I’ve worked in the tech startup scene, retail sales, and real estate, mostly in operational roles, either as an owner or in a manager’s role. I was also a Sergeant in the United States Marine Corps with two tours in Iraq. I feel qualified to answer the question of what could businesses learn most from the military. More specifically, what shortfalls are prevalent in the business world, have a solution which the military has overcome?
To me, the answer to that question comes down to training. What I have noticed most outside of the Marines was that the rest of the world doesn’t actually put any investment into training. Sure, they might get convinced to allow their associates to go to a conference a few times a year, mostly to get drunk on the company dime and three days away from their tool of a boss, but they have no clue what the real value of training is. I’m not even sure if most businesses would know how.
Consider this, a new employee is going to be hired. You know that every report you read talks about the importance of the search for new talent, because it is so impossibly expensive. Add to this is that the search could take four or five months to find a right fit for some jobs. That’s opportunity costs of an employee not being productive. I’ve seen companies spend tens of thousands in this process.
Now, a new employee is hired. Woohoo! A lot of companies welcome you aboard for a two-week honeymoon phase, then you better knock down walls in the next month or you just aren’t good enough. You failed, better cut our losses. They will then spend the next six months giving impossible tasks to build a case for the failure’s dismissal and then out the door you go with a modest severance package so that you won’t blab company secrets or bad mouth it to the outside. In the civilian world, most people, at least most people I’ve dealt with, think they did a good job by giving you a chance and then sink or swim. This sounds brilliant and hardcore, so it has to be good strategy. Keep only the strong and we will be strong. Kill the weak! Rawr! Yeah, tell that to the Marines. That isn’t how they work so you should stop that nonsense, too.
So you think your startup that created a social network for dog lovers is really hardcore because you just fired your sixth receptionist in 12 months. Well bravo, you just blew maybe two hundred thousand on a series of failed investments, for a position only paying, maybe, $35,000 annually, have lost a year of productivity and are nowhere closer to the finish than you were when you started. Don’t forget that you have also lost countless hours yourself, replacing said employees and “training” them. How in the world is a receptionist worth what amounts to hundreds of thousands in straight loss and absolutely no progress over the course of a single year? All of a sudden, sink or swim is starting to look pretty stupid, huh?
Would you like a better solution? Now consider this, the United States military has to work, obviously, one of the most difficult jobs in the world. They have world-wide responsibility over trillions of dollars worth of equipment and oversee what amounts to one of the world’s largest logistical support networks. The average age of the Marine Corps is 20 and you know what? Every one of them is a master in their specified field by year two and are responsible for some of the most advanced technological systems on the planet. And management? By the time many are twenty-three years of age they have already been promoted to a leadership role, responsible for a team of trade veterans. I haven’t even mentioned anyone shooting at you. What’s most surprising? Almost none of them are degreed. Virtually all the labor force is made of only fresh high school grads and not even the best and brightest of them. They possess almost no formal educations in their fields that most people work for years just to get on their résumé before even starting their job. Still, they are somehow made ready to do the missions that are world scale and never lose. Wars may be lost, but that is mainly due to political decisions, yet you have never heard in the last 30 years, “The Marines were pushed out of X.” How do you explain that?
Training. Look, in the military, people aren’t expendable. It’s a contradiction of the stereotype we get from movies and such, but a front line troop is a valued and irreplaceable asset. They are viewed, quite literally, as an investment to the United States military. It’s odd to think that the military places a higher value on a low performing high school graduate than you would treat an Ivy League Summa Cum Laude in Computer Science, but business views everyone as temporary, and only worth a certain economic value. The military doesn’t. In the military, you have this person and that is all you get. You can’t hire another. You can’t replace them with someone else. You can’t fire him. You’re stuck, and so is he. If he is lost, for any reason, the job of the rest of the unit suddenly because exponentially harder. He has to make the grade. The training, the discipline, the yelling and the constant rehearsals are all part of making sure that that Marine or soldier succeeds in his mission and returns home. More so than that, it is a known truth that his success will also be bringing back others as well.
