Jas Hawker shared his experiences as Red Arrows team leader, looking at what we can learn from those experiences to develop really high performing teams. Jas talked about the deliberately high turnover in the Red Arrows; At the end of each season the three most experienced pilots (out of a team of nine) all leave and are replaced and all but the lead pilot then move to a different position. Whilst this might sound like high staff turnover to cope with, it encourages the Red Arrows to make sure that what they do is reproducible and not dependant on any one individual.

The Red Arrows have a huge focus on team fit in their recruitment; the final interview stage (for the final nine candidates for three positions) comprises a week in Cyprus with the team. There is a 20 minute interview, a 20 minute flying test, and the whole of the rest of the week is social interaction to understand what makes people tick and how they’ll fit with the team.

 

The debrief

Jas talked about the single most important process in driving the Red Arrows’ performance; the debrief. Whilst we can learn lots from success, the can learn so much from failure even though it can be more difficult to harvest the learning with many things (culture, time etc.) getting in the way. The Red Arrows debrief after every performance, even though they might be doing 15 performances each week. We watched a video of a debrief and there were a number of characteristics that shone through:

It started with the leader being totally honest, admitting openly to mistakes, and setting a climate in which the rest of the team would do the same.
The debrief was very factual, not focusing on excuses, but deliberately taking the position of independent observer of their own performance (and using video to help this). The team had the same brutal honesty about their own performance that you would expect from an external observer.
Jas shared an experience of having a General flying with the team and them making an error during the flight. Despite the seniority, the debrief involved the same level of feedback to the General about the error and the required learning. If you’re going to debrief fully, this needs to involve everybody on the team.

(This absolutely resonates with my experiences of coaching teams; people I’ve only just met will – in a private discussion – tell me everything that I need to know to help the team become really high performing. I’m always delighted that we’ve identified what needs some work, and a little frustrated that they haven’t been able to say these things openly to each other.)

 

Focus & Priorities

As important as debriefing is, Jas reminded us that we aren’t measured on ability to work together as a team or debrief well. We’re measured on delivery and performance. Jas talked about the importance of the whole team being really clear on priorities and told a story to illustrate this. In a display in 2001, the team flew into what they thought was a shallow fog bank but turned out to be thick cloud. Jas then found himself out of formation, in Gatwick airspace, flying at an odd angle, and less than 2 seconds away from crashing into the sea. In crisis situations like this, there is no time to call a meeting and discuss priorities and you need to know what they are in advance. The Red Arrows have clear priorities: (1) Aviate (2) Navigate (3) Communicate (4) everything else. In this crisis situation, there was no communication from the leader as others were left to fly their planes and be safe whilst he did the same himself. Only once the immediate crisis had passed, did priority 3 (communicate) kick in again.

Jas closed by encouraging us to think about our priorities (e.g. at Mission Excellence, theirs are (1) delivery (2) sales (3) everything else) and to encourage us to make sure we know our priorities and focus our energy on them, and not just end up doing everything else.

 

An interesting talk, brought alive in the context of real high performance!

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