Sgts. Kenny Devers and Chad Essert stand in front of a group of nervous, half-awake and befuddled men and women. The pair are dressed in camouflage fatigues, straight-brimmed hats and have looks straight out of central casting—crew cut, piercing eyes, scowl. Devers is tall, rail-straight and thin. He stands in front of the group yelling instructions while Essert, who’s smaller, speedier and wound like a tightly coiled spring, walks quickly among the ranks yelling in unison and looking for imperfections.
“This is how you stand at attention,” says Devers. “Put your heels together and your feet at a 45 degree angle.”
“Heels together,” screams Essert as he speeds by. “Heels together. PUT YOUR HEELS TOGETHER.”
“Now make a fist,” says Devers, “and put your thumbs in a straight line down the seam of your pants.”
“Make a fist,” Essert echoes. “MAKE A FIST. Thumbs straight.”
“Do you understand?” asks Devers.
The group answers in an uncoordinated mumble.
“When I ask you a question, you answer in one of three ways,” Devers yells. “Yes sir. No sir. Or aye sir. ‘Yes sir’ means you understand. ‘No sir’ means you don’t understand. ‘Aye sir’ means you’re going to follow my command. Do you understand?”
“I Can’t Hear You.”
“Now you’ve got 50 seconds to get outside and get lined up. Do you understand?”
“So what are you waiting for? You’re wasting time. Forty-eight. Forty-seven. Forty-six.”
The group scrambles outside into a remarkably symbolic early morning fog. Water drips from the trees as they line up, stumbling to figure out exactly what they’re supposed to do and how they’re supposed to do it. The group members are hardly hardcore military types but rather businesspeople—lawyers, investment brokers, nurses, doctors—who aren’t used to starting their day with unhappy drill instructors screaming at them about how to walk and talk.
For the good of the country, though, their enlistment into military life is both voluntary and temporary. The members are taking part in a leadership boot camp offered by the Xavier Leadership Center (XLC), a three-day immersion experience that is meant to be a small taste of Officer Candidate School, the Marines’ infamous 12-week indoctrination that weeds out all but the few and the proud.
Realizing the Marines have a strong tradition in developing leaders, Xavier enlisted David Keszei, a retired Marine major, to drum up a few former drill instructors and put together a program that weaves together the Marine philosophy of leadership training with the needs of today’s business world.
And while a select few universities—the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania and the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, for example—actually send their students to the Marine headquarters in Quantico, Va., for this kind of training, Xavier is the only university in the country to reverse the scenario and bring the Corps to its clients.
The shock and awe continues as the group is ordered to begin marching a half mile into the woods toward its destination. The path is still muddy from the night’s rain, which only lends itself to more drilling by the sergeants.
“Don’t walk AROUND the puddles,” Essert screams as he jogs alongside the group. “Walk THROUGH the puddles. Wet shoes are about to become the least of your worries. We’re going to get that ugly civilian out of you by the end of the day.”
For 20 years, Keszei was a Marine fighter pilot—Top Gun graduate, two tours in Iraq, more than 350 carrier landings. As the DIs push the members of the boot camp through their paces, he stands to the side, watching, the gold leaves of a major decorating the collar of his fatigues.
“We’re not trying to make Marines out of these people,” he says. “The stuff we do here really has no military value. Climbing a wall may be the only thing we do with any real tactical significance. What this is really about is how you plan, how you execute. Why do you do what you do? What we are trying to do is expose them to the methods and techniques that produce leaders so they can leave here and impart them on their people. It’s not rocket science, but it’s tough to teach in a classroom. It’s amazing how different something becomes when you actually have to do it. You experience the subtle, little things. And when you go through it over and over again, a series of small behavior changes start to show up. When all of them are added up, it results in a different person.”
The Marines, he says, spend the first 12 weeks of officer candidate school teaching nothing but leadership. Not management. Not technical skills. Not warfare. Because combat is so chaotic, he says, the Corps’ thinking is that every officer must first know how to lead. Once the bullets start flying, the typical vertical chain of command that defines the military—where orders roll downhill—gets destroyed. Squads may get split up, people may become isolated, but if every officer is trained to lead, the problem solves itself.
