6 Things Businesses Could Learn From the Military

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This question originally appeared on Quora: What can businesses learn from the military?

Training.

I’ve worked in tech, retail sales, and real estate, mostly in operational roles, either as an owner or as a manager. I was also a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps with two tours in Iraq. I feel qualified to answer this question.

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.

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 that the search could take four or five months to find a right fit for some jobs. That’s the opportunity cost of an employee not being productive. I’ve seen companies spend tens of thousands in this process.

Now, a new employee is hired. Woo-hoo! A lot of companies welcome you aboard for a two-week honeymoon phase, and 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 badmouth 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 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 over the course of a single year? All of a sudden, sink or swim is starting to look pretty stupid, huh?

So, would you like a better solution? Now consider this, the U.S. military has to work, obviously, one of the most difficult jobs in the world. They have worldwide responsibility over trillions of dollars worth of equipment and oversee what amounts to the world’s largest logistical support network. Every one of them is a master in a specified field by year two and is responsible for some of the most advanced technological systems on the planet. And management? By the time many are 23 years of age, they have already been promoted to a leadership role, responsible for a team of trade veterans. Also, their average age is 20. And you know what? I haven’t even mentioned anyone shooting at you. What’s most surprising? Hardly any of them are degreed. Virtually all the labor force is made up of only high school grads and not even the best and brightest of them. Still, they are somehow made ready to execute 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 and an investment to the U.S. military. It’s odd to think that the military places a higher value on people 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 or replace him with someone else. You can’t fire him. You’re stuck, and so is he. 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. In business, the attitudes are much “nicer,” but motivations are much more selfish. An employee is only as valuable to you as the money he can make for you. ROI.

Didn’t realize how shallow the business world really is, did you? So here is my advice. The following list is things that are all taken very seriously in the military and 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:

1) 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. For you, this is onboarding. It’s also the first few months after entering a unit. More than a full year. 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.

And I know what you are all saying: 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? 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 desks? 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, who wanted to make it easier for new people based on the problems they had. 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 who shows up–but feels 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 the first year at a job. These employees might surprise you with bits of awesome from time to time. 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 date, you never gave him a chance. More important, 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. They are interruptions to the work needing to be done, but they are investments in the individuals ability to do it, which is much more valuable moving forward.

And 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 these types of managers were once marvelous workers, but doing and leading are two very different skill sets. It may not have been an appropriate choice to promote people to roles requiring a completely different series of abilities on the premise that they showed a great deal of other abilities. If the problem continues, you have a detriment to your company’s ability to grow in the future because your manager is the problem.

2) Follow this process up with regular job-specific training.

Periodically, Marines would get pulled from the unit for all sorts of different training. You might have a week’s training on crew-served weapons with a couple guys from the shop, or a two-week class session with a few dozen Marines from the squadron learning Arabic and Middle Eastern customs, or a three-day “camping trip” to learn field survival. These are great at improving the knowledge, survivability, and mission accomplishment of the Marines in a unit. They also build lasting relationships with the members within it.

Seminars composed of employees from different work groups–so that everyone learns from one another and builds valuable new skills–are invaluable. I don’t mean those “teamwork workshops” by the way, where participants share feelings and fall 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, because you fired Sarah after three months. 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 in their careers. Weed out those who 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.

3) Create an annual schedule to ensure that certain standards in education are met.

Every Marine is a rifleman. That means we have to train for two weeks and qualify to prove it. That is a major investment on the part of the U.S. Marines, especially considering only about 1 percent will ever fire a weapon in combat. Think about that. There are also dozens of annual trainings. You do this already with the federally mandated sexual harassment, HIPAA law briefs for you in health care, 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.

4) Find and reward teachers.

When I was a young Marine, I was trained as a 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 who 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 Marines 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 if they were 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 disseminate information. It will be an important job that improves many aspects of your organization without even necessitating hiring a soul.

5) Ignore the “training them to leave” myth

“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. If people 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. He knew he was going to if handed the chance, so why punish that behavior?

Accept it, but remember, there is a thing called loss aversion. People who love their job don’t want to risk getting a new one because most of us are afraid to lose a good thing. If you make your people happy, they’ll stay. So make the right choice, and 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 them and in either case, they will leave thankful for having worked for you and maybe even be your business emissaries outside to potential contacts.

6) Discipline

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 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 No. 1 thing in the military is discipline. You need to be strong enough to make it the No. 1 thing in your organization, too.

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, and 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, 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 with him a second time.

Maybe another example that is more applicable to the civilian world would be better. 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. He was a senior employee, but had 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 writeup form that is part of the firing process. 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 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). 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 over 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 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 she was spoiled and used to getting her way. She managed to figure out how to not come to work about 30 percent 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 badly, 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 create a feedback loop.


Summary

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. No one is built for the hole you have that you need filled. You have to mold people. You have to teach them, grow them, and you have to train them. More important, you have to 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. For all I know, it may not be the best idea for your company, but it works for the Marines.

One thought on “6 Things Businesses Could Learn From the Military

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