A Fighter Pilot and a Marine’s Perspective on What Business Can Learn from the Military

“The consequences to messing up in the civilian world can be serious. What hasn’t been serious enough is building a culture that welcomes that sort of taking a stand.”

Lt. Col. Rob ‘Waldo’ Waldman, CSP, CPAE, MBA is the author of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestseller Never Fly Solo. A decorated combat fighter pilot, co-founder of The Wingman Foundation, and inductee into the Speakers Hall of Fame, Waldman recently joined fellow esteemed veteran Ken Marlin for a Heleo Conversation. Marlin served as an infantry commander in the United States Marine Corps before becoming an entrepreneur, investment banker, and author of The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street: 11 Key Principles from Battlefield to Boardroom. They discussed a wingman’s approach to business, why missions are more important than relationships, and how to build a culture of trust.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. For the full conversation, click on the Soundcloud audio file above or the video below.

Waldo: Guys like us who leave the military can find it very difficult to acclimate to the business world. Not everybody has the integrity or the commitment or the preparation focus. What did you find was your biggest challenge? And what do you still find that’s out there now?

Ken: I think it’s a mixed feeling. Certainly one of the very first things I felt when I came out of the Marine Corps was that I didn’t know where I fit in. I didn’t know what to wear. I didn’t always know how to act in meetings. A few times, I had peers suggest to me that I needed to sort of go along and get along and that’s not necessarily my nature as a Marine. If I see things that are not going in the direction I think they ought to go, then I have a tendency to step up and say something. It certainly took a little while for me to adjust to the rhythms of civilian life.

I was fortunate that I picked a company that appreciated former military and in which there were some other former military around me, and in which the senior management valued the traits that I brought to the job, even if a lot of the people at the middle level didn’t fully appreciate it. Your comment about integrity and values is interesting. I believe that the vast majority of people want to do the right thing. I think that most people are not bad guys, but you get into companies that have cultures that value the individual over teams, which is clearly not the way that the military operates.

You get into these cultures in which companies are valued based on the market cap of the company and individuals are valued based on their net worth, and people get warped. Whether they intend them to or not, they wind up encouraging people to engage in shady practices, in part because that’s how they get rewarded, and in part because people who get caught don’t really get punished, and that’s a culture that the military would fight against. I would say in the Marine Corps one of our mottos was ‘Do the right things for the right reasons every time. No excuses.’ It would be nice if we could get that translated into the civilian world.

Waldo: So true. I think many times they don’t have the leadership emulating those traits, and that sets the example that then filters down. My book is about being a wing-man, a trusted partner, creating environments where other people can come to for help. It’s about being able to look to your left and right and feel confident that that person, that organization, is dependable and those core values are so critical.

“I think that the consequences in the civilian world sometimes can be more serious than people realize.”

I know in the Marine Corps you had values, and in the Air Force and at the Academy it was integrity first. Service before self. Commitment to excellence. Those weren’t just words, they were bled into the DNA of the blood and guts of every man and woman in that squadron.

What I find fascinating is that we know that if we don’t do our job right, our lives are on the line. So how do you share that sense of responsibility with people who are selling software or providing investment banking services or building a franchise. It’s hard to do that.

Ken: I think that the consequences in the civilian world sometimes can be more serious than people realize. The second chapter of my book is called ‘Take a stand’ and some people think that that’s about being decisive. It’s more about a willingness that you have in the Marine Corps to tell people things that they need to hear even if they don’t want to hear them. Sometimes it means speaking truth to power. There are a bunch of engineers at General Motors that, had they spoken up sooner, General Motors wouldn’t have been shipping cars with faulty ignition switches, and more than 50 people would be alive today.

That’s some pretty serious consequences for not taking a stand. Not doing the right thing. There are a group of engineers or executives at Volkswagen that, had they spoken up sooner, Volkswagen wouldn’t have shipped tens of thousands of cars with emission systems that were polluting the air at rates far higher than they were permitted, and Volkswagen wouldn’t now be paying billions of dollars in fines and restitution and suffering a loss to their reputation. The same thing is true of what’s been happening with Wells Fargo.

The consequences to messing up in the civilian world can be serious. What hasn’t been serious enough is building a culture that welcomes that sort of taking a stand.

Waldo: In the business world, people say it’s all about relationships, and I think that can destroy the functionality and discipline necessary to adapt, to innovate, to create environments where others can come to you for help and tell you what you need to hear—not what you want to hear.

In the military, we have to be mission-focused, not relationship-focused. We could be friends, but at the end of the day we have to be focused on doing what needs to be done, hitting the target, getting everybody safely home. I think that’s one thing that separates us from the civilian world where it’s a lot about being a crony and not ticking people off. We want to tick people off. We want to do the right thing. Right?

Ken: I completely agree. I call it taking the long view: all tactics that a company takes ought to be designed to help the organization achieve some clearly defined, clearly measurable long-term goal. Every action that we take—whether it’s hiring a person, opening an office, closing an office, buying a company—it all ought to advance the organization towards that goal.

“You don’t have to fight every battle just because you can. You only fight the battles that you need to fight.”

