14 Things the Marine Corps Taught Me About Running a Business

14 Things the Marine Corps Taught Me About Running a Business

Running your own business is a lot less like the romanticized portrayal we see in movies and television and a lot more like herding kittens through a burning diesel plant.

Unlike every business commercial I’ve ever seen on TV, most entrepreneurs don’t wake up refreshed at the crack of dawn, stroll into a glamorous office with a steaming latte in hand, and proceed to shake hands on a life-changing deal—all before lunch.

In the real world, we are juggling cash-flow, client expectations, and our time—usually at a frenzied pace. We’re trying to find the time to plan for the future while still making time to perform the work that keeps our clients happy and pays the bills. We’re trying to figure out how to offer exactly what prospects want while eliminating what they don’t want. And through all of this, we’re trying to make all the right decisions the first time around.

The bad news is that none of us will make all the right decisions the first time around. There will be a lot of trial and error. Even though I’ve made my share of mistakes, I’ve avoided even more because of what I learned in the most demanding organization ever—the United States Marine Corps.

I’m going to share what I’ve learned with so you can avoid more mistakes and reach your goals more quickly.

I’m sure some people may think there is no correlation between the Marine Corps and business. If that includes you, take a look of what is expected of the typical Marine—often fresh out of high school:

  • We are held to an extreme level of discipline that is unheard of in the civilian world.
  • We learn to overcome more challenges, both physical and mental, than most people will ever experience in a lifetime.
  • We must study and retain extensive knowledge on weapon systems, communication and encryption equipment, global positioning systems, history, geography, foreign language, strategy and tactics, and more.
  • We take on leadership roles in life or death situations at a very young age.
  • We plan all aspects of our missions, including strategy and tactics, communication, supply, and extraction, and execute them in the real-world, under a stress level that would crush most people. While doing so, we must take into account how our actions will affect our fire team or squad, but also how they will affect the platoon, company, battalion, and regiment. (See Commander’s Intent.)
  • We must master diplomacy for dealing with higher-ranking service members and government officials, both American and foreign.
  • We must master leadership skills to motivate junior service members. (Contrary to popular belief, junior service members don’t just jump in and do the best job they are capable of just because you outrank them.)

It doesn’t take long to see how these experiences can give someone a tremendous advantage in a business environment.

Here’s the really good news—you don’t have to go to boot camp to benefit. I’m going to share what the Marine Corps taught me about running a business.

1. You need a plan

The difference between being proactive and reactive in the Marine Corps is often life or death; in business it’s the difference between success or failure.

Without a plan, it’s easy to waste time, energy, and resources dabbling in every opportunity that comes your way.

If you try to react on the fly, you’ll generally make less effective choices, so we planned for damn near everything: what to do in an ambush, what to do if separated from the unit while on patrol, what to do if communications went down, etc.

Business application: Develop a set of plans, starting with the most likely scenarios working your way down to the least likely. It a lot more exciting to plan for an angle investor to swoop in and fund your path to becoming a leader in your niche, but it’s far more likely that you’ll work your ass off to incrementally increase your income month by month.

2. Your plan will fail

No matter how well-trained you are and no matter how thoroughly you plan, something will always go wrong.

Despite extensive planning for a movement to contact drill in the mountains of Korea, my unit managed to get lost en-route to the objective, arriving about six hours late around 0200 (2am). Now, I could say something about a 2nd lieutenant and a compass, but that’s largely irrelevant because anything can go wrong. You could get lost, a vehicle could break down, you could suffer an injury…the list goes on.

While the consequences are less severe, your business plans will fail too. Perhaps you developed the perfect internet marketing plan and a few months in, Google changes their ranking algorithm and you lose all your website traffic. It wouldn’t be the first time. A fire or flood could force your business to close, a business partner could die, a large company could start selling a similar product or service. There are so many things outside your control that could cause your plans to fail. You can do everything right and your plans will still fail.

Business application: Be mentally prepared for your plans to fail and look at it as an opportunity to learn instead of becoming judgmental of yourself.

3. So you better have a backup plan

The solution is to have a backup plan, and if possible, a backup plan to your backup plan. For example, prior to stepping off for a patrol, we would plan for what to do if separated from our unit. Depending on the circumstances, you might establish radio communication, rendezvous at a previous rally point, rendezvous at a new location, utilize a signal flare, etc.

