Imbuing Culture – How the Marines do it (from The Decisive Leadership Group)

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By Mike Grice

(The following is a post from Mike’s company website: http://www.decisiveleader.com)

Culture matters.  In the words of former IBM CEO Louis Gerstner “culture is everything”, and his enlightened observation resonates with myriad successful companies: at McDonald’s they bleed ketchup, things are done the “HP Way” at Hewlett Packard, and Zappos.com has become legendary for their cult-like devotion to customer service.  All of these firms benefit from the intangibles that result from a workforce that embrace the values and inculcate the ideals of their organization.

The value of culture is incalculable, and for every firm like Zappos.com there are a thousand that wish they had that level of dedication and zeal in the hearts of their employees.  That said, Zappos.com, Hewlett Packard, and McDonald’s are not magical companies that were somehow mystically endowed with such enviable cultures.  They developed their corporate passion over time.  It took long periods of time – often measured in years and in some cases decades – for members of those organization to reach such a propitious level of dedication.

Therein lies the rub.  Most companies don’t have that kind of time.  Culture is inarguably a crucial part of an organization, but how can the leaders and managers of a firm develop or change the company’s culture?  How can a CEO introduce a vision that it reinforces the firm’s values and objectives in a time competitive and dynamic environment?  How can a new firm create a culture and how can a mature firm keep theirs vibrant?  These are questions that organizations large and small wrestle with, and to find an answer it helps to look at an organization that is widely regarded as a cultural icon:  The United States Marines.

Although that may sound like a strikingly odd statement, the United States Marine Corps is an outfit that exudes culture at every seam.  As Pulitzer Prize winning author Thomas Ricks observed in his book Making the Corps:

“The United States Marine Corps, with its fiercely proud tradition of excellence in combat,its hallowed rituals, and its unbending code of honor, is part of the fabric of American myth.”

The members of the organization are not soldiers even though they carry rifles and fight on the ground, they are not airmen even though they fly attack helicopters and fighter jets, and they are not sailors even though they sail on ships and are a part of the Navy.  They are Marines, and to call them by another title is perceived by them as an insult.  Why would they be insulted?  Simply put it is because each and every Marine has fully inculcated the culture of the Marine Corps and has embraced the core values, mission, and vision of the organization.  They are not generic soldiers nor sailors nor airmen; they are Marines, and the Marine Corps is able to create that extremely high level of dedication and commitment to their culture surprisingly quickly.  They become Marines in less than three months.

Just how can the Marine Corps imbue such loyalty and allegiance to the organization in the short span of only eleven weeks?  More importantly, are there any lessons that the corporate sector can learn from the acculturation process that makes Marines?  That is the purpose of this article.  Not only will we look at how the nation’s premier force in readiness introduces culture to its recruits but we will also take from that process lessons that any firm can use to help introduce, strengthen, or change its culture.

First Marine recruiting poster

The first Marine recruiting poster

In order to better understand the methodology by which the Marines incorporate culture into their people it will help to have a point of reference to compare and contrast the military ways and means with corporate organizations.  Tribal Leadership, the best-selling book by Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright provides an effective rubric against which the recruit training process can be explained.  Using the book’s stages of culture as a backdrop and point of comparison helps articulate just how the Marines are able to create a fully assimilated and socialized member of the organization.

The Marine Corps was born the year before the founding fathers signed the Declaration of Independence.  On November 10th, 1775, Captain Samuel Nicholas formed two battalions of Marines that would serve as marksmen and naval infantry aboard America’s new fleet.  Since that time, the Marine Corps has served in every major war and an impressive number of minor skirmishes across the globe.  In doing so the organization has created a martial history that is on par with the most storied military institutions worldwide, and that history has been inculcated by the Marine Corps as a significant part of what differentiates it from other warfighting entities.

The lineage of combat, valor, and heroism are not enough to make the Marine Corps what it has become, however.  The first hundred years of the Marine Corps existence found it to be a tiny adjunct to the navy, but with the arrival of the First World War it mushroomed in size and rose to a level of prominence among the armed services.  In the century that followed the Great War the organization has made a dedicated and focused effort to foster and nourish a culture that is second to none in the United States military, if not the world, by creating a systematic and rigorous method of turning undisciplined recruits into battle ready Marines.  The formalization of the recruit training process resulted in a more consistently trained and effective graduate, and a significant portion of recruit training was focused on the history, ethos, and values of the Marine Corps.

The nearly fanatical devotion to the Marine Corps by its constituent members is not the result of happenstance or cult-like brainwashing.  It is instead introduced through what may be considered the most demanding job interview that a person can experience:  Bootcamp.

Bootcamp, or more formally “Recruit Training”, is where civilians are forever changed into United States Marines.  It is the rigorous and dedicated process where the transformation into dedicated and fully acculturated members of the organization occurs.  In the words of former Marine Commandant General James Conway:

“The values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment, imprinted on their souls during Recruit training and strengthened thereafter mark a Marine’s character for a lifetime.”

