One of the first things seared in to my psyche upon arrival at recruiter training in the Marines was the term esprit de corps. Having not taken French, I was flummoxed by this oft-used military colloquialism.
Everywhere I turned, someone was all too enthusiastically force-feeding me (and the rest of my platoon) this concept to the extent that even to this day, I find that I have actually incorporated it in to my daily vernacular.
It loosely translates into the spirit or pride that exists among comrades or colleagues who are cumulatively pursuing a common goal. Put in military context, it becomes immediately evident why this term is so prevalent in said ranks. Couple this with drill instructors always yelling in your ear, “You’ve got to want it!” and you start to get an idea of what goes on during those horribly challenging 12 weeks we so affectionately call “boot camp.”
In the traditional workplace there is a different and slightly more recognizable expression for this concept: employee loyalty. If as a company you have it, you’re also likely to have a few other things: low turnover, higher productivity, fewer employees taking sick days, happy customers, and most important to investors, healthy profits and consistent sales.
To be sure, there are myriad positive attributes that come in tandem with esprit de corps. I’ve only named a few. To illustrate esprit de corps within the armed forces, let me offer two examples:
- While already mortally wounded, Marine Sgt. Rafael Peralta dives on a grenade to absorb the blast, thus saving the lives of several other members of his platoon. He is now being considered for the Medal of Honor.
- Army Sgt. First Class Paul Smith, with total disregard for personal safety, single-handedly repels an enemy attack and in doing so, eliminates over 50 enemy personnel and saves the lives of dozens of fellow soldiers. SFC Smith was mortally wounded. For his heroism, he is awarded the Medal of Honor.
These two acts are certainly uncommon and noteworthy. And I know that rarely would circumstances arise in the workplace that would warrant such selfless and perilous behavior. I draw upon these two heroic deeds to demonstrate a point. Both of these men acted not out of the interest in a pay raise nor the prospects of leveraging their acts to secure greater career opportunities.
I also suspect neither of them imagined that they would forever be enshrined as heroes while they were engaged in their duties. The compensation structure of enlisted military personnel is far from lavish; Smith probably grossed around $50,000 per year and Peralta $30,000, according to the Department of Defense’s 2007 pay charts.
The entitlements provided to Medal of Honor awardees, while considered generous by some accounts, probably had nothing to do with it, either. If I had to characterize what was going through their minds, it would likely have something to do with nationalism, commitment to their fellow service men and women, and belief in their mission, among other things: esprit de corps.
Lacking hundreds of years of tradition, as is the case of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps, in addition to lacking the foundational underpinnings of a deeply socialized national spirit, fermenting this type of attitude in your average W-2 employee is hardly a walk in the park. But every year there are always a handful of employers who manage to remain on the Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to work for. This isn’t a coincidence?
Admittedly, there’s a “chicken or the egg” paradox here. Are certain employers atop of that list because of the unique nature and demand of their offering and are thereby able to attract, retain, and afford good employees? Or did their good employees somehow band together to get (and keep) those companies on that magical list?
For example, first-place Google revolutionized the search business with a pretty sharp search algorithm and a bare-bones approach to the user experience. Its elimination of the glitz and glam “click here to refinance your mortgage” visuals has made it the Band-Aid brand of search; the term Google now more aptly represents the act of searching the Internet than it does the noun of a one with 100 zeros after it. Heck, MS Word even puts a red squiggly line beneath it because it thinks the term should be capitalized!
I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but something special is going on over there at 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway in Mountain View, California, and everyone wants in on a piece of the action.
Or perhaps it is something unique to the way a company treats its employees? J.M. Smucker is on that list year after year. For those of you in the cheap seats, it’s the king of the jelly/jam/fruit preserve industry, located about 30 minutes south west of Akron, in the thriving metropolis of Orville, Ohio. I’ve been there on numerous occasions and trust me when I say that the most exciting thing to happen in Orville in recent years would likely have something to do with an Amish carpenter briefly considering the idea of using a power tool.