In business, the attitudes are much “nicer”. Everyone is polite. No one can be offended or HR has to be involved. It certainly feels like everyone is getting the respect they feel they are entitled to, but motivations are much more selfish. An employee is only as valuable to you as the money he can make for you.
Return on Investment
Didn’t realize how shallow the business world really is, did you? So here is my advice. Throughout this write-up, I am going to break down how the military focuses on the art of training to progress the arts of warfare and passing that knowledge on to future generations. I will also provide some advice on steps your company can take to be a more evolutionary company by utilizing them. Everything that follows will are parts of the training culture that are all taken very seriously in the military. When you are in your quiet time as a leader, you need to think about how to implement them in your company or area of responsibility if you wish to focus not only on growing, but on growing your people. Make to sure to follow this blog for updates for more.
There needs to be a very detailed process to track progress and development and know how well a person is being integrated into the company.
In the military, this is boot camp and the next six months of training that usually follows before you ever even join your real team. In business, we call this is onboarding. In the military there is also unit onboarding. Along with basic training and job training, it’s the first few months after entering a unit. That means that Marines spend more than a full year in training before they ever actually do their job.
I know, you’re thinking that isn’t feasible for you company. “We can’t exactly send everyone to boot camp.” I know, I know, but your onboarding sucks, regardless. What’s your excuse now Stanford dropout CEO? A few of you who know less than you think, are saying that you would just love to waste the military’s limitless funds on infinite training. The military would also love to live by that fantasy. What Marines do, however, can be done at any company with competent management. Marines use a combination of formal and informal classes to train for every problem they may come across. While formal schooling is costly and time-consuming from an owner’s perspective, most of the other training is directed at the manager’s level and relevant to the small group unit. If a manager can’t really set goals that are achievable and teach the path to reach those goals, he isn’t that integrated himself. He’s just winging it, which means that that new employee is swimming in the open ocean without even a lighthouse.
Literally, onboarding is the most important part of the hiring process after vetting. And that thing you have your receptionist or office manager do to get their paperwork in the system, walk them around the office and show them their desk? You think that is onboarding? Of course you don’t, but that is all you do. I was at one company where the onboarding was made up of what basically was just a club of concerned employees, junior employees at that, who wanted to make it easier for new people based on the problems they had coming in. There was no leadership involvement, whatsoever. It obviously wasn’t a concern, and I bet it isn’t a concern for your company either.
You can have great talent show up, but feel completely overwhelmed, lost, confused, without any idea how to navigate your systems (or even your office) and in fear of not knowing who to ask. What ends up happening a month later? You label him a failure and show him the door. You recite that tired trope about how you as a manager failed, but really you just blame him, when really, surprise, surprise… it was your fault. You dropped him in the deep end and you both sank together. Hope you’re happy.
One thing that many people don’t seem to understand is that, in most places, an employee doesn’t truly pull his weight until after his first year at a job. This is even more true if your company is highly integrated, complex and if there are many systems in place. Those who have been in for a long time know exactly where to find what, but the new person must build those mental networks and learn while doing to navigate the backend efficiently. They might surprise you with bits of awesome from time to time if they are allowed to work on their own and use resources intuitively available when arrived or that they brought with them. That doesn’t mean that they are integrated, though. Given time, everyone who doesn’t integrate will show themselves to be the failure you made them. The smart ones are just geniuses of misdirection, but they are all still mostly just helping out while others do the heavy lifting. If you fire a person before that one year anniversary, you honestly never really gave him a chance to begin with. More importantly, depending on your priorities, you just wasted a lot of money, lots of your time and possibly ruined someone’s life.
Have an onboarding plan that extends throughout the year. Make every part of the process a routine, practically a religious routine. Make it applicable to every tier of the company. Make all new company hires go through a part of the process, different divisions another, all the way down to work groups. Make the managers responsible for coming up with integration plans for their teams and measure that effectiveness against other rational expectations. They are interruptions to the work needing to be done, but they are investments in the individual’s ability to do it, which is much more valuable moving forward.
