SOFREP recently interviewed Ken Marlin on his new book “The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street.” This book gives you a different perspective of Wall Street and offers you 11 principles that are applicable to your life even if you are not an investment banker.
1) Why did you choose to transition from an active duty Marine to working on Wall Street? It seems like an unusual choice.
That’s a two part question. The first part is why leave the Marines at all after 10 years – when I could retire if I stayed for 20. The Marines were good to me. They promoted me from the enlisted ranks, sent me to Officer Candidate School, and let me lead and learn from some inspiring people. They also allowed me to complete my B.A. and obtain an M.B.A. As the end of my ensuing obligation period began nearing, I was faced with another decision: should I accept promotion and with it a further 3 year obligation? Essentially, I had to decide whether to make the Marine Corps my career or move on. I had already spent far longer than I had expected on active duty. I chose to move into civilian life.
When I was leaving the Corps I applied for many jobs that I thought would leverage the skills that I had learned in the Corps as well as those that I had learned as part of my MBA program. The offer that came from Dun and Bradstreet was too good to turn down. I would work directly for the corporate CFO, and have a global mandate to fight fires that needed to be fought (as he directed) while at the same time learning the company. Over time I was moved into strategy roles and then increasingly into merger and acquisition roles and that led me to Wall street.
2) Did your Marine core values conflict with the culture of Wall Street? How did you deal with the clash of values?
When I first left the Marines and moved to New York I was fortunate: my immediate bosses shared my values – and that was key to my early success. In fact it was precisely because of my Marine experience (combined with my MBA) that they hired me and entrusted me with increasing responsibilities. That’s been the case most of the time for most of my career. However, over the past 30 years there have been a few times when I had bosses – and sometimes peers – and sometimes clients – who believed that the route to success is to keep your head down, follow orders, don’t make waves and do as you are told. That’s not the way Marines are trained. It’s not my way. We are, by nature, confrontation seekers not confrontation avoiders. For the most part, my bosses liked that approach (as long as it was done respectfully and in the end, the commanding officer got to make final decisions). The way that I dealt with clashes like these was to ignore them. I stayed true to my values. I plowed ahead the Marine Corps way. In most cases it worked.
3) Many combat veterans struggle when transiting into the civilian world. What advice would you give them?
The Marine Corps way starts with having a clear mission – one that’s clearly defined, and realistically achievable. That approach can work on a personal level as well as a corporate one. And in both cases, the goal has to be more than aspirational. If you have a mediocre singing voice, aspiring to be the next great vocalist is foolish. It’s not realistically achievable. If you have a decent but not revolutionary Internet search engine, aspiring to take down Google is also of questionable rationality. This is where “Knowing Yourself” comes into play (another of the 11 Key Principles). As General James Mattis once said: “You cannot allow any of your people avoid the brutal facts. If they start living in a dream world, it’s going to be bad. “Once you have identified that clear realistically achievable goal then it’s about tactics and perseverance in the face of adversity. It’s about figuring out the intermediate objectives and achieving each one – one step at a time. If your mission is to become a brain surgeon, and you are smart enough – and have steady hands, then you should know that you must start with taking the right courses in college – and graduating. It is about dogged, determined perseverance in the pursuit of that clearly defined realistic goal, and not accepting failure.
4) Out of the 11 key principles from the battlefield to the boardroom that your book covers, which one is most important and why?
Each of the principles is important. But if I have to pick one – I would say “Take the Long View”: figure out where you are going and to develop tactics that are laser-focused on achieving that long term mission. Stay focused on the objective. Skip battles that don’t need to be fought; and do the right thing, for the right reasons, every time.
5) In the book you talk about “knowing yourself.” In what ways did you learn how to do this working on Wall Street? How did you avoid being absorbed into the culture of Wall Street?
It’s true that some people and some organizations on Wall Street have a culture of self-aggrandizement. One that is all about making money and that is OK with taking advantage of the unwary or unsophisticated and exploiting gray areas. I note that this approach is not limited to a few on Wall Street. Some CEOs and some politicians have the same short-sighted approach. Fortunately, not all Wall Street firms have that culture and not all bankers, CEOs or politicians subscribe to it. I was fortunate at the outset to work for some very ethical people.
I do note that people tend to get absorbed into bad cultures when they either don’t know any better or when they don’t have the self-confidence to resist. Marines are supposed to do the right things, for the right reasons, every time – no excuses. I didn’t invent that phrase, but I like it. It reflects my approach to life and that of most Marines. And that’s how you avoid being absorbed.
6) What is the greatest leadership skill you learned from the Marines and used on Wall Street?
There’s a chapter in the book called “Take A Stand.” It is the second of the 11 key Principles. It’s about the need for people to do the right thing and to not do the wrong thing. It’s about making sure that the organization is doing the right thing – and not the wrong thing, especially when – the consequences of not doing the wrong thing are significant; even when – especially when that stand runs against the conventional wisdom; even when, especially when – it may cost you or your firm a fee or a promotion (or an election) or some other benefit. It’s important. And it has stood me in good stead for many years. I suppose it is a corollary to “Do the right thing for the right reasons, every time,” – just a bit more aggressive.
Had some senior people at VW taken a stand on emissions testing, the firm might not be looking at billions of dollars in losses and a serious dent in their reputation. Had some senior people at GM taken a stand on faulty ignition switches more than 100 people might now be alive and GM would not be paying compensation to thousands of victims; had some key politicians taken a stand 58,000 Americans – and lot more civilians would not have died in Viet Nam.
Clients pay us for our considered advice – not to do their bidding – not to be solely the executors of their wisdom. I can’t force them to take my advice – and they can’t force me to give advice that I don’t believe. I encourage all of our employees to Take a Stand. It’s the best way to lead, the best way to earn the respect of your peers, subordinates, seniors, and constituents; and the best way to feel good about yourself….
“The Marine Corps Way to Win on Wall Street” can be ordered on Amazon
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