Bootcamp is the second of a six phase transformational process that all Marines go through in order to become fully trained and ready to fight.  All of these phases are connected by the common thread of the institution’s Core Values, and they reiterate and build upon each successive step in order to fully ingrain culture into the individual Marine.  Consistency of message is critically important; without consistent reinforcement of the organization’s culture the specter of cynicism creeps in, and with cynicism come the unacceptable seeds of discontent.

Marine Recruiting Poster circa 1917

Recruiting Poster circa 1917

The first step in the acculturation process is recruiting, and it begins with the recruiter who engages with potential inductees at the local level.  The message that the recruiter delivers is one based a on the central tenets of what the Marine Corps does – it makes Marines, wins the nation’s battles, and develops quality citizens.  These three pillars form the basis of the Marine Corps’ promise to the nation and to the prospective Marine.  They are the seed corn of culture that is planted in each potential recruit.  If a candidate for military service is unsuitable, unfit, or interested in something outside the Marine Corps ideals, he or she is generally directed to another service’s recruiting office.

Recruit training, the next phase, is the most critical in terms of imbuing culture into the members of the organization.  The succeeding phases continue the education and training of the Marines who graduate from bootcamp.  These phases are Marine Combat Training, where basically trained Marines learn combat skills; Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) training, where Marines learn specific skills, such as machine gunner, truck driver, etc.; Unit Cohesion and Stability Training, where Marines are assigned to their operational units and enter the training and deployment cycles; and Sustainment, which is continual training and values reinforcement over a Marine’s career.  The six phases ensure that a Marine is ready to perform his or her duties in any circumstance and in any environment.  The most important phase in the process, however, is the recruit training where civilians shed their individuality and embrace the selfless group culture that is the hallmark of the Marine Corps.  Former Commandant of the Marine Corps General Charles Krulak recognized that Americans understood the tremendous benefit that the Marine Corps provides to the nation:

“They [the American people] believe … that our Corps is good for the manhood of the country; that the Marines are masters of a form of unfailing alchemy which converts unoriented youths into proud, self-reliant, stable citizens – citizens into whose hands the nation’s affairs may be safely entrusted.”

Without the strong level of commitment to the Marine Corps and to its values that is created in the Recruit Training process the entire cultural framework collapses.  Bootcamp is the single most important component of cultural inculcation, and for this reason we will examine the process in much greater detail in order to garner lessons that apply beyond the Recruit Training Depot.

The conceptual framework of Tribal Leadership provides a very useful rubric against which the cultural changes that recruits experience in bootcamp can be judged.  The book examines culture in the context of individuals and groups, and segments organizational culture into five distinct levels, or “stages”.  The Tribal Leadership stages compellingly align with the recruit training process and offer a meaningful non-military description to the cultural assimilation that recruits go through.  The five stages are[1]:

Stage 1:  This stage is one of despair, hostility, and individual alienation.  Members of tribes at stage one describe their lot as “life sucks”.

Stage 2:  People in this stage generally view themselves as victims and tend to band together to share their dissatisfaction.  They describe their lot in life as “my life sucks”.

Stage 3:  Individuals at stage three are individualistic and view themselves as lone warriors.  They describe themselves in terms of “I’m great, and you’re not”.

Stage 4:  At this stage individuals coalesce and form a group identity.  They take great pride in their tribal group, and feel that “we’re great! (and they’re not)” with “they” being a competitor or someone outside their group.

Stage 5:  This would be Maslow’s Self Actualization at a group level.  A stage five tribe is a group that has transcended the need for competition and instead truly and honestly feels that “Life’s great!”

These five stages represent the full spectrum of cultural identity and the level to which people inculcate organizational cultural ideals.  The inculcation process is more micro than macro, however.  Tribal Leadership posits that organizations are really an aggregate of small groups, and not all groups are culturally identical.  These groups, which range in size from 20 to 150 people in number, are the “tribes” within the organizational “nation”, and each of these tribes will develop its own cultural identity.  In the context of Marine bootcamp this perfectly fits the basic military unit for Recruit Training:  The platoon[2].

The platoon is the basic unit within the recruit training process.  Under the command of a team of Drill Instructors, the recruit and his or her[3] cohort will be a part of the same platoon from the first day of training until graduation[4].  They will spend every minute of every day for approximately eleven weeks together; with the exception of a few hours that the recruit is allowed to see his family on the day before graduation he will never be outside the supervision of Drill Instructors or separated from his peers.  Unless he is injured or is required to repeat training for some reason the recruit will undergo the rigors of the training cycle with the same group of recruits that he started with.  The platoon becomes the tribe.

