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I always knew that serving in the Marine Corps, an organization where 94 per cent of its members were men, was going to change me. I just didn't know how. And now that some time has passed since I've left active duty, I've been able to reflect on this experience and identify some valuable lessons that have guided me throughout my career.
Here are several that I believe will help any woman leader succeed in a male-dominated organization.
Don't act like a guy
When I joined the Marine Corps one of the very first questions in my mind was "What do I need to do to fit in here?" As tempting as it seemed, acting like one of the guys seemed like a good idea. My thinking was that the less attention I drew to myself, the less different I would appear. Fortunately, I had a mentor early on in my career who shared that if I wanted to develop trust with others, I needed to focus on earning respect. In order to do that, I needed to leverage my personal strengths and shore up some of my weaknesses in ways that were consistent with my personality. This helped me realize because I was different, I wasn't wrong. My difference was part of who I am, and embracing that would earn the respect of my fellow Marines.
Take feedback and run with it
My Marine Corps training was stressful. But there was a purpose behind the screaming sergeant instructors and the heat that they brought to our training environment. They wanted to see if we – my fellow officer candidates and I – could handle receiving feedback in a chaotic environment. And if we couldn't, we didn't have a future in the organization. After all, training was designed to simulate the friction we'd experience in combat. If we didn't have the mettle to withstand training, then how could we perform in an environment where the stakes were higher?
What I learned from this experience is that if you can discern the purpose behind feedback and respond without excessive emotion, then you share with others your "coachability" and willingness to learn. This not only affects your relationship with others, but – ultimately – the trajectory of your career.
Find the 80-per-cent solution
No matter where you are on the Marine Corps' organizational chart, you are given a lot of responsibility. With this responsibility comes a great expectation: You need to be able to make decisions. We spent hours in training learning how to make decisions and one of the best guidelines I learned was that you have to be comfortable with finding an 80-per-cent solution.
The Marine Corps knew that as young Marines, we'd find ourselves in positions where we didn't know what we needed to do to be successful. During those times, rather than wait, we had to take initiative so we could influence our environment (versus having our environment influence us). We needed to gather information – at least 80 per cent of it – quickly to help us take action.
Information gathering could include leveraging our experiences and education, or even talking with our team members. We were never told that we had to make perfect decisions. Rather, our decisions just had to be good enough. In my career, I've met many professionals who struggle with the 80-per-cent solution because they want all their decisions to be perfect and popular. This is an unrealistic goal. When you wait for perfect, you often lose out on a competitive advantage.
My military experience has had a profound impact on my private-sector career and, in general, my life. And while many of the lessons I gleaned relate more to how to lead (versus how to be a woman leader), I am passionate about sharing these with women professionals since so few have served in the Corps and experienced the leadership curriculum within.
Ultimately, leadership comes down to simple behaviours that anyone, at any level of an organization, can demonstrate. When put into effect, these guidelines place you in the position to cultivate influence and inspiration in others.
Angie Morgan is a former Marine Corps captain and co-founder of Lead Star, a nationally-recognized U.S. leadership development consulting firm. She is also the co-author of business bestseller Leading from the Front: No-Excuse Leadership Tactics for Women (McGraw-Hill).