In this line of thought, in the event that you see that one of your managers has fired someone with less than one year on the books, you need to seriously question that manager’s capabilities in guidance. Perhaps they were once marvelous workers, but doing and leading are two very different skill sets. It may not have been an appropriate choice to promote someone to a role requiring a completely different series of abilities on the premise that they showed a great deal of other abilities in their last job. If the problem continues, you may not even realize that you have a detrimental cancer to your company’s ability to grow in the future because your manager, not the people he is hiring, is the problem.
Follow up with Regular Job Specific Training
Periodically, Marines would get pulled from the unit for all sorts of different trainings. You might have a week’s training on crew served weapons with a couple guys from the shop, or a two-week class session where a few dozen Marines from the squadron learn crash course conversational Arabic and Middle Eastern customs, or even a three-day “camping trip” to learn field survival. These trainings are great at improving the knowledge, survivability and mission accomplishment of the Marines in a unit. It also builds lasting relationships with the members within it, sometimes, even with members not even of the same working group.
Seminars, grouped with employees of different work groups so that everyone learns from each other and builds new valuable skills, are invaluable. I don’t mean those “teamwork workshops” by the way, where everyone shares feelings and falls down so that other people can catch them. That’s moronic and tells your employees that you think they are third graders. Did they say they loved the training? Of course they did. People lie to you, partly because you fired Sarah after three months, partly because they may not know what a good seminar is supposed to look like. Send your people to real training so that they feel you value them enough to actually invest in them as a part of the future of your company.
Ask your employees and the supervisors underneath you to suggest training that they would want to go to in the hopes of progressing their own career. Weed out those that you think may be an opportunity for shenanigans and little else, but create a list of the best external training courses within your budgetary and operational scope and send them as often as is possible.
Make Use of Obligatory Training Situations
Every Marine is a riflemen. It isn’t just a neat saying. It is a verifiable fact that the Marines invest millions to ensure. To make sure that every Marine is, in fact, a riflemen, it means we have to train for two weeks and qualify to prove it. That is a major investment on the part of the United States Marines, especially considering only about 1% will ever fire a weapon in combat. Think about that. There is also dozens of annual trainings that must be met; gas mask certification, MOS certification, HUMVEE license renewals along with dozens of others.
You do this already with the federally mandated sexual harassment, HIPAA law briefs for you in healthcare, and dozens of other industry specific seminars you must do every year depending on who you are. Well, you’re probably treating these as obligations because they don’t make you money. You shouldn’t. Good events that bring the company together for training allow you to spread your culture and vision while reinforcing company values of excellence and learning. You need to do them as often as you can because, for the few hours of time you give up, you increase individual and group efficiency from that point on throughout your area of responsibility for the life of the company.
Create an Annual Training Schedule
Remember those several dozen training events that we all had to go to each year. It was all maintained by the Platoon Sergeant. A major element of someone’s whole job was making sure that everyone in the platoon (30 people or so) was in the right place to hear the right thing. He even had an assistant, the Training NCO who that was their whole job. It’s a juggle, but it is worth it. For us, we had a massive dry erase board that held the status of every Marine in every training event he needed. This status board didn’t need to be seen by any one of us, but it was information readily readable by anyone in a command to see how competent a unit was at any given moment. In a way, it was a really efficient way to monitor the health of the organization.
Since my time, most of the status boards have moved into Excel spreadsheets, but their purpose doesn’t change. It helps navigate the mess of who needs what. If you don’t think it’s a mess, then you probably either need to have a conversation with HR and Legal, or give both divisions a raise. There should be a lot to do at a standard company of any size.
Create a matrix that should have every employ with all the training they must attend throughout the year. Look at all the gaps on the axis of events. Think about things you would like to see there. Maybe “Culture Meeting” would fit in there somewhere. Perhaps, a lot of those obligatory meetings could be put to good purpose by sending someone to as many at once and creating classes on your own to augment and make better use of the time they are gone.
However you do it, whether you create a position within HR, or within ever major working group, or if you just have a single Excel file that has everybody on big series of checklists, do something as far as getting organized in your training methods.