“Transforming civilians into basically trained Marines, who are imbued with our core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment, is the primary focus of recruit training.”

-From the Standard Operating Procedures for Recruit Training

The crystal clear guidance provided by the Marine Corps unambiguously states that the inculcation of culture is the purpose of recruit training.  It is a significant investment; the eleven week basic training program is the longest of all the armed services and is not designed to teach recruits the jobs that they will perform once they reach the operational forces.  It is solely centered on delivering the promise to make Marines.  Teaching the newly minted Marines what their jobs within the organization occurs further down the line as they attend their MOS schools.

recruiting poster ca 1968

Recruiting Poster, ca. 1968

The recruit training process is thoroughly regimented and planned to the minutest of details.  Every minute of every day is scheduled, down to when recruits will brush their teeth, shine their shoes, and write letters home.  The eleven week training cycle is broken down into 70 actual days of training (Sundays and holidays don’t count) that are preceded by approximately a week of administrative inprocessing, medical evaluations, dental exams, and other tasks that are required to ensure that the recruits are physically fit and mentally capable of undergoing the challenging training that lies ahead of them.

It is during the first week or so of arriving at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (of which there are two; Parris Island, South Carolina and San Diego, California) the recruit is purposefully placed into a dynamic, stressful, and unfamiliar environment.  Before the recruit is assigned to a training platoon, he or she first is assigned to Receiving Company, which is the organization that is responsible for managing all recruit inprocessing requirements.  Within minutes of arriving on the Depot recruits are divested of their civilian clothes and their heads are shorn nearly to the skin[5], with the result being that all recruits look almost identical in their newly found state of confused anxiety.   The next week or so the recruit is met with a dizzying array of exams, tests, interviews that leave him or her exhausted, confused, and disoriented.   In the words of one recruit who graduated from bootcamp in 2000:

“I felt as though I had been thrust into a world different from any other that I had previously experienced. Someone else now controlled my every movement. It didn’t feel like what I can only imagine prison to be like, because I was there of my own volition, but I was very aware that my freedom to make decisions as to my actions had been severely reduced.”

Many others echoed his sentiments with statements that emphasized their perceived helplessness that are remarkably similar despite coming from different eras.  When asked how they felt during the first few days of recruit training, they responded:

“I felt completely isolated, all alone at the mercy of a man who enjoyed making me feel like a cruel social experiment.” – 1964 graduate

“Scared, lonely, doubting my decision to join.  The first few days were the most miserable and stressful days I’ve experienced in my 17 years being alive.” – 1974 graduate

“General feeling, what the hell did I do? Being stripped of everything that I was was difficult.” – 1985 graduate

“Anxiety and Nervous [sic].  I was always afraid that any moment hell would break loose.”  -1997 graduate

“Numb. An extreme case of culture shock.  I felt like a deer in the headlights.” –

2004 graduate

“I felt as if I were lost.” 

2010 graduate


Recruiting poster ca late 1990s

Recruiting poster, circa late 1990s

In terms of Tribal Leadership stages, the majority of new recruits reported that they felt as though they were in stage 2: Victims who would best describe their condition as “my life sucks”.  Recruits feel this way by design; the program of instruction is designed to strip a recruit of selfish individualism and replace it with Esprit de Corps, defined in the recruit training regulations as “the common spirit of the Marine Corps that inspires enthusiasm, devotion, pride, initiative, teamwork, aggressiveness, determination, moral integrity, camaraderie, and the burning desire to work with and for others toward excellence in common goals.”  There is no place for the selfish individual in the Marine Corps.  There is only room for those who are team players who share equally in the culture of the organization.

The Marines who train recruits are members of the Recruit Training Regiment.  Each of the two recruit depots has one training regiment, and they are identical in mission with the exception that all female recruits are trained at Parris Island in a parallel training program that is virtually identical to their male counterparts.   The Marines who actually conduct the training are enlisted Non-Commissioned Officers and are uniquely entitled to wear the coveted Campaign Cover (aka, Smokey Bear hat) that is the trademark of the Drill Instructor, or “DI”.  The regiment also contains the regular contingent of commissioned officers who serve in a direct leadership and supervisory capacity.  These officers and DIs are the mechanism that imbues the cultural change; they are the very epitome of the Marine Corps and represent the core values, physical fitness, professionalism, and leadership that is the archetype of the organization.  They create the environment in which change occurs and forcefully ensure that there is no ambiguity in the delivery of the cultural message.

In the early days of training the DIs foster the recruits feelings of isolation and confusion, but in a tightly controlled environment.  The DIs and supervisory officers are highly trained and strongly attuned to the mental condition of the recruits.  They recognize that their charges are stressed out, homesick, awkward, and scared.  Recruits are supervised 24 hours a day and are never left alone, and in cases where recruits exhibit self destructive or physically aggressive behaviors they are quickly separated from the rest of the platoon and evaluated.  If they are found fit to train they rejoin their cohorts, but if they are incapable they are separated from the Marine Corps and sent home.

