This post was written by Cameron McMahon ’19.Cameron served 4 years active duty in the US Marine Corps infantry, deploying twice.
There is a lot of discussion about mission-driven businesses and millennials being attracted to working for them. Along with this come conversations about how to build up your people and create teams that are greater than the sum of their parts. This has been causing me to reflect on my time in the U.S. Marine Corps infantry and how we built and managed teams. Shared hardship tended to be the element which rapidly allowed the willingness to form for us to perform well together. As I am working on starting my farm business and considering best practices for finding and hiring people to help build the business, I am trying to think deeply about the type of culture I want to create.
In the USMC the mission was always provided to us and there was a clear rank structure and roles within that which existed for eliminating uniqueness. There were jobs to be performed and the expectation was that you performed your role and anything else simply wasn’t an option. Extremely high rates of burnout are the norm for junior ranks with this treatment. However, we accomplished the mission and pushed our limits far beyond what we had previously thought possible. We as a human community are facing grave threats in the next several decades that will decide whether or not we are able to continue living on this planet. It is difficult to find the language in a civilian setting to pull the best lessons from the USMC. How to translate the brutal methods and speech for rapidly binding teams together who are willing to work through pain, exhaustion, and fear to run through calf- deep mud filled with mines toward the multiple machine guns firing at you and your friends to a business setting?
I don’t pretend to have any firm answers to these questions. In the process of trying to figure it out though, some things have been clarifying. Motivation is encouraged when people are able to feel a sense of ownership over the process as well as the results. Having a sense that you are part of something larger than yourself and working toward a common goal that serves humanity in useful ways helps to make the day to day tasks required for job performance gain deeper meaning and purpose. Hope works better than fear for motivating people to perform at a consistently high level over time.
Facing the myriad challenges from threats such as climate change cannot be done effectively if people don’t feel as if a better future is possible and their actions matter in creating it. Just as there is no place for cowardice on the battlefield and those who are unable to push through their natural hesitation to endanger themselves are removed from roles where they will get others killed; it is necessary to identify those in an organization who are not bought into the mission and cull them from the team. To create a culture of willing high performance there should be rewards for the victories and the failures in order to encourage everyone to stretch themselves and not fear failure. Great ideas won’t come out if people are afraid of the consequences of failing. An organization, culture or person who is unwilling to change is more of a problem than a solution. As Darwin said, “The species best able to adapt is the most likely to survive.” and as we say in the Corps, “Improvise, adapt and overcome.”