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How Values Drive Performance: What Your Business Can Learn From The US Marine Corps

How Values Drive Performance: What Your Business Can Learn From The US Marine Corps

Kotinos Managing Director James Bowen recently returned from a research visit to the US Marine Corps Recruit Depot in Parris Island, South Carolina. 

During three fascinating days spent in Parris Island, I had the pleasure of meeting many Marines involved in the operation of the base, from Colonel Daniel Haas, Commanding Officer of the Recruit Training Regiment, to several of the Drill Instructors who work intensively with new recruits throughout their 12-week boot camp training programme. My objective was to understand the Marine Corps as a high performance institution and to explore in detail the drivers of their success.

One aspect of their model that really resonated with me – in particular in the context of our ongoing work with clients – is their focus on values as a real, visceral start point for success. The Marine Corps values of Honour, Courage and Commitment have been long-established. However, they are as relevant and central to the Marines today as when they were originally launched. Indeed the main purpose of boot camp training is to inculcate new recruits with Corps values – defining them, illustrating them, and ultimately driving the recruits to adopt them permanently as their own – Semper Fidelis

Reflecting on how the Marines use values as a key enabler of their high performance model, I would highlight three key aspects as follows:

1. They link values to purpose

The Marines link their values of Honour, Courage and Commitment positively and explicitly to purpose – both of the Marine Corps overall, and of each individual function or group within the Corps. They do this by addressing the question “What do Honour, Courage and Commitment mean – in the context of our overall purpose (to win the nation’s battles) as well as in the context of what our group is trying to do?” Clearly the answer developed by a combat group deployed in the field will differ significantly from that of a group of Drill Instructors leading a platoon of recruits at Parris Island. However, by virtue of having the overall institutional purpose as a shared “true North”, these answers will complement each other. Through this exercise, the Marines convert generic, abstract terms into specific concepts that are tangible, meaningful and relevant for those involved. 

In business – particularly large corporations – the power of values is too often diluted by “leaving them out there” as abstract, worthy ends in themselves. By internalizing and relating them to purpose (both corporate and team) – through discussion of the same “What do these mean for us?” question – these institutions could bring a lot more focus, rigour and energy to their activities. 

2. They link values visibly to performance

 The US Marine Corps is steeped in history. Indeed the Corps’ history is very visible everywhere at Parris Island – whether in the form of statues, flags, posters and displays on view around the base, or in its prominence in the curriculum of the boot camp recruits. The interesting thing though is that when historical stories are told, they are presented explicitly as examples of the core values of Honour, Courage and Commitment being lived (or not lived in the case of the more negative events). As such, values are presented as being integral to the achievement of performance, with performance bringing obvious consequences in the form of recognition and the creation of enduring legacy (or infamy).  Increasing the visibility of values “in action” in this way adds to their inherent meaningfulness and builds institutional self-confidence.

Examples abound – both big and small – within businesses and other organisations of individuals and teams achieving high performance outcomes directly by living their corporate values. Leaders could – with minimal effort – go much further than they do in leveraging these examples to affirm the link between values and performance and, in doing so, to build the personality and cohesion of their organisations.

3. They link values to every aspect of their organisation – including but beyond behaviour

In the Marine Corps, the implementation of Honour, Courage and Commitment goes beyond behaviour to encompass every aspect of how things are done. It impacts the way in which the organisational structure is designed (e.g. heavy emphasis on enlisted ranks and Sergeants in particular), the nature and functioning of key processes (e.g. the processes and standards for deciding on and communicating orders), the nature and flow of information around the organisation, and also the design and configuration of the physical environment. Extending the scope of their implementation of values in this way facilitates a tightening of all aspects of how the Marines operate day-to-day, streamlining their model and significantly sharpening their focus on performance.

Discussions on values in most organisations typically default quickly to being solely about behaviour. This, however, completely limits the opportunity for values to positively influence performance. Opening up the discussion to consider all aspects of “how we work and where we work” presents a huge opportunity for accelerating organisational performance improvement.

Statements of values are on prominent display in every institution we visit around the world. Invariably these are well articulated and capture worthy sentiments and high aspirations on the parts of organisational leaders. It is diminishingly rare, however, to find an institution that really, proactively, puts its values at the heart of what it’s about and of how it performs. By linking its values proactively and explicitly to its purpose, performance and the totality of its organisational model, the US Marine Corps is a very compelling example of just such an institution. As such it provides a great benchmark for others, in other fields, with genuine aspirations to be the best.

How does your organisation channel values to drive performance? Tweet us @KotinosPartners