In the words of a Marine Colonel who commanded at the Recruit Training Battalion and Regimental levels[6]

“During the first week of recruit trainingmost recruits are very awkward and scared.  It is difficult and unnatural for them to adjust to the succinct orders of the Drill Instructors, [the] loss of individual freedoms, and the 24 hour per day supervision.”

DI with recruits

Drill Instructor and recruits, Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island

As the recruits adjust to their new environment they firmly coalesce into Tribal Leadership’s second stage.  Before they arrived at recruit training the vast majority of recruits where perfectly happy teenagers who were predominantly ensconced in stage 3, typified by “I’m great and you’re not” thinking.  As the recruits are stripped of the vestiges of their civilian identities and thrust into a communal environment in which they have very little control the recruits soon form relationships with each other.  The most basic relationship in recruit training is that of “rackmates” or “bunkmates”, because the open barracks are filled with the bunkbeds on which the recruits sleep.  Rackmates help each other with pretty much everything:  They help each other make their bunks each morning, they assist with folding their clothes and housekeeping duties, and will often stand guard together.  Although this is a forced relationship at first, it becomes truly diadic over time as the pair of recruits learn to rely upon each other to get through each training day.

The formation of this basic relationship is the first step up the ladder in terms of tribal leadership stages.  Members of stage two are disconnected from each other and disengaged from their environment.  The diadic relationship between rackmates provides an interpersonal connection that helps both manage the stresses of recruit training, and as they do so they become more engaged with the organization.  Creating positive interpersonal relationships is a stage three behavior that usually takes months to foster in a corporate environment.  In the sealed recruit training world that same level of behaviour is accomplished in about a week.

Of course there are significant differences between corporate and military environments.  In the business world people move upwardly through tribal leadership stages based largely on the actions of others who are already at a higher level.  The leaders in the corporate setting attract others who are at lower tribal levels to move up the ladder generally by reaching out to them and providing guidance and mentorship.  This process takes time.  In the military, relationships are forced upon recruits literally within minutes of arrival that will last through the entire recruit training process.  The introduction of rackmates in bootcamp brings two miserable people together, but if that were all that DIs did the result would just be a pair of equally miserable stage two tribe members.  The key to moving up the tribal levels lies within the recruit training syllabus.

The recruit training program of instruction is divided into three roughly one month long segments that are termed the first, second, and third phases of training.  During these phases recruits undergo over 547 hours of academic training that ranges from how to fold a uniform shirt to how to conduct a basic infantry attack.  Over 10% of that training, 61.5 hours, is dedicated to core values training, leadership, and Marine Corps history.  As recruits navigate through the many different subjects, fitness exercises, and tasks that they must master in order to graduate they are constantly remided of the core values of the organization as they attend classes and participate in guided discussions that articulate and reinforce the culture of the Marine Corps.  The DIs and officers lead by example and serve as living and breathing icons that personify the values, ethos, and culture of the Marine Corps.  They are the tribal leaders who are bringing the scared recruits to higher stages as they embrace the culture of the Marine Corps.  The difference between DIs and business leaders is that where corporate managers use attraction and the softer tacts of mentorship and engagement their Marine counterparts immerse their juniors in the culture and never allow them a moment to think about anything besides the Corps.

The immersion is absolute and continues through all three phases of training.  During bootcamp recruits are offered only limited contact with the external environment.  For example, there are no cellular telephones allowed; recruits may only talk to their families on the payphone a few times during the training cycle.  They can, however, send and receive mail through the postal service.  There are no televisions to watch, no computers to use to surf the internet, no books beyond Marine Corps materials to read, and the only civilian periodical allowed is the Sunday newspaper.  Further, the very environment reinforces the history, values, and ethos of the organziation.  Walls are emblazoned with the Core Values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.  Posters, pictures, and other displays portray significant historical events that have been the subject of classroom instruction, lectures, and guided discussion.  They are completely wrapped in the Marine Corps from the day they arrive until the day they leave.  The reinforcement of history, values, and ideals is everywhere.

Over time, however, the absolute control of the DI diminshes and the recruits are empowered to make decisions within narrowly defined parameters.  First phase is completely autocratic, and recruits are actively led and supervised every minute of every day.  DIs  oversee every activity that recruits perform, including ensuring that they shave and shower properly and wash their clothes.  With the arrival of second phase comes a little more autonomy for recruits as they move off to the rifle range and learn the basics of marksmanship.  It is during this phase that recruits are exposed to non-DI trainers: The marksmanship instructors and coaches that will spend two weeks teachin recruits how to shoot are not DIs.  Recruits are still supervised by their DIs, but their training is conducted by other Marines.  After completing two weeks on the rifle range, the recruits perform “team week”,  where recruits are grouped into small teams and serve as camp guards, stewards in the camp mess hall or do other fatigue-type details.  This further introduces recruits to life outside the confines of the Recruit Depot, but still within an environment that reinforces the organization’s culture.

