I’m almost finished with the book “33 Strategies of War“. It’s okay, but reads more like a textbook than a nice book you can really get engaged in on a cozy, rainy day. But, it’s alright and I’m learning a lot about strategy and operations in the toughest environment there is — WAR.
I’ve always been impressed with my military buddies and how effective they are in the business world. Amazon loves folks with military backgrounds coupled with education. They are all over that company.
So, what I’ve decided to do is ask one of the best leaders and managers I know, my buddy, James Grant, to share some of his ideas on the question: “What have I learned in the military that applies to business?” — first a little background, followed by his response.
James served 4 Years as a Marine Corps Supply Officer. 1.5 years in an infantry battalion and another 1.5 years in an infantry regimental HQ. He was Deployed on many occasions including to the largest non-combat evacuation (Sierra Leone, Africa), Norway, Turkey, and Canada. He managed to leave the Marine Corps with a plethora of new tools and good examples of how well organizations can work.
James has subsequently spent the past 6 years in the corporate world. During that time James has managed people in many different environments and even in sales (not for him!). Currently he is a Senior Manager & Six Sigma Blackbelt in the healthcare world and trying his best to implement the tools that he learned.
Many people think that the military and business are dissimilar. I have found that just the opposite is the case. In fact I could make a pretty good argument that if the Marine Corps were a business that it would be one of the more innovative ones in the marketplace (I wonder what they would sell…protection?). No, that is not my natural bias coming out but based on my experience in several different corporations.
Here is an incomplete list of some of the concepts that I have learned:
1. Flexibility. Nothing ever goes exactly as planned. Every single detail could be worked out in a plan and something is going to change. In the Marines we were taught not only to plan everything down to the last detail but to also have contingency plans “just in case”. More often than not it was the “just in case” plans that were executed. But even minor changes in plan were common. This same flexibility is necessary in business. We have all seen a myriad of examples of what happens when a business or industry is not flexible. The Marine Corps actually prides itself on being able to adapt to changing world environments and this ability is passed onto its officer ranks.
2. Teamwork. Not just working with those around you but understanding how you fit into the entire organization. I was very lucky that my last role was in a position in which I was responsible for coordinating the efforts of a number of different units none of whom were directly connected except for the connection they had with us. This experience really helped to show me that we never work in a vacuum. Unfortunately many companies still do not operate with that in mind and have not introduced this thinking into their culture. As a result many spin their wheels in many different directions and never fully adapt one single way of thinking.
3. Budgets. Ahhhh, no organization can operate without a budget and none are tighter than the Marine Corps.
4. Diversity of Talent. I feel very privileged to have worked with people from so many different backgrounds. My peers grew up everywhere from Alaska to Texas and everywhere in-between. They also attended all sorts of colleges from Ivy League to small state colleges. This variety of talent allowed for many different ideas to flow throughout the organization. We all did have a common goal (discussed next) that we strove to achieve but we were able to get there by various means. I have seen this about 50-50 in other companies that I have worked for.
5. Common Goals. Having a common vision is vitally important to an organization. That is the difference between success and failure for many companies. Having a mission statement that is understandable, simple, and unifying and having every action support that mission statement is one of the strengths of the Marine Corps and of other successful organizations. In the Marine Corps this mission was drilled into everyone from the day they stepped off the bus and “onto the footsteps”. In corporations this could be done in a slightly more gentle manner but it is still of critical importance. If your rank and file don’t know why they are doing what they are doing then you will not succeed.
6. Education. Education does not stop. In the Marine Corps professional military education was mandatory. As one moves up in rank it is expected that they will have completed more and more education. There is even a required reading list that the Commandant publishes. Education and growth are imperative to any organization. This should be self-evident but it is not. Several companies that I have worked for since leaving the Marine Corps have not invested in their people and this reflects in the culture of the company.
7. Training. This is along the same lines as education but is more position specific. The Marine Corps invested a lot of time and money in training. The result of this is that they are the finest fighting unit in the world. Investing time to train your people means that they will be more efficient, more open to change, and will have better morale. Too often companies ignore training because they cannot see the “tangible” return on their investment. This point of view is short sighted at best.
8. Leadership Can Be Taught. The Marine Corps spends a lot of time and money training their leaders. The Basic Officer Course is 6 months long. This is just to teach you how to become a leader. I am a firm believer in this approach and that philosophy. There is no such thing as a “born leader”. These are skills that one has picked up over the years and are learned. These skills are not just learned but have to be practiced in order for them to stay fresh. That is something that I have seen with mixed results in the civilian world. At Amazon this was done pretty well in the operational world (I cannot speak for the software folks). Other places I have been have not been good at doing this.