Find and reward teachers
When I was a young Marine I was trained as data network specialist. Basically I took care of the base’s internet capabilities with my shop. At the end of the first tour in Iraq, as you will remember, we all had to go back to the rifle range. Well something interesting was that of all the other computer nerds (yes the Marine Corps has those) I was the only one that could shoot. So they pulled me to be a coach, because shooting is kind of important in that culture. They didn’t just throw me out to make Marine’s shooters. Nope, you guessed it, I went to more training. I spent a month in another school to get deep level understanding of weapons manipulation, ballistics and how to train Marines. Yes, training was part of my training. The Corps made such an investment in my education that they gave me a secondary occupational specialty to be a teacher of Marines. I did so well at that, that they even made me the trainer for officers and senior enlisted in the pistol, too. Think about this, in the first nine months I trained, at a cost of hundreds of thousands to the Marine Corps for my first job. Then, a little over a year later, they gave me another job, just because quality educators are so important for that thing that only 1% of Marines will ever do.
All that to say this, did you know that individual leadership isn’t everything? Sometimes teachers are more valuable. Teachers are those people who are able to spread knowledge to dozens, even hundreds of people at a time. They encourage learning by individuals even when they are not at work. They are also masters of getting individuals over the tough obstacles and increasing their potential as employees and as people. But they don’t have to have a deep attachment to the people they are training or direct responsibility for their work (like Managers). Find these people. Give them special recognition and special responsibilities. Most of the time, whatever you have them doing is not as valuable as being capable of improving the performance of hundreds of others.
Don’t make this mistake: Managers or Leaders aren’t Teachers. It isn’t that they can’t be, but don’t make the mistake of only looking at your most senior leadership as being able to teach because they can do. Doing and teaching are two very different skills, the same as leading. Some are masters of their trade, but couldn’t explain it if their life depended on it. Put them in front of an audience and they look like fools, and now their confidence is shot. Broken goods. I liked one company that did small seminars between members of their engineering staff to all other members. Most of the time, it wasn’t the managers doing this, just the regular button pushers. You’ll find good teachers by sitting in on these classes. Like I said, pull these people and give them responsibility to disseminating information. It will be an important job that improves many aspects of your organization without even hiring a soul.
Furthermore, you need to know that teachers aren’t leaders. They have a technical ability, but really, their skill is communicating. Allow them the chance to perform a good class and you might see them growing greatly toward becoming a good leader. Recognizing teachers in your organization and putting them on the stand should be considered a vital part of your process toward mentoring, growing and developing future managers and leaders of your company.
Ignore the “Training Them to Leave” Myth
Consider this, the Marines are one of the worst places imaginable to work. Set aside all your stereotypes about getting shot at twenty-four/seven. There are actually a lot of stressful things, day-to-day, that are not very enjoyable about working there. Add to this an incredibly low pay, relative to the social prestige often given and you wonder why anyone would enlist. A better question is, “Why, four years later, do the these people re-enlist?” The point is that people keep coming back to the military because they are fulfilled by their job. They enjoy it (somehow.) They feel valued, important, and that they are growing in their career and as people.
“Training them to leave,” you say? Whatever dude. Make it worth their while to stay. Unless you are a moron, you will know a person’s worth (or cost) is far more than the amount you pay them. They, however, are far more aware of it. If they leave, it is rarely about pay and compensation. It is usually because they are unhappy with the culture, their boss or team, or they don’t feel safe working for you. Train them and you eliminate most of that.
I knew one boss who had a marvelous realization. He said that everyone is only here so long as it suits them. As soon as they get an opportunity for a better life, they are going to take it, and he encouraged them to. Why wouldn’t he? He actually cared about his employees. It is natural to seek the best opportunity you can get. He knew he was going to if handed the chance, so why punish that behavior?
Accept it, but remember, there is such a thing as the psychological trait of loss aversion. People are naturally more afraid of losing something good than they are willing to chance something better. People who love their job don’t want to risk getting a new one because most of us are simply more afraid of losing a good thing than gaining something that might be better. Simply put, you can’t stop your people from getting opportunities to leave, in fact, if they are good at their job, they are going to be pulled upon my many people. What you can do, is make their desire to stay greater than their lust for a new position at some other company. If you make your people happy, they’ll stay.
