, like many modern corporations, employs advanced analytics, internet-enabled databases, and various other forms of manually collected data from the field to inform decision-making.

Peter Drucker (Courtesy of Business Week)
Peter Drucker (Courtesy of Business Week)

As a result, the Marshals, like many corporate executives, are at-risk of not only information overload, but also what the late Peter Drucker called the “malfunction of information.”

According to Drucker, information “malfunctions” when it is either transmitted in an untimely manner or it is transmitted in the wrong form.

To mitigate these risks, some Marshals employ a form of “spiral analysis,” whereby analytical activities are begun at the outside periphery of the information flow and then are continuously narrowed down until a given problem is solved.

This approach prevents too narrow a focus on any one data point unless such a focus is explicitly warranted analytically, which has proven very useful.

For example, Marshal Joseph Lobue indicated that he “always started with peripheral information and just kept narrowing things down” until the problem that he was working on was solved.

Spiral analysis contrasts with the approach used by some corporate executives who begin their analysis from a firm-based, bottom-up perspective, which is expanded outward only as needed.

Both approaches obviously have merit.

Peripheral Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals That Will Make or Break Your Company
Peripheral Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals That Will Make or Break Your Company

However the key insight here is that peripheral information should be made a part of the analytical process, which does not always occur (for more information see Day, G. and Schoemaker, P. (2006), Peripheral Vision: Detecting the Weak Signals That Will Make or Break Your Company, Boston, Ma: HBS Press, and Calandro, J. (2015), “A Leader’s Guide to Strategic Risk Management,” Strategy & Leadership, Vol. 43, No. 1, pp. 26-35).

Information sharing should also be an explicit part of the analytical process, especially insights obtained from advanced analytics.

The Marshals employ advanced analytics via their Technological Operations Group, which “is recognized throughout the world as the best electronic surveillance manhunting organization that exists anywhere.”

Many organizations struggle with analytical efficiency even though they have hired many mathematicians and/or data scientists to drive the capability.

A key driver of such inefficiency is disconnects between business decision-makers and the mathematicians/analysts “crunching the numbers.”

USMS (Image courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service)
USMS (Image courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service)

For example, we have observed deep separations between analytical and operational activities in some firms, apparently with the view that if elegant models are created, business users will immediately and uncritically adopt them.

Such an approach is rarely effective, and even if it is, the results are often disappointing.

In contrast, organizations with leading analytical capabilities tend to target and link modeling activities directly to specific business decisions and operations.

In fact, they approach model development as a strategic and operational exercise rather than a purely mathematical one.

Their objective is to bring the right information – quantitative, qualitative and/or behavioral – to the right decision-maker at the right time.

Interestingly, this approach is consistent with how Bill James used alternative analytics to revolutionize the way the game of baseball was evaluated.

It is also consistent with how early adopters of James’s approach, such as the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox, achieved success.

(Learn More. In this book, twelve writers discuss how Bill James has influenced them, where they disagree with James, and how they see the future of statistical analysis. Courtesy of ACTASports and YouTube)

Admittedly, there can be time lags between the creation of new analytics and their use, just as there was in the game of baseball, which is why such advanced analytics must have specific end-uses in mind when they are created, and why prototypes should be used prior to broader rolled-outs.

Employee Experience

The subject of customer experience is currently receiving a great deal of attention, and rightly so.

However, while employee experience has been discussed—especially in the context of innovation and start-up initiatives—it has nevertheless received far less relative attention.

This is curious because employee job satisfaction is very low in some areas today.

For example, one of us has recently spoken with ten different people at various stages of their careers, from novice to executive, who have changed jobs over the past twelve months.

Six of the ten job changes were driven by dissatisfaction with the work the people were doing and/or the work environment; in other words, sixty percent of this admittedly small and nonrandom sample did not like the work they were doing and/or the people they were working with (the four other people left their jobs for purely economic reasons).

In contrast, Lenny DePaul thought being a U.S. Marshal was the best job in the world; in fact, he loved it so much, he would have done the job for free.