Everywhere the recruits go is squared away in typical Marine Corps fashion, and just as it is in their barracks the hallmark core values and historical lore of the organization is prominently displayed in the form of posters and signs.  More importantly, the recruits see that “real” Marines have inculcated the core values and are living them on a daily basis, which serves as a very strong reinforcement to the organization’s culture.  By the time the second phase of recruit training is finished, the recruits have left stage two behind and are moving upward through stage three.  They are gaining confidence quickly as they begin to internalize the values and culture of the Marine Corps.

EGA poster wwi

Eagle, Globe, and Anchor poster ca. World War I

As the third phase of training approaches, the relationship between the DI and the recruit subtly shifts.  Drill Instructors become less autocratic and employ more coaching and mentoring techniques to promote confidence and teamwork within the recruits.  Leaders begin to emerge from the ranks of the platoon.   Recruits are put in the position of leading their peers, and are constantly evaluated and critiques on their performance by their DIs.  The nascent recruit leaders are judged on not just their ability to get things done, but more importantly on how they are able to accomplish tasks by motivating the best efforts from their teammates.  “I” and “me” language is scrubbed from the vernacular and is replaced by “us” and “we”.  Recruits placed in leadership jobs (called “billets”) who exhibit selfish behaviour are uncerimoniously fired and replaced by another recruit.  Recruits learn that the only way to truly succeed in the Marine Corps is to work together, and that individualism and selfishness are traits to be shunned.  The recruits begin to see themselves as a group of peers who are all working towards the same objective: earning the title of United States Marine and the right to wear the insignia of the Corps –  the coveted Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.

The Eagle, Globe, and Anchor (or “EGA” as it is commonly known)  is the single most important icon to Marines.  Its history traces to the nineteenth century, when it was adapted from the British Royal Marine’s “Globe and Laurel” emblem.  It is the personification of the Marine Corps, and in the lore of the Marine Corps only those who have graduated from Bootcamp or Officer Candidate School have truly earned the right to wear it.  It is a symbol that embodies the traditions, heritage, and uniqueness of the organization, and to earn it is the most important thing that a recruit can do while in bootcamp.  To earn the right to wear the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor is to have earned the right to claim the title of “Marine”.  Bestowing the EGA on a recruit seals the right of passage and confirms the transformation.

EGA Camoflage

EGA in camouflage uniform pattern

The EGA is ubiquitous.  It is a part of every uniform that Marines wear.  The symbol is embroidered on the pocked of the combat uniform and indeed is intermixed within the pixellated camoflage pattern.  It is branded into the leather of every combat boot.  Metal insignia are prominently placed on the lapels and hats of service uniforms and on the collars of the distinctive Dress Blue uniform.  It is also by far the most popular tattoo that Marines who like ink will get, and it is not unusual for the one of the first stops a newly graduated Marine will make is to a tattoo parlor.  To Marines there is no symbol or artifact that is more important.

new Marine EGA

A new Marine earns the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.

To earn the EGA the recruit must first complete the culminating event of recruit training:  The Crucible.  The crucible is a 54 hour long field training event that is designed to push them to their limits and see if they are ready and capable of becoming Marines.  It is not simply a long and demanding field exercise, but instead it is a series of evolutions that test the recruits physically, mentally, and morally – not morally in a religious sense but in the context of the organization’s core values.  Recruits are given little sleep during the Crucible, and their food intake is limited to only the meager rations that they are issued.  The events are supervised and the performance of the recruits is evaluated by the platoon’s DIs and supervisory officers, who have been with the recruits since their arrival over two months before.  Accomplishing the assigned tasks or completing the tactical missions is not the focus of the evaluation; instead it is whether or not the recruit has inculcated and can exhibit the core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment while performing as a contributing member of the team.  They are judged on how well they lead and how well they support others when they are not in charge.  They are under the watchful eye of the DIs, who will see if a hungry recruit steals part of another recruit’s rations or if they shirk their duties because they are tired and miserable.  The EGA is earned through the demonstration of character and perseverence that are the results of embracing the core values of the organization.

Not all recruits earn the coveted EGA, however.  Those who do not inculcate the core values and cannot function as productive members of a team are not allowed to graduate.  They are retrained and remediated as much as practicable, but in cases where individuals simply cannot or will not assimilate into the culture of the Marine Corps they are separated from service.  They are returned to civilian life even if they are mentally and physically capable of performing the tasks that Marines do in the performance of their duties.  The ability to accomplish a task is not what recruit training is all about.  It is about instilling the culture of the organization into each and every member who will wear the cloth of the nation emblazoned with the Eagle, Globe, and Anchor.  In the words of an experienced Drill Instructor with two tours on the Drillfield:

“We do everything we can to get the [troubled] recruit to graduate.  We provide specialized training, constant reinforcement of our core values, and set the example for them to emulate.  If they can’t adjust we send them home.”