In business, you’ll want to think about what it would look like if a plan failed so you can create a backup plan.

Business application: Create a backup plan for what you’ll do if your primary plan fails completely.

4. You can achieve any goal by consistently putting one foot in front of the other

For me, there was nothing quite as miserable as a hump. That’s when you load all of your gear including a 50-100 pound ruck sack, and walk from point A to point B.

I was a relatively small guy at around 150 pounds or so, but since I was responsible for calling in fire missions and air support, I had to carry communications gear which often added up to an extra 50 pounds to my standard pack. After a few miles, your feet become raw and sore, every part of your body aches, and jolts of pain crash through your body with each thunderous step.

How does one complete such an ordeal? It’s simple, but not easy…take one step at a time. Don’t think about how far you have left to go, instead, focus on the next step. That’s all. Each step is one closer to your goal.

Business application: Accomplish the most intimidating tasks by breaking them into manageable chunks.

5. Be early for everything

Have you ever arrived at an LZ (Landing Zone) after the helos have already left? I have, and it sucks because it means that you have to either extract on foot, which means walking an obscene distance with 50-100 pounds of gear, or posting security and waiting hours or even days for the next extraction window.

As a result, Marines are early for everything.

Business application: Arrive 15 minutes early for every thing. Clients will notice, and it will make up for most travel delays. This applies to deadlines too. Instead of waiting until the last-minute to finish a project, schedule it to be completed 15-20% earlier than your client agreed to.

6. You can’t do everything yourself

I don’t care how bad-ass you are, you can’t win the battle alone. Whether covering overlapping fields of fire, hauling a wounded Marine up the side of a mountain, or splitting watch shifts, being a Marine is a team effort.

Someone might be a weapons expert, have extensive medical training, or decades of leadership experience, but I’ve never met anyone who can do everything at the highest level.

I was very effective with an M16, but my first aid skills were average. I could do amazing things with a radio, but I had no clue how to fly a helicopter. The point is that while you should continually work on improving all of your skills, you should also collaborate with people who complement your weaker areas.

Business application: Delegate early and often for maximum growth. If you don’t trust your employees, or they aren’t capable of performing the tasks, one of two things have happened; either you failed to hire the appropriate employees or you’re have control issues. If you find yourself in this situation, seek the guidance of a business coach or a physiologist to determine which one it is.

7. Discipline matters

If I had a dollar for every time I heard some deadbeat say “I could have been a Marine,” I would have a nice cabin in the mountains by now.

No the fuck they couldn’t. If someone wanted to be a Marine and they were capable, they would have done it. (Unless they chose to do something equally demanding like become an Army Ranger, Navy SEAL, or Air Force Para Rescue.)

Look, being a Marine take a lot of discipline. It’s cute to think you’re “operator as fuck” when you play airsoft in the woods and then drive to Taco Bell to cram a chalupa into your pie hole before firing up the Xbox, but it takes a very different person to trudge through the swamp in the middle of the night, then lay motionless in the mud for hours being devoured by mosquitoes the size of pigeons while awaiting the opportunity to ambush the bad guys.

Discipline allows you to put your personal wants aside to focus on the mission at hand.

Business application: Follow through on your commitments no matter what, and always deliver the best work you are capable of. If you say you’ll have a project complete by a certain day, you deliver that project even if it means camping out at the office for the next three days, and never sacrifice quality. 

8. Deal with the situation you have, not the one you want

When you’re trudging through a waist-deep river at 0300 (3am), it’s easy to think about how great things would be if you were warm and dry with a full belly, but that thinking doesn’t change anything. The only thing it does is make you focus on the negative aspects of your situation.

It doesn’t matter what things might be like if certain circumstances were different. The only thing that matters is dealing with the situation you have right now—otherwise it will never change.

Business application: Instead of thinking about how you want things to be, accept how they are and think about how to continue moving toward your goal from your current situation. Sure, it sucks that your biggest client fired you, but instead of being upset about it, figure out where to make up the revenue and start working towards it immediately.

9. You learn the most when you’re at your worst

When everything is going to shit, you have more opportunities to learn something about yourself and others.

