Team Excellence


Wednesday 25 January 2012

Justin Hughes

Team Excellence: Lessons from the Red Arrows

The Magic Circle, London

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“If you know any fighter pilots,” Hughes joked, “we have two topics of conversation – ourselves and flying.” This London Business Forum (LBF) event was he told the audience, his “perfect morning.”

After his “dream job” as a driver for a kiss-o-gram agency in Liverpool, Hughes joined the RAF. He never set out to fly for the Red Arrows, believing it was not a standard he could reach. Then one day in Cyprus, he flew in the back seat of a practice display in what was “an eye-watering experience.” The pilot he flew with that day asked Hughes why he had never applied and told him: "If you don't apply, you don’t get in. If you don’t go for it, you can never achieve it.”

Inspired by these words, Hughes applied to the Red Arrows and flew with them for three years as deputy team leader in over 250 performances. What makes the Red Arrows one of the best teams in the world, he told the LBF, is their constant "pursuit of excellence." Great teamwork is how they coordinate nine jets in displays where they just miss each other, he insisted.

What adds complexity to building this high performance team is that the Red Arrows in fact changes a third of its team each year, leaving the remaining six to adjust and change roles within the team dynamic. Still, the Red Arrows' "output each year is about always acknowledged as world class, even though it's a different team," said Hughes.

How is this level of high performance retained and reproduced to such a high standard? Essentially, Hughes argued that you can't be reliant on one or two "stars"; an excellent team is underpinned by the individuals’ behaviours and attitudes. What is it about those teams that make them so successful, what are they like? This threw up responses such as "driven," "dedicated," "passionate." It is these behaviours and attitudes that are the keys to success.

The Red Arrows only select individuals with the right attitude and behaviours that are aligned with the team’s goal. Hughes stated that even if an individual has awesome flying skills, if they have the wrong attitude they will not work in a team who are pursuing excellence - "get rid," he advises.

The Red Arrows selection process consists of "98% people stuff"; talking about the applicants, finding out what they're like from others within their squadron, assessing if they have a good attitude. This gets them down to about nine people, who are then jetted off to Cyprus for a week, primarily to "socialise" (as well as take a flying test and be interviewed). Hughes made clear that the socialising forms part of a vital aspect of choosing the right pilots, it's about intuition and returning back to the point of "choice"; they need to see who will choose to commit and make sacrifices in an environment where you can't really "fake it." The people who commit are those who understand that "the team is bigger than the individuals."

Once the team has been selected, the hard work to perform well consistently continues. Hughes explained that de-briefs are vital and they should be "an objective assessment of team performance, which is jointly carried out with no seniority at all." Hughes admitted that there are many barriers put up against effective de-briefs in companies, but he contested, how do they expect you to learn if nobody ever tells you what you've done wrong?

A short film showing a performance de-brief in action was played. It depicted the leader as the first to stand up, admit their faults and essentially open the floor for others to follow. Hughes asked the LBF audience, "Can you challenge your CEO? [...] Or, can the people who work with, and/or for you, challenge you?" Unsurprisingly, this gave way to a few sheepish faces. Hughes made clear that this process needs to be done with complete objectivity; a high performance team can "bridge the gap" between external objectivity and internal performance but to self-analyse with total honesty is a difficult challenge!

Hughes told a story about his CEO, who was at the time visiting one of the bases and consequently wanting to fly wingman with Hughes. Whilst in the air, something went wrong. It was nothing serious but the mistake had been made by the CEO. When it came to the de-brief Hughes identified the error, which in turn "identified the learning." The General knew it was important he was challenged in front of everyone and this formed part of his learning as well as enforcing a strong sense of his credibility as a leader.

Hughes concluded that simple, clear priorities make it easier to maintain an excellent performance. To build an excellent team, he said, the focus should be on "the standards and attitudes you bring to the team [...] Lead by example."