November 10 is the 239th birthday of the United States Marine Corps.

So what, you ask?

First of all, just think about that. Two hundred and thirty nine years of excellence and stellar results. Talk about sustainability!

I doubt that there is an individual who doesn’t think “Wow” when they hear or see a U.S. Marine. The Corps’ reputation of being our elite fighting force is enough to strike fear into our enemies and trust into our citizens. How can an organization sustain that kind of excellence for 239 years?

Listen to the newly promoted Commandant of the Marine Corps, in his birthday address to his Marines – you’ll hear a bit about what makes a Marine a Marine.

Here’s my “so what.” We, the business community, can take lessons from the Marine Corps. This isn’t a new concept; over the past 15 years several authors have followed Marines to try to understand their success, and published their findings. And it’s great information.

I come at it a little differently. I am a consultant to business on improving human performance. I believe that human performance is the single most important lever that any organization has in driving business results. I am also a Marine, a Marine wife, a Marine mom, and a Marine daughter, so I’ve lived this ethos all of my life. While not empirically researched, my life has been an ethnographic study of the success of the Marine Corps.

So I thought, on this 239th birthday of the Corps, I would share some of my thoughts on sustainable excellence to my colleagues in the business world.

Marines are not perfect

I list this first because I believe that this is at the heart of their success. Now, when you listen to a Marine you probably hear confidence and strength. But this is not perfection, nor should it be. Marines know that their success is wholly dependent on the actions of every Marine involved in the situation, and recognize that mistakes will happen.

Their infrastructure is designed to carefully review and learn from mistakes. Their performance management has a threshold for less than perfect action. However, that threshold is crossed when too many of the same mistakes are made. Their leaders are trained to be teachers, helping every Marine reflect on her performance, and continuously develop.

Every action is reviewed to determine what can be learned for future actions. The Commandant’s birthday message opens with the statement that “history provides no lessons, but only the context to understand the future.” This is a powerful statement and would be worth business leaders paying some attention and learning how to learn.

Marines are clear about their mission

There is no ambiguity in their mission and that clarity guides their infrastructure, their org chart and their leaders. Part of the infrastructure that reflects on mistakes also creates common and simple messaging about every aspect of the Marine’s life – from the uniform, to behavior, to accomplishing the mission.

There is no clouding of the mission with politically correct rhetoric. They exist to fight and, if need be, to kill.

In today’s business world, we sometimes soft pedal an expectation of hard work on the part of our employees. When hard work is what drives our success, why do we allow that to happen?

Leadership drives success

Every Marine is a leader, and expected to behave as a leader. To wear the eagle, globe and anchor on the collar is to represent the Marine Corps and that for which is stands.Eagle%20globe%20anchor

Officers and senior staff non-commissioned officers are held to a higher standard. Even in Officer Candidate School, before a young man is commissioned as a Marine Officer, he must dress and behave the part of a trusted leader. This is non-negotiable, and if he cannot meet this standard, he will not be a Marine Officer.

Once commissioned, Marine Officers spend six months learning to be a Marine Officer, from leadership in warfighting to leadership on post. They carry student leadership roles, to provide an opportunity to practice in a safe space. When that Basic School curriculum is complete, they then go to school to learn their occupational specialty – as a leader, not as a doer.

Once assigned to a unit, they prove their ability to apply what they learned, and receive rich, disciplined feedback about their actions. They learn.

Contrast this to promoting front line managers in business, and providing one PowerPoint-filled day reciting of every law and policy that they “need to know,” instead of teaching them how to think.

Marines hire for fit, train for skill

Not everyone can be a Marine, and that is okay.  There is no apology when someone doesn’t make the cut; there are other options which are probably more suited.

Even with effective assessments, Marines are tested and tried in very difficult circumstances because those are the circumstances they will face in their jobs.  Anyone can say they can handle a tough situation; Marines must demonstrate.

Marines care

Macho Marines care? Absolutely. They recognize the hardships, threats and challenges for Marines and their families and go out of their way to provide helpful support.  This isn’t a luxury that was created in order to achieve “Best Place to Work,” it is a necessity to allow Marines to fulfill their mission.

Marines are competitive, and play to win.  They are very clear that playing to win means taking care of their own.

They work with consistency and discipline

It is very easy to stray. You put a plan in place, you’re really excited, you pump up the employees, and three months later the real world has intervened and you forgot what you started. Corporate America is chock full of “flavor of the month” initiatives. Marines make a plan using wisdom and intelligence, and begin to execute on the plan. If there is a problem, they don’t throw out the plan, they adjust it. Every level of leadership is taught this process of careful planning, effective execution, and mindful reflection.

Happy 239th Birthday, Marines….Uurraah!

Uurraah is the cry of Marines that says (among other things) “oh yeah!”  Are there lessons we, in corporate America, can learn from the U. S. Marine Corps? Uurrah!

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