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"The pursuit of excellence is relentless," says former Red Arrows commanding officer

21st Nov 2014
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Jas Hawker

Jas Hawker is a former leader of the RAF Red Arrows display team and now consults with a wide range of corporate, public sector and professional sports clients. In the past he has held high-level appointments with the Ministry of Defence and has been deployed to Afghanistan as a Senior Air Adviser.

He has led the Red Arrows across four continents, delivering over 500 public displays. He was the youngest ever pilot to fly the Tornado aircraft on the front line.

1) How do you encourage the pilots to focus on the performance of the team rather than the performance of the individual?

The behaviours which underpin most high performance teams are remarkably similar – it’s about finding people with the right behaviours and attitudes.

The Red Arrows selection process is about identifying individuals who will choose a set of behaviours which go with the team agenda over and above a set of behaviours which go with pursuing their own agenda.  People make that choice when they get it; when they can see that the team goals are aligned with the personal goals; when people can see that delivering the team goals is the way to get the success, recognition, security, financial reward, esteem, whatever it is that turns them on personally.

Everyone on the Red Arrows is bought into and takes personal ownership of the team goals and they feel pride in what they are doing, and take pride in the team performance.

Gaining that buy in starts with having a very clear goal to ensure that every member of the team has absolute task and role clarity.

We then ensure that everyone understands why they are doing the task that is asked of them so that they understand the value add that they bring to the team – I know that the question is about the pilots but the Red Arrows is a high performing team of around 100 men and women who need to work inter-dependently towards a common goal.

Through 50 years of Red Arrows evolution, building a culture of openness and objectivity and selecting individuals who commit to the team agenda leads to everyone focussing on the team rather than the individual. When it comes to high performance teams, the point of difference between a good team and a great team is often not functional skill, but behaviour and attitude and gaining that buy-in to the team agenda.

2) What styles of leadership work best in the Red Arrows? Is there a culture of leadership that has continued to dominate because it works so well?

It is first important to understand what we mean by ‘leadership’.

In my opinion, leadership in its pure form is the ability to engage, motivate and inspire, it is a moral and emotional activity. People form an opinion of you as a person and a leader (and decide whether to choose to follow you) based on how you demonstrate your values to them through your behaviour.

Each leader of the Red Arrows brings with him (or her hopefully in the future) his own style of leadership but there are probably some aspects that are common to most – Credibility, Moral Courage and Honesty. To be the leader of the Red Arrows you must have been a team pilot previously; this brings instant credibility, by that I mean that you are recognised as being on top of your game professionally.

Secondly is the moral courage to make the difficult or ‘grey’ decisions where there is no right answer – leadership is not about the kudos or pay rise, it is having the moral courage to do the right thing. And finally it is about honesty and integrity – you only get to lose your credibility once and it’s very difficult to get it back.  The first time you cover something up, or keep quiet about something you think you got away with, you are on a steep slippery slope.

And the place you see honesty most graphically on the Red Arrows is in debriefs, our way of ensuring that we are continually learning. The tone for the debrief is set by the leader. The Leader’s performance is on show just the same as everybody else. The Leader’s performance is judged to the same standard as everybody else, in front of everybody else.  It is important that we create a learning environment that has no seniority or hierarchy; everyone is equal, everyone is there to learn. If debriefing is not something you normally do it can be a big step as a leader; there is a risk involved, a vulnerability, confronting the fear of failure, accepting constructive criticism from your subordinates.

It is not an easy thing to do but debriefing is our single most powerful tool for improving performance; it’s where we accelerate the learning experience and share best practice. And it works.

3) What does 'excellence' mean for modern organisations - is this a focus on skills/mindset or about focusing on outcomes?

If you pardon the pun, but on the Red Arrows we aim high.

When it comes to understanding what excellence means for an organisation, you firstly have to understand exactly what it is that you are trying to achieve.  Is success just a case of being better than the competition?  You could argue that the Red Arrows are in competition with the French, the Italians, the Americans, basically the other full-time professional display teams.  So is it just a case of being better than them?   

Well our aim is not just to be better than the competition but so much better that they are irrelevant, to put clear blue water between ourselves and everybody else. Now that probably sounds a bit arrogant and I don’t mean it to be; the reality is that the other teams are very good.  They do similar stuff to a very high standard and we have a very good relationship with them.

