Semper Fi and Compliance-Leadership Lessons from the Marines

by Thomas Fox

Marines as Devil DogsEver wonder where the US Marine Corp got its nickname of ‘hellhounds’? It came courtesy of the Imperial Germany Army from a battle that took place in the month of June 1918, the Battle of Belleau Wood. According to the Battle’s entry in Wikipedia, the Marines forces marched 10K to reach a site where the German Army had broken through against the French Army. After arriving on the site and turning back the German advance, the Marines were repeatedly urged to turn back by retreating French forces, Marine Captain Lloyd W. Williams of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines, uttered the now-famous retort Retreat? Hell, we just got here.” 

After the battle, the French renamed the wood “Bois de la Brigade de Marine” (“Wood of the Marine Brigade”) in honor of the Marines’ tenacity. The French government also later awarded the 4th Brigade the Croix de guerre. An official German report classified the Marines as “vigorous, self-confident, and remarkable marksmen…” General Pershing – Commander of the American Expeditionary Force – even said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a Marine and his rifle!” Pershing also said “the Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy.” But it was the Germans who gave the Marine Corp its most lasting moniker, when the called them ‘the dogs from hell.’ Tribute indeed.

I thought about this tribute to the Marine Corp when I recently read an article in the Corner Office section of the New York Times (NYT), entitled “Leading By Putting Your Followers First”, by Adam Bryant. In this article, he profiled Don Knauss, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Clorox Company. Knauss joined the Marine Corp after college and this experience gave him some valuable leadership lessons that Bryant detailed in his article. One of the things that influenced Knauss’ philosophy on leadership was the Marine Corp process of thinking through an issue. Bryant wrote, “I learned in the Marine Corps that I really liked strategy. Every operation in the military is based on a five-paragraph order, and the acronym is Smeac — situation, mission, execution, administration and communication. It’s a very logical flow.”

Another key leadership lesson is defined by the age-old acronym KISS or Keep it simple, sir. Bryant wrote that Knauss said, “how are you going to focus the organization? And it had better be simple, and it probably should not be more than three things. You’ve got to communicate it about 100 times and align your incentive structure to it. It’s about distilling the complex to the simple, and I’ve seen leaders fail because they do the reverse, by trying to make things into some intellectual exercise. Whatever business you’re in, there are fundamentals, just like blocking and tackling in football. It always comes back to the fundamentals. You cannot let yourself get bored with the fundamentals.”

But more than simply communicating something about 100 times to get your message across, Knauss believes that you have to make sure that people believe that you care about them. That is certainly something a compliance practitioner needs to take to heart. Knauss reflected, “it’s all about your people. If you’re going to engage the best and the brightest and retain them, they’d better think that you care more about them than you care about yourself. They’re not about making you look good. You’re about making them successful. If you really believe that and act on that, it gains you credibility and trust. You can run an organization based on fear for a short time. But trust is a much more powerful, long-term and sustainable way to drive an organization.”

Knauss had some interesting insights relating to how he evaluates potential hires that I think makes a lot of sense for the compliance professional to consider.

  1. Passion – Knauss looks for energy and considers whether the person will have an impact on the business.
  2. Smarts – Can the candidate think analytically, creatively and strategically?
  3. Develop others – Is there any pattern in the person’s career that shows they can develop people or put inversely, did people move up through an organization because they were mentored by this person?
  4. Communication skills – Knauss considers if he can imagine this person on a stage, inspiring a large group? He also assesses whether the candidate has an easy, informal manner to conversely test if they are too formal and too focused on hierarchy, as Knauss believes formality and rigidity do not work.
  5. Use of power v. use of authority – Here Knauss believes “it is much more powerful to use authority than power. One of the things I’ve learned is that as you move up in an organization, you’re given more power. The less you use the power you’ve been given, the more authority people give you, because they think: “You know what? This guy’s O.K.” Persuading people to do things – come along with me because we’re going in the right direction – is much more powerful over time.”
  6. Values – Knauss said that the final thing he tries to evaluate is the values of a candidate. He considers that it is important that they are honest and will tell the truth. Moreover, “do they also stand up for what they think is right in the company? It starts with integrity, which is really the grease of commerce. You get things done much more quickly when people trust you.”

However, I found one of the most important lessons that Knauss intoned was about how a leader should treat people. He told the story about how he joined a group of Marines who had been in the field for several weeks and had been eating C-rations. When Knauss met them, they were having their first hot meal since going into the field. Knauss related, “I had been up since 5 in the morning, and I was pretty hungry. I started walking over to get in front of the line, and this gunnery sergeant grabbed my shoulder and turned me around. He said: “Lieutenant, in the field the men always eat first. You can have some if there’s any left.” I said, “O.K., I get it.” That was the whole Marine Corps approach – it’s all about your people; it’s not about you. And if you’re going to lead these people, you’d better demonstrate that you care more about them than you care about yourself. I’ve never forgotten that, and that shaped my whole approach to leadership from then on.”

That final lesson is the most important one for any compliance practitioner. Your gold-plated written compliance program is only as strong as the people you have in your company. If you can demonstrate, and lead in compliance, by showing your fellow company employees that you are there to assist them but you will also go the extra mile to make them understand you care about them, you will get much more out of them at the end of the day.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

© Thomas Fox, Compliance Evangelist | Attorney Advertising

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Thomas Fox

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