The Marine Corps’ culture has to change
No supervisor wants to lose their best assets, but supervisors must adopt a selfless talent management mindset: could this Marine serve the Corps better elsewhere?
To keep its best and brightest, the Marine Corps must look itself in the mirror — its culture suffocates talent. Within this culture rages a never-ending fight between uniformity of career progression and diversity of thought and experience. Yet, uniformity generally wins: there is less risk in known commodities. No doubt, uniformity is a great tool for discipline, but professional uniformity stifles new ideas and drives away some of the Marine Corps’ best talent. The Marine Corps can leverage its professional diversity to improve its lethality, something it only recently realized. In late 2020, the Commandant of the Marine Corps published Talent Management 2030, a framework for redefining the way it will recruit and retain talent. But his concepts will take time to implement. In the meantime, Marines must focus on changing the culture behind our talent management; a singularly top-down approach will alienate some of our best Marines. To change this culture, we can start by giving credence to experience, fostering a culture of honesty, and creating an obligation to challenge the status quo.
1. Give credence to experience
Experience must count for something. In today’s Marine Corps, only military experience matters. Years of work in the private sector, advanced degrees and technical certifications, and experience living and working overseas are seen, at best, as an afterthought, and at worst, ignored altogether.
Imagine a 30-year-old intelligence officer who has worked as a civilian intelligence analyst, has experience in the public policy arena, spent time as a speechwriter, and has developed other soft skills new officers lack. But she gained all this experience and these skills prior to joining the Marine Corps. Despite joining the Marines with a resume of practical experience, her training, pay, and treatment will mirror that of someone joining straight out of college. Why? Because they have to gain fundamental skills. Maybe. Because they have to develop their leadership skills. Perhaps. But the 30-year-old already has most of those skills and will likely adapt much quicker than her 21-year-old counterpart who has known, up to this point, only the life of a professional Marine. Why would the Marine Corps not leverage that ability and these advanced skills? A hospital does not treat a resident physician the same as a surgeon with 10 years of experience. The same should hold true for positions in the Marine Corps.
Marines expect their military experience to translate into the civilian world when they retire. Their skills are unique, often battle-tested, and without comparison in the civilian world. This idea is not just embraced; it’s broadly espoused in career transition programs and roundly confirmed for our most talented Marines who enter the civilian world at levels that bypass the traditional ladder. So, if this is true, why doesn’t the reverse also hold?
The Marine Corps’ worst-kept secret is that these individuals are treated the same because that previous experience is not Marine Corps experience. To the Marine Corps, regardless of an entry-level individual’s background, they lack the leadership and cultural indoctrination to succeed. But this mindset is shortsighted. To be sure, there are certain leadership skills that the Marine Corps enhances, but it does not have a monopoly on those skills. And a lack of experience with Marine culture can easily be remedied by tactful individuals who learn quickly. In fact, initial training is where most cultural indoctrination occurs. Once Marines arrive at their first units, they must learn the unit identity. By that point, each Marine should have a firm grasp of organizational culture.
Workforce culture shackles our talent to a bias toward uniformity. Experience outside the military is foreign to most senior military officers who have spent their entire professional careers in the U.S. military. And even if they understand this experience, if the information fails to be used, its existence is useless. This cookie-cutter approach — starting new service members in the same position regardless of experience — limits our ability to elevate talent and reward performance, past or present. These individuals with helpful outside experience do not make up a majority of the military. But as any great enterprise understands, one must strive to keep its most coveted assets and use them as quickly as it can.
To help the Marine Corps better leverage these assets, Marines must inform senior leaders of their Marines’ experience and contributions (e.g. an insightful article, a new degree, prior experience, or an in-office achievement). Talent management personnel only have so much bandwidth; supervisors provide another layer to ensure that Marines’ talents do not remain unknown. Until a thorough talent management can match skill sets to billets in place, the Marine Corps should also give talent managers the flexibility to offer mid-tour moves to fill gaps in critical billets. Supervisors can help provide insight to these talent managers on how to best leverage these assets. No supervisor wants to lose their best assets, but supervisors must adopt a selfless talent management mindset: could this Marine serve the Corps better elsewhere? If a Marine’s current role does not make use of their skills to the highest degree, this is a disservice as much to the Marine as it is to the Marine Corps. Just as star players are not placed on the bench during the championship game, our best talent should not be relegated to jobs that other newcomers can learn quickly and succeed in.
