Being a Marine Corps-style leader may be exactly what you need to be in your company. And it’s not what you think it is.
When it comes to managing people, there are all sorts of styles that managers adapt that work for them. Those styles become the foundations for the corporate culture that is your business. For me, I try to follow some very simple and yet extremely effective lessons that I learned while serving in our armed forces.  

I was privileged to serve my country in the 2nd Battalion of the U.S. Marine Corps. I was supposed to have been a reservist; you know, one of those weekend warriors. But between boot camp, basic warrior school, two specialized training schools and about a year serving active duty as a Nuclear, Biological and Chemical weapons specialist in the first Gulf War, I ended up spending closer to three years active, with the remainder of my time as a reservist while going to college.  

I learned a few things about managing people in the Corps – things that, until I grew a bit older, I never really recognized as essential to the overall health and morale of my employees and our own corporate culture. Now, I know that you might think they are all about discipline, harshness and me being the Drill Instructor for my company: the head honcho, the guy who makes all the hiring and firing decisions, the tough guy. What I discovered, almost by accident over the years, is that I am exactly the opposite.  Here are the top 3 things that have helped me over the years:

Lesson 1:  Chain of Command is important!

I understand if you are a 4-person company, that chain of command isn’t something that comes straight to mind, or that is currently practical. Still, as we scale our businesses, it becomes important that we do not overlook how important it is for the senior management staff to not be involved with every employee decision/problem. By forcing your staff to not come directly to you with problems or issues, what you are really forcing them to do is to think about what their issue is first, before they just vent it out to the boss.  

I require all of my employees to first speak with their shift supervisor or team leader. If that doesn’t work, we have them speak with my office manager. If by then it cannot be resolved, then I will try to resolve it. By forcing this chain, it gives employees the time they need to actually think about what their problem is, and often, they find ways to resolve them without having to involve any of my staff at all. In short, if there is no filter to get to me, then it will all come to me because I am the easy person to talk too. Use the chain of command as your filter.  

Lesson 2:  I am not the bad guy!

I am the easy person to talk to. I said that above. Here is why. When I was in boot camp, I had three Drill Instructors: two Juniors and my Senior Drill Instructor, Staff Sgt. Sax. Now, in the course of any given day, you could count on them to scream at you, force you into impossible situations, and punish you mercilessly. That is what boot camp is all about right? Well, for the most part yes, unless something happened to you.  

If you got sick, or injured, if you had bad news from home, or something out of the ordinary routine happened, it was always Senior who pulled you aside, and spoke to you like a human, and helped you get through it when no one else would. He was still in charge, and he was still the boss, but his job wasn’t to berate me constantly. His job was to make sure I became a Marine and to take care of any special needs as they arose as I trained.

This had always surprised me as I thought Senior was the guy to drop the hammer. And he certainly could be, but really, his Junior Instructors were the enforcers of the rules. Senior was the guy who you trusted would be there for you if you needed him. As the owner of my business, this is who I try to be. My job isn’t to be the enforcer, but rather to try and get to the root of problems and help employees work through them. I can drop the hammer, but most of the time I really try not to.

Lesson 3:  Do what you say and say what you mean.

What we say to our employee’s and what we do to back up our words means everything. In the Corps, there is a tradition where the lower ranked Marines eat first. Always. From private, all the way up the chain to the senior officers, the men at the bottom always eat first. This was always done in respect of the work that is being done by the grunts on the front line.

If you expect your people to go to bat for you day after day, and to trust you blindly when you ask them to do things that don’t always make sense to them, you had better do everything that you can to show them that you care about their efforts and will be right there with them if needed. Just giving them a paycheck isn’t enough. If you make a promise, keep it. If you can take vacations, so can your people, and so on.   

Actions speak volumes, and words are just words without them.  Build some loyalty by starting a few traditions of your own in your business and, honestly, be a goof sometimes.   It sounds so simple, but I have found the most difficult thing to do is express my appreciation to my staff through more than just words. Be creative!

There are so many things that I could continue to list, but I’d say the above cover the top three relatively well. We have managed to build a culture here where we are all fiercely loyal to each other, and we all do our best to grow together as a business. I can honestly say that I learned a lot from the Marines in ways that I never expected. It only took me owning a business to actually see that I had. Who knew that my senior officers back then actually were NOT crazy, and knew something about running a business? Well, now I know how my employees sometimes see me, and it affects my decision-making every day. I like it that way.

Shawn Christian is owner of My Maid Service – Dallas and is fiercely competitive with his brother Derek, owner of My Maid Service – Cincinnati. Shawn’s revenue exceeded Derek’s within 3 years of opening.