With the completion of the crucible the newly minted Marine is about a week away from Graduation Day.  The last week on the Recruit Depot is unique in their experience because they are now no longer recruits, but instead the privileged few who can proudly wear the EGA and call themselves Marines.  In eleven weeks they have gone from miserably living in tribal stage two to a level that approaches the top of the tribal leadership ladder.  The new Marines had changed significantly from the scared and meek recruits they were when they arrived.  When asked how they feel during the last week of recruit training, they responded much like this 2006 graduate:

“I was on cloud 9.  I remember getting my EGA and everything but the one thing that stick out in my mind is when another Marine called me a Marine. He was a SSgt and I said good afternoon and he said good afternoon, Marine. I remember thinking wow! I made it!”

Other Marines expressed very similar feelings:

 “I felt proud, as though I had really accomplished something.  I felt changed, as if

I had really been broken down and rebuilt mentally.” 

2000 graduate

 “Ifelt a great sense of accomplishment and that I had earned something special…the title Marine. A great deal of pride and belonging..” 

1992 graduate

“I was immensely proud of myself.  Despite my young age, I somehow knew that my involvement with the Marine Corps would define my entire life.” 

1980 graduate

“Great pride.  A feeling like I’d really accomplished something spectacular and a feeling of self-confidence.  Just as important was feeling of true camaraderie, belonging to a highly respected organization.” 

1978 graduate

“Very proud.  Able to achieve the impossible.  A part of something great.” 

1960 graduate

“Real accomplishment.” 

1950 graduate

The sentiments that these Marines expressed were confirmed by the Drill Instructors and officers who led them through the entire transformation process.  They have seen the platoon go from a group of unhappy, scared, and overwhelmed young men and women into a cohesive team that has completely and fully embraced the culture and core values of the Marine Corps.  In the words of the most experienced and senior Drill Instructor on the Recruit Depot, the Recruit Training Regiment Sergeant Major:

“The goal of recruit training is to transform recruits into our culture and to reinforce our core values with the examples set by our Drill Instructors, through our leadership principles, and by mentoring and coaching.  They learn that it’s not about them.  It is about teamwork and being a part of the team.”

Graduation

Graduation Day – Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego, California

The new Marines graduate as members of a stage four/five tribe[7].  They exhibit “We’re great!” types of responses when asked how they feel about their newly earned membership in the Marine Corps.  During the second phase of recruit training they advanced from the “life sucks!” of a stage two tribe to the beginnings of stage three, where they were afforded more responsibility and freedom to control a part (albeit a very small part) of their destiny.  They began to show signs of an “I’m great” culture, but only for a very short time as the singular “I” was forcibly transfomed into the communal “we”.[8]  The recruits entered the crucible feeling more empowered and eager to earn the trust and confidence of their peers and seniors, and with the completion of the event and the presentation of the EGA the recruits are firmly in stage 4/5.  This transformational change took about three months, which is about nine times faster than would normally be expected in a non-recruit training setting.[9]

How successful is the Marine Corps in its efforts to imbue culture during recruit training?  A survey of 92 graduates who graduated over a six decade span (1950 to 2012) showed a remarkable level of cultural alignment of core values between the organization and and its members:

  • Over 99% correctly identified the organization’s core values of Honor, Courage, and Commitment.
  • When asked to describe how they felt about the Marine Corps on the day that they graduated from recruit training 85% indicated that the Marine Corps is a way of life as opposed to the other choices of a profession, a job, a career, or a mistake.
  • When asked how important are the Marine Corps Core Values to them 72% responded that they are most important part of being a Marine, and 22% listed core values as being very important.  No respondents indicated that the core values were unimportant.

Their time at the heights of the tribal leadership ladder is tenuous, however.  Upon graduation, the new Marines are granted ten days of leave so that they can travel home to be with their families and to showcase their transformation.  It is the first real test of their core values: will they live up to the culture Honor, Courage, and Commitment that they so recently internalized, or will they regress down the ladder and tarnish their newly won image?  Once they leave the fishbowl that is recruit training they are faced with the real world and all of its challenges.  Keeping Marines at the top of the cultural ladder is the focus of the four remaining phases of cultural development as they learn their combat skills, occupational specialties, and report to their operational units.  As Marines progress through their careers they will dip down to stage three, and in some circumstances, stage two.  The goal of the organization is to keep everyone at the stage 4/5 level,  and all leaders within the Marine Corps are expected to continually reinforce the core values and culture that they themselves have inculcated in order to provide an example.  Popular culture distractions, illicit drug use, and other negative influences make keeping Marines true to the culture of the Marine Corps and to honor their core values proves to be a constant battle.  Fortunately, in typical Marine Corps fashion, it is a battle that they win.  There are some casualties along the way, but fortunately they are microscopic in comparison to the number of Marines who live the core values and embrace the culture of the Corps.