Make the right choice, invest in them as a way of investing back into your company. The whole system will work better in the end, so much so, that the increased value in everyone else can afford to lose the few that leave. Whatever the case, you should be happy for those that do leave. If you made their work life a good one, they will leave thankful for having worked for you and maybe even be your business emissaries outside to potential contacts. Imagine what work is being done in your name when your old developer is talking about how much they loved working at your company to a bunch of interns at a different company. You can’t hire recruiters that good.
I’m laughing as I write this. I know you can’t make your employees run around the building for three hours because they were late like we did at Camp Pendleton. I know that filling sandbags isn’t really an option, but discipline is a lost art form that I wish was still existent in the real world. And I know that all you are thinking right now is about some drill instructor yelling at Marine recruits. Some think that is barbaric, others take joy in the idea of it. Well, that is a little bit of what I am talking about, but you need to understand why. It may be the hardest thing for you to accept on this list, but you need to consider this… There is a reason that “Discipline” falls under “Training” and there is a reason that it is the largest section of my list. It is the most important. Second, you followed this question for a reason. Think about that. You knew there was something the military does that you want to learn. Everyone knows that the number one thing in the military is discipline. You need to be strong enough to make it the number one thing in your organization, too. Perhaps, though, you need to understand why.
To begin, I’d like to tell you about a time in the Marines when I once yelled at a PFC for half an hour because he told me, “Hang on a sec.” Exact quote, no exaggeration. I mean screaming at his face, for a solid 30 minutes. That may sound extreme, it is, but there is a reason for it. What most people reading this don’t understand, is that yelling was the nice option compared to some punishments I was entitled to give.
Here is the deal, and it is so important that I am going to break my all caps rule so that you understand it clearly. DISCIPLINING YOUR EMPLOYEES SAVES THEIR JOBS! That is the intention of discipline. To save people from much worse punishments down the road. To make it clear, did you know that for that Marine who told me to hang on, I could have filed a Page 11 entry? A page 11 is a formal reprimand that will stay in his permanent record jacket that will follow him for the rest of his Marine Corps career. He will be labeled from the moment he moves to any command from that day on. Was it worth damaging his career? No, that would be an insane jerk move on my part. Anyone would agree that it wasn’t worth permanent consequences, but for reasons you might not understand, he had committed a serious infraction, disrespect and insubordination of a non-commissioned officer. Instead, I yelled. It left no permanent mark on his record jacket, but left a lasting impression. I didn’t have to have that talk a second time.
Maybe another example that is more applicable to the civilian world would be better. You can see how my mentality stayed the same, even though my actions had to change. I once managed a store right after college. I was young, but I had my experience from the Marines. One of the employees was late. It wasn’t his first time. He was a senior employee, but had a lot of problems lately. I chewed him out and he became belligerent and started yelling back at me in front of the other employees. I sent him to the back office. There I filed our store’s standard write-up form that is part of the firing process. I wasn’t firing him. I was starting down that road. It’s an early step, but the process is beginning. Compare it to a “three strikes rule”. I had him sign it after I asked if he knew what it was. He did. I asked him if he understood why he was signing it.
“Because I was late.” he said.
“No,” I replied in a calm voice, “I yelled at you because you were late. You didn’t accept that form of punishment. Instead you talked back and made a scene in front of the other associates. You didn’t allow me to protect you from this for being late. Instead, you followed one bad choice with a worse one and you forced me to do this so that the discipline and morale of this store doesn’t become damaged by you. This is the first step I have to ensure that you don’t work here and become a poison to the team with your declining attitude. As much as I would like to, for your sake, I don’t intend to yell at you anymore. Do you understand?”
He did. I didn’t want to do that, to put him on that track, but the message made its way through the store. He was never the model employee, but he didn’t give me problems anymore.
How does this apply to you? As I mentioned, discipline saves jobs. You apply painful punishments as a means to avoid official ones. A lot of managers I knew, in fact most, were basically always creating a list in their heads, or literal ones of their employees’ mistakes and, “building cases” for their dismissal, even if they had no intention of firing them. It was just the only method they knew of how to improve their work. “Well, Smith, you know you weren’t doing a good job. So you are one step closer to being fired. I still love you though. Have a great day!” That’s ridiculous. I would rather be yelled at than told that by someone smiling with flowers and candy.
