In the battle for talent, Master Gunnery Sergeant Andy Brown fights for very high stakes. He is head of the Marine Recruiting Substation in Santa Barbara, California, where he's screened thousands of candidates to find the proud few whom comrades can count on in time of war. Brown and his peers across the country work to enlist as many as 40,000 Marine-caliber men and women each year. But readiness is just a starting point for these elite warriors, who account for just 11% of the troops — but 99% of the lore — of the U.S. armed forces.
"We have a multifaceted purpose," he says. "We're looking for people to defend the country, but we're also looking to return people to society as better people. So we need to tap into a deep sense of commitment from the first moment of the recruiting process." In nearly two decades as a recruiter, Brown, 45, has earned a reputation as the "best Marine recruiter on the planet." In an interview with Fast Company, he shared his secrets for winning the battle for talent.
If you want to hire the best, have your best do the hiring.
Most companies have people who have never served in the trenches do their hiring. They call it HR. I call it crazy. Only the top 10% of the corps gets a shot at recruitment duty. These people are the real thing. Recruiting is all about creating a clear picture of your organization. The best way to do that is to put the best product of that organization in front of potential recruits.
Ask not what your organization can do for your recruit.
We offer the same paycheck, the same education, and the same benefits that our sister forces offer. We differentiate on the intangibles. We're more demanding: The Marine experience is life-transforming. With everything else being equal, why play JV when you can play varsity?
We use the interview process to look for those intangibles. We ask, "What motivates you? What do you want to accomplish in life?" A few people say, "I want a challenge. I want to join an elite team. I want to come out a better person." That's what we want to hear. Joining the Marines just to become a pilot is like going to work for Yahoo! because you want to be a programmer.
Get commitment, not warm bodies.
It costs taxpayers at least $14,000 to get one recruit into boot camp. So we want to be sure that once people sign on, they stay with us. We do a gut check every step along the way: "Where are you from zero ('I want to run screaming from the office') to 10 ('I'll join no matter what you say or do')?" At each point, we can pretty methodically come to an agreement on whether to continue the process or to call it off with no hard feelings. About two-thirds of the way down the path, we push for a defining moment: It's either 100% commitment or not. If not, we cut our losses — but not without offering options: Can we call you back in a year? Would you like to get our newsletters? Join our daily physical-training sessions? The result: Our attrition rate is half the Marine standard.
There's a saying: "The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war." That goes for recruiters too. Once you're assigned to recruiting duty, you attend school for two months, taking intensive courses in public relations, speech, training, and sales. There's another week of training after you report to your unit, along with evaluations every three months for the next year.
We don't forget physical training. In my office, we start each morning with exercise. It builds camaraderie — and it's also good PR: People see us out there, being Marines. We're not just talking the story; we're running it!
To learn more about the U.S. Marine Corps, visit the Web (www.usmc.mil).
Sidebar: Boot Camp for Talent
The Marine Corps wrote the book on developing fearsome competitors. Now former Marines Dan Carrison and Rod Walsh have written a book on the training practices that set the corps apart. The book is called "Semper Fi: Business Leadership the Marine Corps Way" (AMACOM, 1998). Here are three lessons that the authors have learned.
Teach leadership by degrees.
The Marine Corps believes that leaders are made, not born. Its formula? Baby steps. A recruit's first command may be to pick up cigarette butts on the barracks' grounds. His next might be to march a squad of 12 across a parade ground. To the recruit, every burden is incremental — until, all of a sudden, he is prepared to take on the ultimate challenge: a combat command.
The Rappelling Tower, on which Marines learn to descend a helicopter line by rappelling a 50-foot wall, is one of dozens of obstacle-course challenges that recruits have to master. One drill instructor recalls, "I used to shake in my boots up there, but once I got over it, I felt like I could do anything." The same principle — heighten responsibility — also applies to developing leaders.
Share war stories.
One boot-camp course uses "warrior stations," each of which is built around an heroic feat performed by a Marine. Each station displays a photograph of the Marine plus an inscription about his deed, and every team must reenact the same feat. Afterward, every recruit knows that he belongs to a unique group.
A version of this article appeared in the June 1999 issue of Fast Company magazine.