“If you are trained as leaders, you’re able to adapt and overcome almost any issue,” he says. “It’s true in the Marines, and it’s true in business.”
Four hours into the day the sun finally comes out and starts burning off the fog. The group pulls up to a shelter built into a clearing in the woods for lunch. Pete Beccaccio sits down on a picnic table, eyes the lunch offerings on a nearby table and offers a perspective on the first half of the day. “I think this is the longest I’ve gone without checking my e-mail since I got my Blackberry three years ago,” he says.
The morning has left no time for any business except the business at hand. The tasks haven’t been dangerous or difficult—getting a group of 10 to stand on a log that hangs by wire between two trees, lifting people one by one through a tire strung three feet off the ground—but have rather focused extensively on the participation of all members and the process of planning the task, executing it and then debriefing.
The learning is experiential, and exactly what Len Brzozowski is looking for. Brzozowski came to Xavier a year ago to remold what was then the Xavier Consulting Group. As executive director, his first decision was to scale back on the consulting programs and focus on teaching leadership. “Most of what we did was open enrollment programs that make no impact,” he says. “I call those kinds of programs ‘edu-tainment.’ All you really do is produce folders and documents that end up sitting on the shelf in someone’s office. The mission of the University is to make a difference in the world. Were we doing that with consulting? My answer would be no. I felt we could do better.”
What XLC primarily focuses on, he says, is creating facilitated learning experiences in which the staff designs a curriculum that specifically targets the chosen needs of a business. The XLC faculty then assigns a task to the business’ personnel, and then coaches and educates them over the course of an entire year, blending the theoretical with the practical while at the same time providing solutions to real problems.
The Marine boot camp is a scaled-down version of the facilitated learning methodology—just three days long but still focusing on enhancing speed, responsiveness and flexibility of decision-making. And, most importantly, training the one element that all businesses must have to survive in the 21st century: skilled people, particularly whose values align with the company’s mission and create what Keszei calls a “thick culture.”
The Marines have a very thick culture, which they create by intentionally trying to screen out those they know wouldn’t fit in. Through its marketing efforts, it weeds out roughly 85 percent of the people, says Keszei. Those who then make it through boot camp are all strongly aligned with the Marine Corps values of honor, courage and commitment, as well as its behaviors of integrity, decisiveness, courage, bearing and compassion.
“Break them down,” says Keszei. “Honor: If they don’t believe in it, they won’t buy into it. Courage: How can you teach people to run toward gunfire? They’re afraid of letting the team down. Commitment: We teach them to always strive to be better—not for themselves but for the team. You can do the same thing in business. The simplest thing may be the way you choose your team. Do they exhibit the same behaviors you deem are important? What we’re trying to do is show how these people can go about creating that kind of environment in their own businesses.”
As members of the group start eating, the drill instructors stand quietly in a group nearby. Keszei points them out. They stand when everyone else sits and eat when everyone else is finished. It’s a subtle leadership lesson, he says. The people they are leading always come first.
Sitting in a classroom at Xavier’s MBA campus in Deerfield Township the next morning, Keszei again brings up the DIs behavior. They go just as far and just as fast as everyone else, he says. They carry the same load, but on top of all that they use a lot of energy instructing. They set the bar so incredibly high for themselves that no one can question them, and they see success as the team’s and failure as their own.
Like all of the activities at the boot camp, the program is broken down into three components—a briefing, completing the task and then a debriefing. The group gathered two days earlier to go over what they were going to do in the camp and are gathered again to recap and learn.
Brzozowski stands in front of the class and helps makes the connection between what the group went through the day before in the woods and how that’s applicable to their business. He shows a video clip of Quicken, where the company culture is so important the CEO teaches a class about it to new hires. He shows another about Zappos.com, where the president of the company offers trainees $2,000 to quit, figuring that if they take it they’re only interested in the job for the money and he doesn’t want that kind of employee. He talks about Toyota, where their culture is so important that they don’t let new employees touch a car part until they’ve been there six months.
“The Marines are the same way,” he says. “We’re not saying the values of the Marine Corps are the right ones for your organization, but it’s important to see how they go about enforcing their environment. Think of what would happen if a business got only a piece of that. If all of its employees shared the same values and behaviors the way they do in the Marines. That company would have a substantial competitive advantage.”