However, our standard is not set by them; we set our own standards – we run our own race.  It’s not about being a bit better than somebody else. The question is how good can we be? And what we aim for is perfection.  Now that’s actually not achievable, but by aiming for perfection, we can get good enough that it looks perfect from the ground.  If we just aimed for very good, we’d be good, if we aimed for good, we’d be average, if we aimed for average, we’d be rubbish. So we go for perfection, and that actually means something to us - perfect symmetry in the formation shapes, no timing errors between manoeuvres, all the smokes on and off at exactly the same time. And that’s what we measure against.

However, the pursuit of excellence is relentless. The biggest single barrier to high performance in my mind is the standard which you measure yourself against.  In a small team with competitive selection like the Red Arrows, you can choose people with the right attitude and work ethic.  In a big organisation, it’s going to be difficult to get thousands, all measuring themselves against an exceptionally high bar.  Success does not (unfortunately) come overnight.  You have to commit for the long-haul.

4) You've worked in very risk-averse environments. Are modern leaders in non-high reliability organisations too risk-averse?

Most, if not all, tasks or projects carry risks to quality, budget, time, process or personal safety.

Where all the factors which might affect the task are more or less known and under control, then one can be predictive; it is largely possible to ‘systemise the risk out’ of the operation. In fact, these factors form the essential building blocks to any organisational culture when it comes to risk. However if the execution of the task is highly reactive to external events and the environment then the number of risk factors, many of which may not be fully modelled and almost all of which might be correlated in ways which are not immediately obvious, it is impossible to systemise the risk out. Process and compliance are essential but not enough. They form just one part of a culture of safety including operational excellence, human factors and the glue which holds it all together: leadership.

Our approach at Mission Excellence has evolved from deep experience of military fast jet aviation and those lessons are transferable to most organisations. In our former world, it was not possible to provide all the solutions, so the aim was to equip and empower fighter pilots with the ability to reach safe solutions themselves.

For fighter pilots, risk management is not simply an exercise in compliance, or something which is outsourced to a separate department; it’s owned by the operators; it is a natural by-product of the pursuit for operational excellence. Ownership at the source of the risk is a fundamental part of a successfully embedded risk culture.

5) What are the main qualities the Red Arrows consistently look for in new recruits?

The selection process for new Red Arrows covers three areas: an interview, a flying test and a social programme that involves a lot of interaction. We have an interview but I would be the first to admit that I am not an HR expert; I tend to think that in an interview people just tell you what you want to hear, that said it does allow us an insight into what makes them tick.

The second element is the flying test; it is a skill test and the bar is set high. It’s 20 minutes of pure stress; you either pass or fail; however, it’s not the point of difference. The flying test is like a line in the sand, you have to be on or over the line. But it doesn’t matter that much how far over it you are.  Being a long way over is a good thing, but the team will always take somebody who’s marginal on that line, who’s a great team player over somebody who’s brilliant but with a massive ego. Because that person will drag the team down.

And the final bit is trying to find out what people are really like. Identifying people who will choose to make the commitment, who will choose to make the sacrifices. People who understand that the team is always way bigger than any one star individual.

And you need people you can trust.  What does that mean? Trust is one of these words which gets used a lot in the corporate world, but what does it actually mean? You don’t choose to trust somebody or not; you just do, so why do you trust them?  Well you trust people who are honest.  What does that actually look like?  People who do what they say they will.  People who if they can’t deliver, will let you know so you can manage it.  People who can accept constructive criticism and feedback from their own peer group.

So functional skills need to be good enough but the point of difference is the people stuff – finding out who the team players are and those who will commit to the team game and agenda.

6) As the business world gets more complex, more fast-moving and more chaotic, what do organisations need to remember in order to adapt and survive?

Ultimately, you are not measured on your teamwork, or your ability to plan or debrief. You are measured on results.

Those things can massively increase your chances of getting results, but it’s your ability to execute and deliver outcomes that you will be measured on. In the complex world of flying fast jets you need absolutely clear simple priorities to fall back on. In a low arousal situation, we are able to juggle lots of balls[***].

As the pressure and stress increases when we execute the plan, balls[***] are going to be dropped. The clever bit is choosing which ball to drop. In flying it boils down to a few simple priorities:  aviate, navigate, communicate.  The ball that I cannot afford to drop is flying my plane; other things may be important and very pressing but if I lose focus on flying the plane it could be fatal!

In the complex, dynamic and competitive commercial world, the consequence might not be so extreme, but we will have all seen examples in the media of individuals and organisations losing sight of the big picture and focussing on the wrong thing leading to huge reputational or financial penalties.

The question that I like to ask is ‘What is the ball you cannot afford to drop?’

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