Three Lessons on Change Learned in The Marine Corps Boot Camp

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about change, as probably most of you have. Because of the state of the economy, politics and technology around the world, you probably have had to do things differently both at work and home, and this has not been easy. Your ability to respond to change has become an important skill to master.

With so many theories out there on how to best deal with change and so many articles reporting on them, I am interested in learning what lessons people have about their own experiences with managing change. Before I ask others, I thought that the best place to start was myself. I wanted to see what I could learn based on my own experience and reflection. So, I’d like to share with you what I realized, but first I’ll tell you a quick story.

I came to the U.S. at the age of 19 and back then I did not know much about America or English for that matter. Despite these facts, I was determined to make something of myself and thought that the best way to do it was to join the Marine Corps. What better way to be exposed to the American culture, learn the language, and ultimately give back to the country which welcomed me with open arms, than to serve in the military?

I was very excited to have the privilege to join such a reputable branch of the Armed Forces: The few, the proud, the Marines; known for their tough and relentless attitude towards perfection and success. When I stepped onto those yellow footprints in Parris Island, SC, I could feel the weight of military tradition and the prestige of such organization. Little did I know what was in store for me!

I quickly realized that in order for me to be successful (aka: graduate from boot camp) I had to accomplish 3 important things: 1) Follow instructions carefully, 2) Do at least 3 pull ups, and 3) Be willing to endure pain. That simple! Well, the issue was that I did not understand most of what the drill instructors said; I was not strong enough to pull my weight more than three times in a row; and all of this made pain even more unbearable than for most.

I very well remember the day I stood in front of Staff Sergeant Friend, one of my drill instructors (yes, very ironic name), who was yelling at me and questioning me about why I had done something wrong (notice that to this day, I do not know what I did wrong). The answer he expected could not have been easier: it was a simple yes or no. I looked at my fellow recruits looking for tips by way of nodding, but nothing came from them; they stood still in attention, and I just could not understand my drill instructor’s question. I finally decided to go for it and yelled back: “YES SIR!” Well, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the right answer as I spent the next 2 hours running in place with my hands holding my rifle and arms extended across my chest.

I also remember my senior drill instructor’s face when he realized that I could not do 3 pull ups in a row. So, obviously more pain followed. I was tasked to mount a pull up bar every time I saw one. The problem was that until then, I hadn’t realized how many pull up bars there were in Parris Island.

If you wonder whether I ever made it, I’m here to tell you that I did. I graduated on time with my platoon. That is, I did enough to understand my drill instructors, to do 4 pull ups, and to bear all the pain my weaknesses brought to light. I did not stop there however. During my career in the Corps, I got promoted meritoriously, achieved the rank of Sergeant in less than 4 years and was awarded the Gung Ho award for outstanding leadership (in addition of course to becoming proficient in English and being able to do a lot more than 4 pull ups). These accolades and wins however, are only small representations of just plain hard work.

Now, this is how I think this story helps me understand the nature of change and how I can personally better deal with it.

1)      Pain in change is temporary:

In my story, pain was literal. I did not have much upper-body strength and a lot of exercise was the cure. My English skills were not up to par, and I paid with some more exercise as I tried new ways to learn it fast.

Similarly, in our professions, new requirements in our environment might bring weaknesses or skill gaps to the surface and thus, make us feel uncomfortable or stressed when new requirements demand something new from us. However, the good news is that just as our bodies become stronger with exercise, we can also become stronger by identifying what new responses are required and where we fall short. If we work diligently on closing the gap, we give weaknesses the opportunity to become strengths, and the corresponding responses needed to achieve our goals eventually become second nature and our best source of competitive advantage.

2)      Success requires change:

To graduate from boot camp, I needed to get my body used to more strenuous activities and my brain used to understanding new accents and jargons. I basically had a guy yelling at me demanding me to do it! So I easily understood what my weaknesses were and worked on them, while never losing sight of my overarching objective: To become a Marine. Changing my goal was not an option, but to get there, changing my responses was a must.

In business, success and survival are determined by both our ability to respond effectively to the environment and to never lose track of our ultimate objectives such as meeting net income and customer satisfaction goals. We usually do not have the ability nor should we have the luxury to change these main objectives. Therefore, all we are left with is the hard but necessary task of clearly recognizing new requirements and delivering the type of responses that will help us reach our goals.

3)      Change requires both attitude and action:

The Marine Corps encapsulates this principle in its motto: “Adapt and Overcome.” As a Marine, I learned to always deal with obstacles in the environment by finding ways to adapt and to overcome them. I think that what makes this philosophy work is that it encourages us to accept the inevitability of obstacles and to focus on always conquering them.

This attitude towards challenges was characterized by openness, collaboration, courage, innovation, commitment, resolve, and determination. We had no option but to conquer roadblocks and to achieve results by adapting to the environment and understanding where we needed to go.

Next time I face a difficult situation, whether in my personal life or at work, I’ll make sure to consider the following:

1.       Identify my or my organization’s overarching objectives.

2.       Determine the appropriate actions to reach these objectives.

a.       What are the new requirements the environment demands?

b.      What responses are needed?

c.       What are my weaknesses and strengths?

d.      How am I going to adapt and overcome?

3.       Check my attitude.

a.       Am I willing to adapt and overcome in light of what is required? Hope the answer is always YES!

The nature of change makes it difficult if not impossible to control it. Change will always happen around us. What we can control, however, is how we react to it. To do so, we need to understand what our objectives are and be vigilant to elements in the environment that prevent us from getting there. More importantly, we need to be willing to adapt and overcome. Adapting means responding more effectively and overcoming is getting the results you expect. This makes us stronger in the process and helps us succeed.

So, what is your story? What lessons do you draw from your own experience with change? How have your experiences helped you with the way you deal with change now? I look forward to hearing and learning from you!

Aleister Avila, SPHR

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