It sounds obvious. But it’s amazing how often it gets ignored. Consider Microsoft buying LinkedIn. I think LinkedIn is a really cool company. I was among the first 1,000 users of LinkedIn. Everybody in my company uses it. But it was a deal that didn’t need to be done to advance Microsoft towards a clearly defined long-term strategy, and I predict that just as it has with several other deals, Microsoft is going to wind up writing off a significant portion of the purchase price.
Marines who see a bunch of bad guys on a hill some place don’t automatically go fight them. Sometimes we say, “Leave them on the hill.” You don’t have to fight every battle just because you can. You only fight the battles that you need to fight.

Waldo: There’s a saying I like: beware of distractions disguised as opportunities. We wake up every day and there’s emails coming in, phone calls, potential opportunities that are really distractions from staying on that target. We have to ask ourselves, “What’s my short-term objective today? What do I need to get done to advance me to that point as a business leader, as an entrepreneur, as an executive that will help continue me on this trajectory of success, growth, freedom, whatever it is.”

In addition to avoiding distractions, we need to incorporate into our daily practices other folks, other wing-men who can tell us the missiles that we may be missing or the target that we may be missing. This goes back to that culture you were talking about, where you’re listening for feedback, saying, “Hey, what do you got for me? What do you see that I don’t see? Tell me what’s up. Make me feel uncomfortable.” Creating that open collaborative communication is important for making smart decisions, for going for the long term objective and not being distracted by the shiny object.

Ken: I agree. I just had a conversation with a CEO yesterday and said, “Part of your challenge is that you’ve never seen an opportunity you can walk away from. There are only so many of these opportunities that you and your organization can handle. No matter how attractive this other one seems, you wind up diluting your ability to get any of them actually done when you keep taking on new ones.”

Waldo: I like to relate to it as a flying a fighter. When you are strapped into a jet, you can’t see behind you, which is your most vulnerable position, but when your wing-man is at your left or right, they can look over your shoulder and check what we call your six, the blind-spot. It’s somebody having your back.

We know this in the military. The concept of mutual support, that we don’t go it alone, that we need each other. I think that’s what makes the military so effective. We have assigned roles and responsibilities. We are maniacally prepared for them. We’ve rehearsed the contingencies. We know our role. We have the discipline and the focus to say, “I know what I’m responsible for, and if I go outside of that lane, then I’m maybe messing up the entirety of that mission.”

It’s important that we share this with companies who often lack that discipline, to help build a collaborative culture that innovates, adapts to change, and ultimately grows.

Ken: Yes, one of my frustrations with the corporate world is often they unintentionally build compensation systems that don’t reward the kind of behavior you’re talking about. They don’t reward somebody for helping the other guy out, warning him that there’s somebody on his 6 that’s about to fire a missile at him. We create these compensations systems in which they get no benefit whatsoever from helping somebody else. It’s a system that rewards individuals over the organization.

“Ultimately people do what you pay them to do, and if you don’t reward them for good behavior, then you are not going to get good behavior.”

In my company, because we are transaction-oriented and we work on margin acquisition deals, every time a deal closes, several things happen. One is we ring a bell. Everybody celebrates in the success. Two, and at least as meaningful, every time a deal closes, everybody in the company gets a check. The size of that check varies, but the receptionist gets a check, the marketing manager gets a check, every single person gets a check when the deal closes. So we don’t get this, “What’s in it for me if I help?” Regardless of the words that come out of the top people, ultimately people do what you pay them to do, and if you don’t reward them for good behavior, then you are not going to get good behavior.

Waldo: You’re right. Also, we need to create environments where people are able to admit when they mess up. If you are going to rip people’s heads off or cut them off at the knees when they admit a mistake, then you are also preventing a culture of trust. You are preventing your organization from making good decisions not just for their constituents, their customers, but for their fellow employees, who will often reap the negative consequences of their peers’ actions.

So many people are leaving corporate America, going off and doing their own thing, because they’re seeing these leaders out there who aren’t really emulating the things that they were taught. I think we have to build that entrepreneurial spirit back into corporate America, leverage some of the principles that we learned in the military, which is really about adapting to changes, and these very adverse environments where if we don’t do our job right, the consequences are great.

But it’s also about the love. We’ve got to love what we do. The thrill of it, right? The thrill of going to battle, the thrill of having that sense of responsibility, the excitement, the adrenaline. If we don’t love what we do, if we’re not willing to make those sacrifices, no book, no philosophy, no speaker can change anything.

What’s the one thing that you’d like to leave for any aspiring leader looking to grow? To build that business and to build that future of success?

Ken: As we said, culture is extremely important. Culture starts at the top, with an attitude that says we’re going to do the right things for the right reasons every time, no excuses. That means being willing to know yourself, your weaknesses as well as your strengths, and not getting caught up in doing things you shouldn’t do.

It’s about knowing the other guy, too. It’s about not having a caricature of the other guy. I see this too often in the news. The bad guys just all hate Americans and they just want to kill us and that’s all there is to it. You need to go a little deeper than that and understand why people are doing what they are doing.

It’s about negotiating with honor and not taking advantage of the unwary, the unsophisticated or the weak, and it’s about not skipping steps and doing it with discipline and honor. And if you can put it all together, then I think you can make a lot of money. I have nothing against people making money as long as they do things the right way, in a way that they can continue to hold their heads high.

Waldo: I think you’ll agree that we don’t need to wear uniforms to serve. We do it every day in our communities, in our businesses, in our families. We don’t need to wear a flight suit or carry an M16 to be of service to our country. Happy Veterans’ Day to you, sir.
This conversation has been edited and condensed.