Jocko on Startups: What’s an A-Team?

We hear about the “Startup A-team” both from our portfolio companies and in pitches. So what’s the bar for a Startup A-team? And how do you rank people within an A-team of a Startup? Regardless of industry, I always recommend looking at the “USMC Fitness Report (1610)” as a starting point. Yes, it is from the United States Marine Corps. Let’s see how that relates to startups and teams.

1. Most Important and Most Critical

First of all, the report has an important preamble:

The complete fitness report is the most important information component in manpower management. It is the primary means of evaluating a Marine’s performance and is the Commandant’s primary tool for the selection of personnel for promotion, augmentation, resident schooling, command, and duty assignments. Therefore, the completion of this report is one of an officer’s most critical responsibilities. […]

USMC Fitness Report (1610) – NAVMC 10835 (Rev. 7-11) (EF)

2. Key Categories of the Report

Second, grades run from “A” (“ADV” = adverse, or insufficient qualification) to “B” (the lowest grade to pass) to “G” (highest grade). The grading categories apply for all great leaders and teams, not just Marines:

  • Mission Accomplishment
    1. Performance
    2. Proficiency
  • Individual Character
    1. Courage
    2. Effectiveness under Stress
    3. Initiative
  • Leadership
    1. Leading Subordinates
    2. Developing Subordinates
    3. Setting the Example
    4. Ensuring Well-Being of Subordinates
    5. Communication Skills
  • Intellect and Wisdom
    1. Professional Military Education (PME)
    2. Decision Making Ability
    3. Judgement
  • Fulfillment of Evaluation Responsibilities

3. A High Bar Just to “Pass”

Third, the lowest pass grade, “B”, has already a very high bar. all categories of the report are laden with the words “act”, “action” and “application” — this is about doing, not just thinking. After all, section 3.3 is about leading by example, not by lecturing. Let’s look at some of the language and you tell me where you would end up.

Example: Mission Accomplishment — Proficiency

 USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section D.2 Mission Accomplishment Proficiency
USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section D.2 Mission Accomplishment Proficiency
  • “B” (lowest pass): Competent. Possesses the requisite range of skills and knowledge commensurate with grade and experience. Understands and articulates basic functions related to mission accomplishment.
  • “D” (middle): Demonstrates mastery of all required skills. Expertise, education, and experience consistently enhance mission accomplishment. Innovative troubleshooter and problem solver. Effectively imparts skills to subordinates.

Think about it: To get a middle grade, you need to demonstrate mastery. And not just in some areas but of all required skills. You are consistently having a positive impact on mission accomplishment, not just trying your hardest. And you constantly impart your skills to subordinates. Are you a “D” or a “B”?

Example: Individual Character — Effectiveness Under Stress

Well, I don’t think we often assess effectiveness under stress in corporate 360 reviews. Here is what the Marine Corps demands:

 USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section E.2 Individual Character Effectiveness Under Stress
USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section E.2 Individual Character Effectiveness Under Stress
  • “B” (lowest pass): Exhibits discipline and stability under pressure. Judgement and effective problem-solving skills are evident.
  • “D” (middle): Consistently demonstrates maturity, mental agility and willpower during periods of adversity. Provides order to chaos through the application of intuition, problem-solving skills, and leadership. Composure reassures others.

“consistently”, “during periods of adversity”, “reassures others” — are you a “D” or a “B”? I think I make a “B”, but I am far from “consistently”… it doesn’t say “often”, or “mostly” 😉

Example: Intellect and Wisdom — Professional Education

  • “B” (lowest pass): Maintains currency in required skills and related developments. Has completed or is enrolled in appropriate level of professional education for grade and level of experience. Recognizes and understands new and creative approaches to service issues. Remains abreast of contemporary concepts and issues.
  • “D” (middle): Professional education outlook extends beyond occupational specialty and required education. Develops and follows a comprehensive personal program which includes broadened professional reading and/or academic course work; advances new concepts and ideas.

Are you even staying current and remain abreast of contemporary concepts and issues? Are you even a “B”? Are you truly developing a comprehensive personal program — and are you then following it?! Are you actually advancing new concepts and ideas? Are you truly doing all of it, are you really a “D”?

Example: Intellect and Wisdom — Judgement

 USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section G.3 Intellect and Wisdom Judgement
USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section G.3 Intellect and Wisdom Judgement
  • “B” (lowest pass): Majority of judgements are measured, circumspect, relevant and correct.

Let’s just stop here and check ourselves.

4. The Eminently Qualified Marine

Section K. summarizes a comparative assessment, considering “all Marines of this grade whose professional ability are known to you personally.” Jocko calls it the ‘Christmas Tree’.

USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section K.3 Comparative Assessment
USMC Fitness Report (1610), NAVMC 10835 (REV. 7-11), Section K.3 Comparative Assessment

There is a lone qualified Marine at the bottom who made the cut, the trunk of the tree. There is a low tier, the lowest bows, but most marines are in the middle as “one of the many highly qualified professionals who form the majority of this grade.”. There are “few exceptionally qualified Marines” at the top. And there is a lone star, a single Marine, at the very top. The Eminently qualified Marine. I wonder if there ever is such a human being, given the staggering high bar in all the sections.

5. Performance Evaluation System (PES)

Grading anyone is hard. And forms can be misleading. So NAVMC 10835 comes with a manual, the Marine Corps Order 1610.7A for the “Marine Corps Performance Evaluation System (PES)”. The order makes it very clear that the report is the most important information component, but “not a communication to, nor a counseling document for, the Marine.” It is not a disciplinary tool, nor a lever to exert influence, nor a counseling document. Second, “The fitness report describes the “whole Marine” both on and off duty.

The manual also includes a whole chapter for “Procedures for Adverse and Appealed Reports”. Some examples:

  • 1.a.(3) Officials must never damn with faint praise nor hide behind policy definitions to avoid the responsibility and unpleasantness of reporting unsatisfactory performance, lack of potential, or unacceptable professional character.
  • 1.a.(4) The RS [“Reporting Senior”] must provide the factual basis for adversity, be specific, and avoid vague and ambiguous language that only serves to confuse the reader. Note: the factual basis is the MRO’s [“Marine Reported On”] action(s) that are being deemed adverse, not the result of the MRO’s adverse action(s).
  • 1.b.(2) Reporting officials must give the MRO an opportunity to comment on all adverse material.
  • 1.b.(3) A third officer sighter must sight all adverse fitness reports
  • 1.d.(7)(a) [a specific list of negative words, phrases, qualifying adverbs to avoid the ‘velvet dagger’ or ‘soft kill’]
  • 1.d.(7)(b) Reporting officials shall avoid negative phrases and their implication unless the intent is to render the report adverse.

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