Recruit training meets the objective of making Marines.  When they earn the coveted EGA and graduate from training they have inculcated the culture of the organization and endeavor to live the core values that they have had etched into their psyche.  They have moved up about two and a half stages in the tribal leadership framework, and have been able to do so in less than three months.  The Marine Corps is able to accomplish this level of cultural commitment because of the unique circumstances that recruit training provides:  Absolute control over the inductees, a carefully designed and tightly managed environment, and a thoroughly trained and committed staff of trainers that are completely dedicated to the culture and core values of the organization.  Are there any lessons that the corporate sector can take away and apply from such an inclusive process?

The answer is yes.  Although there are no companies that can lock up their prospective employees for three months in order to acculturate them, there are tools and techniques that can be lifted from recruit training and applied almost immediately to any firm.  It is important to note, however, that the most important component of cultural change or reinforcement is the commitment of the organization’s leaders; if they do not demonstrate and reinforce the importance of culture then all efforts will fall flat.  The dedication of corporate leadership is the first of five Marine Corps recruit training techniques that a company can use to imbue or reinforce culture.  The remaining four are:

1.            Setting the example.  In the Marine Corps it is called “L” by “E”, or Leadership by Example.  It is absolutely crucial for an organization’s culture to be not just articulated by the top tier of leadership, but the CEO, company President, and other key leaders must exemplify those values themselves.  If the CEO wants to emphasis professionalism as a core value, then he or she had better dress the part and act accordingly.  For the boss to direct everyone to wear a suit and tie to work is one thing, but for him to wear one as well sets the example.  If he wears tee shirt and flip flops while requiring everyone else to live up to his directive then he is a hypocrite and his credibility will suffer.  In terms of culture, if the boss doesn’t live it, why should anyone else?  In terms of the Marine Corps the example is set by the Commandant and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps and by every leader in the organization.  They wear the same uniforms, and wear them properly at all times.  They live the core values 24/7 and expect every other Marine to do the same.  The cultural expectation of the leadership is identical to that of each member of the organization.  Setting and living the example createst the environment that fosters cultural change and reinforcement.

2.            Define your culture.  For the Marine Corps this has been a continual process for nearly two and a half centuries, but in the corporate world there are very few organizations with that kind of heritage and history to draw upon.  As a corporate leader, however, you have the flexibility to define your cultural vision.  Ask yourself a few questions:

“What is important to the organization?”

“How do I want my company to be perceived by its employees?  By its customers?”

“What values or ideals will help the firm be successful?”

“What do I want the company to look like in ten, twenty, or fifty years?”

It is very important to look holistically at the future of the company.  Culture is not trendy like fashion, but instead is the steadying force that keeps the organization moving in the right direction over time.  It is best to develop a cultural identity that transcends the short term business and social cycles and will be effective over the long haul.

It is also important that the cultural identity that you define is consistent with the mission of the company, its strategy, and the people who work there.  The vision of the leadership will create a successful culture if those elements are interwoven in such a way that the cultural ideals resonate across the board.  If the culture goes against any particular element (unless the point of management is to fundamentally change a part of the organization by changing the culture) the attempt will likely fail.

3.            Consistency and clarity of the cultural message.  Once you have defined your culture, you must present it in such a manner that everyone buys into the message.  In order for a culture to take hold and grow it is absolutely necessary for its tenets to be easily understood by the members of the organization.  In the case of the Marine Corps this is exemplified by their succinct articulation of the institution’s responsibity to the nation (to fight the nation’s battles, make Marines, and return better citizens) and core values (Honor, Courage, and Commitment).  In a survey of 92 recruit training graduates 99.4% of respondents correctly identified the Marine Corps core values, even though the respondents graduated from recruit training as far back as 1950.  The message has been clearly and consistently articulated since the formalization of the recruit training process a century ago, and there has been little in the way of deviation from the central themes that are the cornerstone of Marine Corps culture and training.  After observing Marines conducting training in 2012, former Marine John Wilson commented

“I couldn’t believe how much the training that Marines are receiving today is just like what we were doing before we shipped out to Vietnam.”