One reason for this was that he and his colleagues felt they were very much making a difference in people’s lives by bringing so many dangerous fugitives to justice.

(See the U.S. Marshals in Action. Courtesy of Justin Rotton and YouTube)

Another reason was his colleagues, whom Lenny both liked and respected both professionally and personally.

Employees who like what they are doing, and like the people they are doing it with, are more likely to be efficient and successful than less satisfied employees.

We feel this applies at all levels of peoples’ careers, but a recently published article challenges this point-of-view.

(Illustration courtesy of Doug Chayka, Institutional Investor
(Illustration courtesy of Doug Chayka, Institutional Investor

That article is titled, “The Psychopath in the Corner Officer: The traits clinicians call psychopathic can actually be an asset in the C-suite—up to a point” (http://www.institutionalinvestor.com/article/3720284/asset-management-macro/the-psychopath-in-the-corner-office.html?#.WblGj2yWw2w).

It references a recent psychological study pertaining to so-called “successful psychopaths,” which is a term describing “high-flying professionals” with psychopathic traits such as insincerity, a lack of empathy or remorse, egocentricity, and superficiality.

Psychopaths, whether “successful” or not, are not a personality-type the Marshals would hire.

Candidly, we do not believe psychopaths have a place in corporate management, either.

For example, would you like to work for or with someone who exhibits the traits of a psychopath; that is, someone who is insincere, lacks empathy or remorse, or is egocentric and superficial?

Neither of us would, and we are likely not alone.

“The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.”
“The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.”

For example, recall the provocative, bestselling title of Professor Robert Sutton’s book, “The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t.”

Above we observed that how prospective Deputy Marshals responded to extreme scenario questioning reflected their suitability for the kind of work that Marshal’s face daily.

Significantly, such questioning also gives clues about the type of colleagues the prospects will be.

For example, people who display either bravado or are self-righteous tend not to make very good colleagues, especially over time, which is important in team-based environments.

USMS (Image courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service)
USMS (Image courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service)

Once again, people who like what they are doing, and like who they are doing it with, tend to be more productive than people who do not like either their work and/or colleagues.

The long-term results of the Marshals Service, such as the average weekly arrest rate of the NY/NJ RFTF of over one-hundred of the most dangerous fugitives, are a vivid example of this.

A certain segment of the population approaches work from a purely economic perspective, and that will likely never change.

But other segments of the population (especially millennials) seem to be increasingly looking to the broader employee experience in addition to compensation to make career choices.

Corporations attuned to this dynamic will have a distinct advantage over those not so attuned in the never-ending “hunt for talent.”

Conclusion: Marshaling the right resources

Today’s corporate executive faces a number of potential threats and opportunities that will determine the corporate winners and losers in the coming years.

From force multipliers to information advantage, the Marshals have shown how innovative organizational efficiencies can consistently produce stellar results.

Many of its trademark techniques, which have come from tough front-line experience, bear consideration from the corporate world:

  • Employee selection techniques like extreme no-win scenarios and related lines of questioning to find the right kind of people for the job.
  • Economically testing and fine-tuning strategic concepts before undertaking widespread and expensive projects increases the probability of a successful project portfolio activity.
  • Employing operational leverage rather than financial leverage to improve risk-adjusted profitability.
  • Leveraging data and various forms of analyses, both standard and alternative, to better inform strategy and operations.
  • Improving the employee experience to attract and retain dedicated and motivated employees. 
USMS (Image courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service)
USMS (Image courtesy of the U.S. Marshals Service)

Author profiles

Lenny DePaul, U. S. Marshals Service, Retired Chief Inspector

Joseph Calandro, Jr., is a Managing Director at PwC, Fellow of the Gabelli Center for Global Security Analysis at Fordham University and author of Applied Value Investing (NY: McGraw-Hill, 2009). He is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: calandro.joseph@pwc.com

Eric Trowbridge is a Director at PwC