As remote as it is, highly educated and extraordinarily talented people flock there. Once they are there, they’re not likely to leave.
Companies spend millions of dollars each year trying to figure out how to make their employees more productive. They hire consultants. They mass email surveys, they have retreats and off-sites, team-building exercises, cash incentives, contests, and on and on.
What’s the magic secret? Well, it’s hardly magical, and certainly not a secret. Like I wrote earlier, the first ingredient has to do with want. Employees have to want to be where they are and they have to want to be doing what they are doing.
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For this, I draw on the subject of natural point of aim. Each employee has to be functioning in a capacity that comes naturally to him or her. Pay attention to your mind when you catch yourself daydreaming; that daydream place you frequent is where your mind naturally wants to go. You don’t actively sit down and dedicate the next 10 minutes to letting your mind wander. How many times have you driven to your destination only to have no clue how you got there because your brain was busy reminiscing and daydreaming? Figure out the natural tendencies of your brain and then find a career that will enable you to capitalize on that. Additionally, companies must recognize this and figure out ways to attract people whose careers are aligned with their natural point of aim.
Next comes the initial indoctrination. Each of the armed forces has an indoctrination and evaluation period. It goes by the name recruit training, basic training, officer candidate school, and so on. The purpose of this phase is multi-fold:
- Re-socialization. You do the same things, but now you do them their way.
- History, traditions, customs. You are taught all about those who went before you, what they did, how they did it, why they are special, and why you must do it their way or else.
- Learn by the numbers. You are taught the basics of military life: shoot and salute, as they say.
All the while, each recruit, private, or candidate is being closely watched and evaluated. There are other purposes of initial training, but these are the basics. They do weed people out during this phase. Those who are weak, either mentally, physically, or emotionally, are given the resources and encouragement to strengthen themselves to make it through.
Those who want it badly enough go on to graduate and wear the uniform. Those who don’t reenter the civilian workforce with a little chip on their shoulder and have to explain to their friends and family why they did not or could not hack it.
The civilian workforce has inappropriately called this initial phase of employment the “probationary period.” That really sounds pleasing. “We’ll hire you, but if you even so much as tie your shoes in a way we don’t like, you’re out of here, and don’t bother asking why, because we have no official comment other than it just wasn’t a good fit,” so the line goes.
If the civilian workforce wants to make a difference, it will need to adjust its indoctrination to more than just going over benefits, I-9, and W-4 information. It had better change the name from something a judge hands down as punishment to something that sounds a little more appealing.
This period should instill a sense of accomplishment upon completion. This costs money, I know, and it seems that the Defense Department has a limitless supply. But a smart company will incorporate a comprehensive indoctrination period. And it does not need to last three months.
The last component is reinforcement. This “stuff” all adds up to a culture and it needs to be omnipresent. Further, it needs to be reintroduced on a schedule, lest it be forgotten and dispelled. Take a trip to any military installation. You’ll see the reinforcement taking place everywhere you look. It is indeed cult-like, particularly within the Marine Corps, as well as with some of the more elite units in other branches. It takes many forms, and to cite even just a few would not do this aspect justice. Reinforcement in the armed forces is omnipresent.
Corporations try to do this, but not hard enough, nor do they encourage people to initiate reinforcement strategies. In medium and large companies, typically the sales force goes to an annual conference, which is essentially a motivationally packed “off-site” gathering that culminates with some sort of awards ceremony.
While I can’t cite supporting evidence, I’m certain that if you look at the numbers, you will quickly notice that just after these annual gatherings, there is typically a spike in sales production. Aside from that, few companies do much to reinforce esprit de corps on a regular schedule. That’s a shame.
Anything short of hiring for natural point of aim will populate a company with people who work for a living, not people who work because they like what they do. Not having some initiation and indoctrination, which does more than just cover the basics of HR and how to find the lunch room, is another ingredient for apathy and inertia.
Finally, without a steady and consistent diet of company punch, the result will be just another company with staff as opposed to a team of comrades charging up the hill of the business marketplace.