So how do you discipline your employees? You have to discover that one for yourself. I can’t tell you that (legally, nor do I want to). You have to talk with your managers and other leaders to discuss a set of discipline norms of acceptable behaviors for your leaders that fits with your company’s values and culture. I’m not asking you to scream and yell, or to beat someone to death with hammers for every infraction. What I am telling you to do is something that conveys disappointment and reestablishes expectations in a way that doesn’t put them on the track to dismissal. One example might be assigning extra duties or assigning them to the crap assignments no one wants. (It’s also a great incentive for the good employees to get to skip those crap tasks that someone has to do.) It sends a message, but the employee isn’t in danger of being fired.
Bring in HR and even Legal. Good ideas can have very negative unintended consequences. Another story I will share is of an employee I had who wasn’t shaping up. She was pretty and well liked, but from my point of view, as her direct supervisor, she was spoiled and used to getting her way. She managed to figure out how to not come to work about 30% of the time she was being paid for. She would say things like she had an appointment tomorrow, or whatnot, once, then twice a week. I had no idea what these appointments were. She have a cold? Cancer? Getting her hair done? When she wasn’t there, I had to cover her job. It was obvious she was abusing a friendly employee perk to help employees when they needed it. This was unproductive and made the office run poorly. It got to be too much. I was still young so I didn’t quite know the best way to handle it. I asked if these appointments were health related and told her that she didn’t need to make all these appointments during business hours and needed to focus on her work. A good HR person will see my mistake. I had the nerve to ask what these appointments were for. That’s a violation of privacy and I got in hot water. Worse she found a way to manipulate the system and knew she had me. That relationship ended toxically and there are many things I would do differently if given a second chance. Safe to say, I had no discipline over her. I still insist I was doing the right thing, but good motives and bad execution will land you on the street as fast as downright abuse will.
So learn from my mistakes. Come up with plans to discipline that saves good employees from losing their jobs. It will echo throughout the company, and remind people of their responsibilities. It will also, if you’re doing it right, remind them that they are not expendable, and that this is your way of providing them training rather than showing them the door. Work with your managers and HR to determine a good system for your team. The order, structure and regularity it provides creates a feedback loop.
The Marines have a saying, “The Marine Corps is a perfect organization made of imperfect people.” A lot of companies today want to be a perfect organization of perfect people. That just isn’t possible. It’s also not fair to expect that of your very human employees. No one is built for the hole you have that you need filled. You have to mold them. You have to teach them, grow them, and you have to train them. Furthermore, that hole is never the same hole. Every time you make a decision, your competitors make a decision, the market changes or the winds of fate blow in the wrong direction, the shape of that hole changes. You have to have people capable of growing to fit that too. More importantly, you must have a culture in your organization that encourages them to learn and grow into it. I don’t know a lot of companies that accept that people come into the organization flawed and focus on making them better rather than spending millions in recruitment.
Lastly, I want you to remember that my advice is meant to be implemented in a process. It takes time to build the “perfect” organization. Many fly by night wonders happen every day, but ten years out, you’ll wonder where they disappeared off to. The fact is, they still exist, in the memory of their employees who all now work somewhere else. If anything, remember that creating the perfect training strategy is something that can’t be done overnight. It is a major part of culture and will need time to implement. If it helps, it took the Marines 238 years to become the heroes of the universe that they are today, and I am kind of a history buff, so I am pretty sure most of that was spent basically resembling, for all intents and purposes, pirates. The best we have ever been is over the last century where we have mastered the arts of warfare, expanding upon those arts, and passing them on to new generations. As I said, it took us a while to get to that point, but two and a half centuries is a long time to wait. Hopefully you can get a good culture growing in much less time than it took us to be what we are today. Of course, for all I know, focusing this much on training may not be the best idea for your company. Maybe you guys already have everything you need, but it works for the Marines, and that’s saying something.
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