2. Foster a culture of honesty
The Marine Corps preaches integrity and honesty. Failure is tolerated, but lying ends careers. Ironically, however, the Marine Corps has created a culture where honesty about one’s own career could endanger that individual’s career. For example, if a service member tells their boss “You know, I’m considering leaving the military for personal and professional reasons. What do you think?” This could harm their career through the evaluation process. Those who want the highest evaluation possible are best served by voicing that they are careerists until they have filed for separation. The Marine Corps says it wants explorers, but rewards loyalists. That’s wrong. Marines should feel confident they can discuss their careers openly with their chain of command if, for no other reason, because leaders are encouraged to mentor their subordinates. This fear limits Marines’ ability to learn what the Marine Corps can offer and deprives the Marine Corps of the information needed to best retain their most valued personnel. Marines should feel comfortable living life with radical honesty. Openness to other life opportunities is not a sin; punishing Marines for this openness is, though.
Marines need ruthless honesty in return. The Marine Corps must explain why a Marine failed to receive a position or location they are qualified for. “Needs of the service” is not a helpful response to this request. Supervisors must ask talent managers why their Marine failed to receive the role they requested. Providing this level of granularity may be difficult, but it is something the Marine Corps must strive for. Armed with this information, Marines will know where they must improve and why they failed. While immediate supervisors are charged with giving their Marines feedback, their sight-picture is limited. Talent managers, those who are familiar with the broader population, can provide valuable insight immediate supervisors lack.
3. Create an obligation to challenge the status quo
Supervisors should create a culture where there is an obligation to challenge the status quo, not only a willingness. Why? Because Marines who think they are just another cog in the machine feel powerless — especially when underutilized or improperly used. Creating an outlet for this unspent energy is not only cathartic but useful. If Marines feel stuck in a talent management quagmire, the very least the Marine Corps can do is help them improve their immediate surroundings.
Here is one way to do so: Each quarter every Marine in a platoon should create a policy memo, no more than two pages, that describes a problem and offers a solution. All Marines, irrespective of rank, will write a policy memo. Once completed, the Platoon Commander will review these memos. For solutions that can be enacted through their authority, the memo will stop there. Memos with solutions that require higher authority will be forwarded to the right level. To be sure, some may argue that a Battalion Commander does not have time to read hundreds of policy memos written by junior Marines each quarter. If so, a review of the memos can be delegated, as any good commander understands well.
This exercise provides several benefits. First, it will force Marines to think critically about their profession, and what issues cause problems for the unit. Secondly, the solutions will help senior leaders evaluate concerns they may not even know exist — no person has a monopoly on good ideas, and everyone has blind spots. As much as the ideas can help the organization, the exercise can help the individual — Marines will improve their writing skills, something that each Marine should constantly strive to do. And as writing improves, so will their communication. Lastly, and most importantly, this exercise has the power to create a culture of buy-in. There is no better way for Marines to feel part of their profession than by improving their profession.
There will be a natural inclination to censor some ideas. Resist it. Of course, these policy memos should be written respectfully and supported by facts. But if senior members in the office disagree with an approach or conclusion, they can attach their response to the policy memo and forward it to senior leaders. But censorship of an idea will cause this exercise to backfire. Even bad ideas can create positive change by merely raising an issue and allowing leaders to develop better, more appropriate responses.
Highly talented Marines want to feel their skill sets are challenged, not wasted. If they do feel as though their talent and abilities are being wasted, the second best option is helping those Marines feel they have a voice. And, possibly more importantly, the Marine Corps needs grassroots innovation to align with top level strategic objectives. No doubt, some ideas will be ignored completely. That is fine — propose a better idea. At some point though, one idea will attract attention and improve the Marine Corps.
Talent Management 2030 is bold, exciting, and refreshing. But this framework is simply a concept right now. And currently, the Marine Corps lacks a talent management culture. Instead, it has a personnel management culture — it manages Marines as inventory, ignoring their skill sets and talents. This culture fails to meet the Commandant’s intent behind this document. Changing this culture will be much more difficult than implementing Talent Management 2030 — but much more important. Marines cannot wait for new processes like Talent Management 2030 to become a reality. They must seek ways to implement its ideals and principles now. True innovation — of the sort the Commandant has directed — requires intellectual rebels; it requires those who are not afraid of risk. Some ideas will fail or just be ignored. Some higher-ups will respond that you do not have the authority to make changes. Yet you must still try — for the good of those who serve under you and the good of your service.
Captain Steven Arango is a Judge Advocate in the Marine Corps and serves as a trial counsel at Marine Corps Base Quantico. He is also the co-founder and a board member of Law Clerks for Diversity, a 501(c)(3) non-profit focused on increasing diversity in federal clerkships. He has published commentary for the Wall Street Journal, SAIS Review for International Affairs, Marine Corps Gazette, and Fox News.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of the Navy, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.