It was a meeting like no other: Twenty attendees from Southwest Airlines, clad mostly in polo shirts and khakis, sitting face-to-face with 20 very solid and straight-faced U.S. Marines in a nondescript meeting room in Quantico, Va. At the head of the class was management consultant Jon Katzenbach, senior partner at Katzenbach Partners, LLP in New York City, who's best known for his groundbreaking book, The Wisdom of Teams (1992, Harvard Business School Press).
The goal of the two-day meeting, sponsored by McKinsey & Co. (Katzenbach is the former director of McKinsey's Dallas office), was to find common ground between what Katzenbach saw as the two best organizational leadership programs in the country.
Initially, both sides would have said they had little in common. After all, this was Southwest--the company that built its reputation around its relaxed, nonhierarchical, fun-loving culture. And let's face it, the Marines have never been known for showing their people a good time.
"I'd always thought of the Marines as the lowest of the military services," admits Rita Bailey, director of Southwest's University for People, the airline company's in-house management school. Bailey based her opinion on her experience as an Army wife before joining Dallas-based Southwest 22 years ago. However, after the meeting, she described the Marines she initially thought would be "stuffy," as "just ordinary people, self-confident but personable."
Her counterpart, Colonel Robert E. Lee ("Call me Bob," he says, adding that there's no relation to the fellow who surrendered at Appomattox), is the commanding officer at the Marine Corps University in Quantico (no affiliation with the Marines' boot camp at Parris Island, S.C.). Col. Lee has had little first-hand experience in the business world. A Marine since he graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1973, he hadn't come to the meeting expecting to find a corporation "with ethics and values, where work is clearly a labor of love." Yet that's how he now describes Southwest.
Loyalty First The meeting was held over two days last December. Katzenbach opted for a mix of formal presentations, small-group discussions, andexercises, along with ample unstructured time for both sides to get to know each other.
Meals were served at the cafeteria-style dining hall, but the Southwest crew stayed in a nearby hotel, not the barracks. Meeting topics included leadership, customer service, and personal development.
Immediately, both groups recognized the common challenge of recruiting talented people. "We both have the challenge of passing on our cultures to the new people coming in," says Robert Montgomery, Southwest's director of properties. "And with two percent unemployment, people have a lot more choices. Loyalty isn't what it used to be."
Both sides recruit employees with similar pitches. "We sell our culture," says Joey Connelly, a Southwest learning facilitator. "You're never going to hear us promise that we're going to pay for college or teach you a skill. But if you want to be the best there is, if you're up to the challenge, give us a call." According to Lee, an honest pitch has worked for the Marines as well, which has met its recruiting quotas for 44 months in a row, despite a tough market. "We never advertise travel or education," he says. "If you're good enough, you can try to be one of us."
Bailey was most impressed with the way the Marines value their traditions and teach them to new recruits. "They seem to spend more time teaching core values than the actual boot camp kind of stuff," she says. "There's not a Marine who can't recite the Corps' historical milestones." One way both organizations develop loyalty is by giving it a human face. The Quantico meeting "validated for me the importance of leadership from the heart, the importance of sincerely caring about people," says Bailey.
"Col. Lee said it best," recalls Connelly. "Most people believe that the Marines do what they do for the flag, but they really do it for the Marine on their left and the Marine on their right."
They also build loyalty by encouraging people to think for themselves. "It really surprised me, that in the Marines you can challenge a command," says Donna Conover, Southwest's vice president for in-flight and provisioning. " At Southwest, we're also encouraged to challenge decisions. We don't assume that the person in control necessarily has the best answers."
Making Money, Saving Lives While Col. Lee hasn't held a private sector job in more than 25 years, he has experienced the dynamic of capitalism in a venue where it finds one of its purest forms: the trading floor of the New York Mercantile Exchange. For three years in the mid-1990s, the Marines and the Exchange engaged in some joint training/research on decision making under pressure. "Traders have to develop the ability to filter out all the noise and confusion and focus on making a deal," he explains. "Warfare is also chaotic. We were exploring how commanders learn to focus on crucial information they need to process to make decisions."
The critical difference between the Marines and the stock exchange: "They're dealing with money," he observes. "We're dealing with lives."
That clear distinction is at the heart of many of the differences between the military and the private sector. For example, notes Southwest's Connelly, "We're further along in terms of the family. For the Marines, spouses are secondary to the mission." Adds Southwest's Conover, "The demands they put on the family are incredible. I've been gone from home on business for weeks at a time, but I always knew it was temporary. With the Marines, you don't know that."
And then there's the issue of women's equality, an area where, says Conover, "the Marines still have a way to go. It has been harder for them to accept the presence of women. It's still very much a man's world." At Southwest, she notes, the male-female ratio is "pretty much even" at the director level and above.
As a result of the insights shared and friendships forged in their meeting with the Marines, at a recent three-week company leadership program, Southwest had a team of 20-year veterans and new hires create a timeline of milestones in the carrier's development. As Conover puts it, "It taught us that we have already done a lot and can do a lot more."
SEMPER FI--Leadership the Marine Corps Way In their new book, authors Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh, two former Marines who are now successful businessmen, outline 10 Marines Corps principles for successful leadership:
1. Instill courage--The ability to overcome fear is a prerequisite of effective leadership, in battle or in business.
2. Study the past--To the Marine officer, classic battles of the past are not simply "brandy and cigar" after-dinner topics; they are vital, hip-pocket reference points for the present.
3. Create a sense of mission--Every Marine is reminded that, at every stage in his career, he is doing the most important job in the world.
4. Keep goals realistic--If the consequences of overly ambitious, unrealistic expectations from upper management were to cost the very lives of a company's employees, as can happen to a Marine battalion in actual combat, perhaps the corporate goals of many companies would be less capricious.
5. Instill a fighting-man culture--Every member of the organization is on the front line, and every position has its own unique challenges.
6. There is no "peacetime"--Don't allow yourself to lose the competitive attitude for even one second.
7. Know your enemy--Even in the midst of a victory celebration, wonder where the next threat will come from.
8. Command from a forward position--It is much more effective to get your people to follow you than to push them forward.
9. Bias your leaders toward victory--Marines are not brainwashed into an imperturbable confidence; they are trained to find ways to win, under the most difficult circumstances.
10. "You must not fail"--At the end of The Crucible--the final three-day ordeal of boot camp-- exhausted new Marines are given a rousing talk by their commanding officers, who always use these carefully chosen words.
Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way, by Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh (1999, Amacom)
What Can You Learn from the Marines? Author, consultant, and expert in the field of team management, Jon Katzenbach was working on a book (due out in early 2000) about how companies that engage the emotions of their front-line workers end up with a higher degree of energy and performance.
He knew from the start that there were organizations he wanted to research (like Southwest Airlines), but the United States Marine Corps was nowhere near making the cut.
When he took a closer look, however, he started seeing resemblances between Southwest Airlines and the Marines, the most important being "how much they care about their people in a genuine way."
What, then, can corporate America learn from the oldest and smallest branch of the armed forces? That's the subject of Katzenbach's most recent article, "Firing Up Your Front Line," ("That's not my title," he insists) which appeared in the May/June issue of the Harvard Business Review. In that piece, he describes four fundamental lessons the private sector could learn from the Marines:
1. Train new hires intensively
2. Don't let less promising recruits slip through the cracks--The Marines try to bring out the best in those poorer performers who are typically ignored.
3. Use teams only when needed--It takes time for teams to develop.
4. Employ a dual leadership approach--Marine platoons have two bosses, a young lieutenant and an experienced gunnery sergeant who work together in an atmosphere of mutual respect.