I had completed the process of checking into Marine Aircraft Group 29 at Marine Corps Air Station, New River. I was now ready to report to the Supply Officer to be assigned my new position in the Supply Department. As a Warrant Officer, I was ready to tackle any challenge since I was aware that this Supply Department had not been very successful during their last inspection. Therefore, when I received my instructions from the Supply Officer, I found them to be surprising, to say the least.
“Warrant Officer Bernat, I am assigning you to the Repairable Management Section (RMS). I have a young Second Lieutenant in charge over there and you have two missions. Sit at your desk and answer any questions the Lieutenant has on how to manage this section and get Smith (not his real name) thrown out of the Marine Corps.”
Sitting at my desk and waiting for the Lieutenant to ask me questions was not going to happen. But my biggest concern was his second request.
“Excuse me, Sir. Who is Smith and why do you want me to get him thrown out of the Corps?” I asked with a look of bewilderment.
The Major replied, “Smith is a Corporal and a piece of crap. You won’t have any trouble identifying him when you get across the street. Just go. And remember, I want him gone.”
As I walked across the street, I was amazed. I had heard stories about the Major but surely this Marine to whom he was referencing must be a real problem if his instructions were to get him discharged.
Sitting at a desk was a sad-looking young man. He needed a haircut, his uniform was dirty and needed to be pressed, his boots needed polish, and his mustache needed to be trimmed.
I walked into RMS and introduced myself to the Lieutenant. He provided me with a desk and seemed grateful to have someone with experience available to help him learn more about his responsibilities. I settled in quickly and then walked the floor to see if I could locate Corporal Smith. It did not take long. Sitting at a desk was a sad-looking young man. He needed a haircut, his uniform was dirty and needed to be pressed, his boots needed polish, and his mustache needed to be trimmed. But what really stuck out to me was that he appeared to be completely miserable sitting at his desk. So, I walked up and introduced myself and said, “And you are, without a doubt, Corporal Smith. I have heard so much about you.” He mumbled something that I just ignored and I began to see what I could find out about this Marine. “So, you are obviously very unhappy in your current job. So, if you could have any job here in RMS, what job would make you happy?”
By the look on his face, Corporal Smith had not anticipated this question. Then he said, “I hate working at a desk. I want to be the driver and deliver parts to the squadrons.” “Well, Corporal, if you are delivering parts to the squadrons, you will be representing this Supply Department to everyone with whom you come in contact. I can’t have a driver that looks like you representing us. But, if you square yourself away by tomorrow morning – clean and pressed uniform, boots polished, haircut to regulations, and mustache trimmed appropriately – and then promise me you will always keep yourself this way so that you represent this operation with pride, I will see to it you are assigned as the driver tomorrow morning.”
“Sir, you can’t do that! Nobody is going to let me be the driver!” “Well, there is only one way to find out, isn’t there. It’s your choice.” With that, I walked away to go talk to the Marine who was currently working as the driver. He, it turns out, was not putting all his effort into the job because he hated working outside and wanted a desk job.
Sometimes, we overlook the most basic of leadership challenges and that is to put round pegs in round holes and square pegs in square holes. So, when dealing with a team member who is not performing to their abilities, ask yourself some simple questions.
- Is the employee being challenged in their current team role? If not, talk to them and see what you can do to bring their tasking more in line with their talents. The result will be that other team members will be coming to you and asking to be given more opportunities to excel.
- Does the employee demonstrate they are ready to accept more challenging assignments? If so, do not hesitate to slowly give them more responsibility and then mentor them toward success. Once other team members see you are committed to the success of this one employee, they will be willing to step out of their comfort zone. They will have the confidence to do so because they will know you will help them succeed.
- Does the employee see themselves as stuck in a job that offers no chance for advancement? If this is the case, talk to them about their goals and where they wish to be in 5-years, 10-years, etc. Then, be willing to help them prepare to bring these goals to realization even if you have to lose the employee to a promotion. The tone set by this will inspire all your employees to see you as a career builder who is willing to make their goals your goals.
- Finally, is the employee worth saving? If the answer is yes, you, as the leader, must do everything you can to ensure they reach their full potential and see their contribution to the organization as gratifying. This will create a spirit of loyalty among all team members because you will be seen as the kind of leader they should willingly follow.
Now, back to my story. I briefed the Lieutenant on my plan. He was hesitant at first but finally agreed to switch the assignments of these two Marines based upon Corporal Smith’s appearance the next morning. And sure enough, Smith was almost unrecognizable when he came to work the next day. I walked him and the other Marine to the delivery truck and instructed the old driver to take Smith to all the squadrons and introduce him. I told Smith to let them know that from this point on, we would be enforcing the one-for-one exchange on all repairable items and they needed to get on board. Then, I told the old driver to come see me when he was done showing Smith around so I could start teaching him his new job. In no time at all, some of the most significate problems the section had with inventory control were being resolved because these two Marines were in jobs they truly embraced and enjoyed.
And the Major? Well, about a week later, he came to see the Lieutenant in his office and I happened to be there. The Major wanted to know who the new Marine was who was driving the delivery truck and he wanted to know why this Marine had not checked in with him when he came into the Supply Department. The Lieutenant looked at me and I smiled.
“Sir, you already know that Marine. That is Corporal Smith and I believe you will like the new and improved version. Because, now that we have gotten his attention, he is here to stay.” The Major was not happy but what could he do. Corporal Smith was back on board and doing a great job. And later, when I was assigned to deploy with a flying squadron for six months on the USS Guadalcanal, Corporal Smith volunteered to deploy with me. I was pleased to take a Marine with his talent and skill with me.
If you want to be an exceptional leader, you will have to find ways to ensure your team is engaged to their fullest ability. Inspired them to set and reach for goals they could not even imagine before you showed them the limitless potential they possess.