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Managing the Marine Way

WS talks to top executive Rod Walsh

by on
in Best-Practices Leadership,Leaders & Managers,Office Management,Records Retention

Rod Walsh, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran, founded Blue Chip Inventory Service in 1970. Today, the California-based company employs 200 people and serves as a model of enlightened leadership.

Walsh recently co-wrote Semper Fi, in which he relates his experiences in the military to his business career. Even though it has been nearly 30 years since his days in the armed services, he still applies those lessons.

WS: What’s the No. 1 lesson you took away from your Marine Corps experience that has helped you in business?

To lead by personal example. It doesn’t always work, because the example you set in a specific instance may not be the best every time. But in a larger sense, how you talk to people and carry yourself sends a message. For example, if you’re the first in and last out of the office, that alone is going to motivate your employees.

WS: Are there differences in what it takes to advance in the Marines vs. in the corporate world?

To advance in business, you usually need street smarts. In the Marines, there’s a heavy emphasis on education as a prerequisite to advance. It’s a must because it’s part of the whole military culture of self-improvement. And physical fitness is very important if you want to advance in the Marines, but not nearly as important in business.

WS: What about grading job performance? Do you think Marines face tougher standards than your employees?

In the Marines, you’re rated on your performance at regular intervals. There are numerical scales, and your results go in your service jacket—a kind of personnel file. In the business world, you may hop from job to job and start afresh. But throughout your career in the Marines, your history of ratings stays with you.

WS: Do you rate your employees the same way?

I have my managers rate each employee on a 1 to 3 scale, based on six or seven traits and skills. The categories are simple but important, such as attendance, production and helping other employees.

WS: It sounds like you rely on your managers a great deal. What qualities do you look for in a manager?

My managers are less patient with employees than I am, which is probably a good thing. I’m always willing to find some reason to excuse someone’s behavior. I like my managers to be hands-on leaders who can really take charge. They’ve got to be able to handle me on one side, their employees on the other side—and the customers. And they need to realize that the customers and the employees always come first. I’ll take care of myself.

WS: How do you hire your managers?

Sometimes the best employees are the ones who once left. About two years ago, we lost a manager when one of our customers hired him away. His backup was promoted to replace him, but that didn’t work out. So nine months later, I phoned the manager who left us. I asked, “How would you like to come back?” He said, “Fine.” I had a gut feeling he’d be happier here than anyplace else.

WS: What about when someone just doesn’t work out? How do you decide to fire somebody?

When you terminate an employee, you may figure you’ll replace him with the perfect person. But it doesn’t work that way. You wind up bringing in someone who has a different set of problems. It won’t be the same problem, because you’re already sensitized to that one. But the new person may have even more failings that you didn’t notice or couldn’t know about at the time. That’s why I’ll try to give an employee lots of chances to shape up.

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