How My Son Joining the Marine Corps Helped My Roofing Business
Roofing Contractor Ken Kelly Shares a Unique Look at the Pentagon and One of America’s True Top Organizations.
Austin always knew he wanted to become a U.S. Marine. Ever since he was young, he spoke about joining the Corps and becoming part of something greater than himself. Approaching his senior year of high school, I started planning for “empty nest syndrome” and becoming a military parent. What I didn’t realize is just how much it would help me be a better roofing contractor and business leader.
As a young, single parent pushing 40, Austin and I grew up together fostering an amazing relationship. I’ve always wanted him to follow his dreams, not mine, and supporting those dreams is a duty I take seriously. So, when it was time for him to ship off to boot camp I was ready. In the months leading up I prepared like anyone would. I bought a dog, moved into an urban condo and started thinking about what I would do with all the extra free time I was about to have.
But in reality, shipping off to boot camp was harder for me than it was for him. Just knowing that I couldn’t call him and wouldn’t see him for months made it worse. To help ease the pain I turned to learning all I could about the marines so I could understand and support him in his new life. I read The Marine Corps Way, This Recruit, and Send More Stamps. The more I read, the more interested I became in the structure of the Marine Corps and how it operates. Much of which was relayed in the daily letters written to Austin so he knew my support was there. That’s when it started sinking in; the principles of the Marine Corps could really make a difference in my roofing business.
The Marine Corps is the smallest of all U.S. military branches with just 186,000 personnel throughout the world. It also has the smallest operating budget, relatively (roughly $27 billion in 2014). Marines can be deployed at anytime, anywhere by presidential order without a declaration of war from congress. They are the “tip of the spear” and are usually the first to go in. Marines are “Semper Fi,” or “Always Faithful,” living by a rich heritage and learning through their experiences. They are an Army, Navy and Air Force in one. Simply put, marines “do more with less.” If ever there was an organization to borrow good principles from, this is it.
Marines: Everything has a standard operating procedure. As an experimental aircraft mechanic, Austin showed me just how far the Marines take this. Every tool has a foam cutout designed to fit only that tool. There is no way to mess it up. That type of simplicity ensures errors are minimal. All parts, tools, buildings, dress code and processes have a number or name. They use a manual where everything has a referencing description of the why and the how.
Business: Document each step of your business process. Every step of a roof installation needs to be defined. Train to those standards, and “inspect what you expect.” If an item is stocked, even in the office, have a place for it that’s labeled with the maximum quantity to keep on hand.
Marines: Every recruit goes through an intense transformation for 12 full weeks. The basics are taught and nothing is assumed. The key to this training is to create camaraderie. In life or death situations it’s critical to know the person next to you knows what you know, thinks like you think and acts as you would act. It’s comforting to just know they will watch your back. After successfully completing boot camp a recruit then earns the title “Marine.”
Business: Create a “new employee orientation” full of basic information about your company, including a recap of the most important items from your employee manual, basic safety, pay system, company history, mission and goals. Some workers compensation insurance companies offer discounts, which will help cover the costs. Instill a great sense of purpose about your organization so all know what you stand for and how important it is. Repeat the importance of safety and quality. Make sure everyone is empowered to notify management with reward, if a safety or quality violation occurs.
Marines: School of Infantry or Marine Combat Training, is the next step every enlisted marine goes through. This is a real-world environment training designed to teach every Marine how to fight, even those with supporting, non-fighting roles.
Business: Every employee should know how to install a roof, even those who work in the office. Armed with field knowledge, they’ll be able to respond intelligently when needed.
Marines: Military Occupational Specialty school immediately follows SOI/MCT. This is where the marine will receive detailed training on their “job” or specialty.
Business: Just because a new hire says they know how to install a roof, doesn’t mean they really do. Make them show you what they know. Don’t take anything for granted. To ensure lasting quality, make it clear how your company installs roofs, step by step. The same goes for answering phones, returning emails or any other process. Teach the details.
Marines: Every marine is assigned a mentor. This trusted advisor is there to guide the marine through their career, always making sure they are working toward the future.
Business: Establish a mentorship program. On a regular basis, review each employee’s goals. A common question we ask is, “where do you see yourself in five years?” Then help the employee break down the steps needed to meet that goal and assist them.
Rank and Promotion
Marines: Rank and promotion are based on a point system. Tenure is only a small part of “ranking up.” The main way to accumulate points is through excellent performance reviews and continued advancement through training.
Business: Establish a distinct point system for pay raises, bonuses, promotions, outstanding customer service, and safety. Include everyone in the program, and make the points are attainable, but not automatic. The goal is to create “Kaizen,” a culture of continuous improvement.
Recently I was honored with the opportunity to attend the Marine Executive Forum at the Pentagon. This free, day-long and insightful look behind the scenes exposes the inner workings of the Marine Corps and is open to the public. The tour starts at 06:00 and includes: an inside tour of the Pentagon; real-time world situation security briefing; a tour of HMX-1, better known as Marine One when the president is aboard; an introduction into Marine Corps history; light arms combat training; a Q&A with a Marine Corps general, and VIP parade attendance at the Commandant of the Marine Corps house; and so much more. While at the Pentagon I was able to ask a lieutenant general what their keys to success are by doing more with less. Here’s what he said:
Marines: The Marine Corps breeds great leaders. Their mantra, “Leaders lead from the front.” Rather than calling all the shots from the safety of a base thousands of miles away, leaders are respected for their front-line engagement. This “do as I do” mentality ensures future leaders will maintain that same level of awareness, giving them the conscience to be great leaders.
Business: It’s hard to fix a problem if you can’t see it. I strongly recommend regularly spending an entire day living the life of an employee to know what it’s really like. Your experience passed along will help that employee fix problems before they happen and create a well-oiled machine out of your business.
Marines: Early on in boot camp, future Marines are taught that in order to survive they will need to work together. Complex problem solving is adopted as a group to “adapt and overcome” the objective. Each “mission” is broken down into smaller missions so the task isn’t so daunting. Marines are taught to “focus” on a single mission and not get distracted by what’s going on around them.
Business: Focus and teamwork are powerful tools in business. Ask for small improvements the company can make at weekly meetings. Take problems and work them out as a group. Assign a small task to each team to complete. Focus on only three problems per quarter and do whatever it takes to implement the solution before the quarter ends. Even if a “grenade” goes off, don’t lose focus on completing the mission. This type of focus allows even smaller companies to be great ones.
Marines: The most radically different part of the Marine Corps is their structure. Not in terms of a rank or organizational chart, but in the way it’s actually executed. No officer ever makes a decision without seeking the advice of their enlisted. The difference is in how leadership uses decision making. Leadership’s role is not to make decisions, but to assign objectives. All decision making is performed at the lowest ranks of the Marine Corps. An object may be to storm a beach head for example. The way that would be relayed from an officer would be something like this, “We need to storm that beach. In order to accomplish your mission, what support do you need from me.” Officers and higher ranked marines know their role is to support those under them; the ones on the front lines.
Business: Everyone’s role should be to support those actually doing the field work. Ask what you could do to make their job easier, giving them a greater chance for a successful installation. If those on the front line are serving your customers, your role is to serve them.
Having a child in the military makes me insanely patriotic. Although this article focuses on the Marine Corps, I want to thank all of those who have served. You’ve allowed all of us to earn the title “American.”