For a cultural message to resonate a firm should ensure that it is fully understood by all members of the company and that it is consistently delivered.  In addition, sufficient time must be allowed for the messaget to take hold with the members of the firm.  Developing or changing takes time, and it is imparative for corporate leaders to be patient.  The seeds of culture take time to grow.  If the CEO does not allow the necessary time for the culture to take hold the or she will assume it is not working and try to change it.  This creates a cultural identity crisis – employees are left asking “what is going on around here?  Last week “X” was important, and now “Y” is the flavor of the week…”

Develop a cultural message that is short, to the point, and ensure that it is delivered to each and every member of the firm.  Make sure that the message articulates the culture that you wish to imbue before you make it public, though, because if you publicly monkey with the message after it is delivered it will lose its efficacy.  Once released, ensure that the leadership of the company embrace and reinforce it at every appropriate opportunity, and the seeds of culture will begin to sprout.  By clearly articulating cultural ideals and making them a part of the fabric of the company, employees will either come around to embrace them or they won’t, and then management can decide what they need to do with those who won’t come on board with the corporate culture.

4.            Personalize the culture.  When you think of McDonald’s, what image immediately comes to mind?  How about Google?  These companies have almost nothing in common, yet they elicit clear images of their cultural icons of the Golden Arches and the colorful Google search page logo.  The leaders and employees of both companies identify with their corporat icons, and it is evidenced by the artifacts of the company that they willingly embrace.  If you were to run into members of either of those firms on the golf course they would likely be wearing a shirt emblazoned with their corporate logo; likewise they probably have other artifacts such as gym bags or briefcases that carry the brand of their company.   A measure of cultural inculcation is how willing people are to exhibit their affiliation with an organization when they are off the clock.  In the Marine Corps the EGA is the ubiquitous artifact and symbol of the organization and it is not hard to determine if someone is a Marine: just look at the stickers on his or her car or take a peek at their tattoos when they are getting a tan on the beach.

Tie performance to the culture of the organization by using the icons of the firm as rewards.  A pen with the company’s logo on the side is just a pen until it is awarded to someone for doing a good job or living the company’s values.  Then it becomes an awarded artifact that reinforces the culture of the company while simultaneously recognizing the contributions of the recipient.  For this to work, however, management must make the award of the pen something special; if you just hand out a box of logo bearing ballpoints then they serve no purpose at all.  Done properly, something as simple as a pen can be a significant reinforcer of corporate culture.

The United States Marine Corps recruit training process provides a robust example of how an organization is able to thoroughly acculturate its members in a short period of time.  In terms of Tribal Leadership, recruits are able to move from Stage Two to Stage Four/Five in only eleven weeks as opposed to the two years or so that it would take to effect a similar level of change in a non-military environment.  Although corporations can’t really create three month long “bootcamps” of their own, they can utilize some key tenets from recruit training in developing their own cultural acculturation process.  All it takes is for the leaders of the company, firm, or organization to decide what they want their culture to be and to live those values themselves.  If they can set the example and reinforce it with every employee then they will soon have a corporate culture as enviable as Hewlett Packard, McDonald’s, or Zappos.com.


[1]Dave Logan, John King, and Halee Fischer-Wright, Tribal Leadership (New York: HarperCollins Books, 2008), adapted from Chapter 2.

[2] The platoon is the base unit for training recruits.  It is led by a Senior Drill Instructor (DI) and two or three assistant DIs.  Three platoons fall under a series, which is led by a commissioned officer at the rank of Lieutenant or Captain.  Two series form a company.  The company, which is commanded by a commissioned officer at the rank of Captain, is one of four that form a battalion.  Commanded by a Lieutenant Colonel, four battalions form the Regiment, which is commanded by a Colonel.

[3] Treat all references to gender as inclusive of both male and female as the aspects of recruit training apply equally to both sexes even though initial recruit training is not gender integrated.

[4] Platoons range in size from 40 to 80 recruits, depending on the time of year.  They are larger in the summer months as recent high school graduates ship out to the Recruit Depots and smaller in the winter months.

[5] Female recruits do not have their heads shaved, but instead receive instruction on the very specific authorized hairstyles that they will wear during bootcamp.

[6] At the request of many of the Marines that I interviewed for this article all direct quotations are non-attributional.

[7] The stage that the new Marines are in is a hybrid of stages four and five.  Stage four of tribal leadership is predicated on the communal group being in competition with an outside entity, and stage five is defined as having reached a level where competition doesn’t matter.  In the context of recruit training there is no real competition besides the recruits themselves.  Although platoons compete to win the highest scores on the rifle range and the best performance in drill evaluations, those competitions are not viewed as “us versus them” but instead are used to foster better performance within the platoons.  The lack of a competitive foil results in the graduates being between levels four and five.

[8] One interesting inconsistency with the Tribal Leadership definition of stage 3 is the absence of “…and you’re not!” from the “I’m great!” statement.  Any selfish form of competition is relentlessly driven out of the recruit by his DIs and his peers, so the recruit training stage 3 is much more of an expression of increasing confidence in oneself.

[9] The average time necessary to transition from one stage to another is about nine months.

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