You learn very quickly about being a true team player during boot camp when your entire platoon is punished for your mistakes. Your first hump in full gear will teach you more about your own willpower than you could ever imagine. And retention from formal classroom learning is dwarfed by those conducted during a field operations when you’re cold, wet, and tired.

We learn more from our adversities and failures than we ever could from our successes, so don’t shy away from them.

Business application: Look at failure as an opportunity to learn instead of casting blame. Sure, maybe your business partner screwed you, but there were probably signs you overlooked that you can be more aware of in the future. Take some time to cool off, then evaluate the situation with the intent to learn what you can do better next time.

10. You can’t achieve perfection, but you should always strive for it

We used to spend days, sometimes weeks preparing for inspections. Buttons would be polished, uniforms would be starched and pressed, and ribbons would be carefully positioned, but it didn’t matter. They always found something wrong. Perhaps a small thread handing from a pocket, a fingerprint on a belt buckle, or a ribbon that was 1/16th of an inch off.

We still poured time into each subsequent inspection anyway because even though we would never achieve perfection, that attention to detail brought us closer than most people ever would, and it spilled over into all aspects of our lives.

Business application: Ask each client what you can do to improve your work and use that information to improve the next time around. You can also look at what your competitors are doing to see how you could improve your work.

11. Aggressive action can make up for a tactical disadvantage

The outcome of a firefight is often determined in the first few seconds, based on which side achieves fire superiority first. The term for this is “violence of action” which means that you overwhelm the enemy with speed, surprise, and volume of fire, often enabling a smaller force to dominate a larger force.

This concept is most often used when conducting or attempting to break out of an ambush. In either case, weapons are fired at the maximum rate, and explosives, such as hand grenades, satchel charges, and claymore mines are used to overwhelm the enemy and achieve fire superiority. Once a few enemy are killed or forced to seek cover, the balance of power shifts quickly and exponentially almost immediately.

Business application: Pick a marketing channel and dominate it. If your competitor is blogging once a week, blog three times a week, guest post on other websites, and run a Facebook ad campaign driving traffic back to your own blog. 

12. Standard operating procedures exist for a reason

Do you know why we all carried our first aid kit in the same place? So that in the heat of battle or the darkness of night, we could render aid to an injured fellow Marine without having to search for a pressure bandage.

We had standard operating procedures (SOPs) for everything from combat to admin so that anyone could step in and fill a role in the event that someone was unavailable, injured, or even killed.

Just like planning, which I discussed earlier, you should invest the time to develop effective standard operating procedures. It will simplify and streamline daily operations, as well as enable new members to hit the ground running.

Business application: Develop systems and procedures for your most common tasks, such as handling leads, preparing proposals, or documenting client requests. Standardized procedures improve efficiency, simplify staff training, and enable you to accurately track performance.

13. Sometimes you have to change things on the fly

While SOPs can be very effective, they can also become a crutch. I’ve seen far too many 2nd lieutenants make things twice as difficult or time-consuming because “that’s the way we do it here.”

Does it really make sense to spend a ten minutes trying to establish radio communication with a unit when you’re close enough to use hand and arm signals? In most cases, no, but I saw lieutenants fresh out of OCS do it over and over.

Use your head and feel free to go outside of your SOPs when it makes sense.

Business application: Don’t be afraid of unconventional thinking. You don’t have to do things the way you’ve always done them, and you sure as hell don’t have to do them the way anyone else does. 

14. Titles do not equal competence

I had a Company Commander who showed up hours late to field operations, went home at night while the rest of us slept in the swamps, and disappeared when it was time to go on humps. His grasp of tactics was all but guaranteed to get a lot of Marines killed and he lacked any leadership traits.

In short, he was a shit bag who was just there to check a box before transferring back out of the infantry. (All officers must command an infantry company before being promoted from Captain to Major.)

He was the highest ranking person in our unit, but easily the least qualified.

Business application: Don’t let your role as the CEO go to your head. You are the boss, but you still need to hold yourself to the same standards you hold your employees to or you will lose their trust and respect. Also, be prepared to deal with the fact that some employees may be more knowledgeable on some aspects of your business than you are. In fact, if you’ve hired properly, that is exactly what will happen.

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