#FreeChapterFriday – Building a Culture to Win: Chapter 5

#FreeChapterFriday – Building a Culture to Win: Chapter 5

As part of our #FreeChapterFriday Series, CATSHOT Group is releasing a new chapter of Building a Culture to Win: Expanding the Frontier of Human Achievement.

This week, we’re looking at Chapter 5: Inspire, Plan, and “Move Out”

Below you can find the chapter in full. Enjoy!



Looking Into the Belly of the Beast

Packing up six pilots, 50 support personnel, and seven precision aircraft is not as easy as it sounds.

Fat Albert, the self-contained C-130 Transport Aircraft, is packed with precision. The Blue Angels only have one such aircraft, and it must hold all of their spare parts, tools, support personnel and all of their gear. A team of travel experts must move everyone and everything to weekly practices and air shows. From mid-March until November, the team travels to over 30 sites around the United States for air shows. The travel team makes sure cars, hotel rooms, and meals are all laid out for us in each town and in exacting fashion.

Even though the Blues travel with one extra airplane and all the essential extra parts, they do not have an extra pilot. Therefore, it is imperative that the pilots are healthy, on-time and properly equipped.

While the Blue Angels do not head into battle, they are on a mission – touring the nation and performing at air shows for 300 days a year as ambassadors of goodwill. As such, we had to be spot-on perfect for every show. The battle rhythm of perfection in our performances had to be sustained between shows as we moved and maintained aircraft, obtained supplies, and saw to the health and personal needs of our team.

Our moves demanded a lot of discipline, family and personal sacrifice, and planning. We all had roles to play and a schedule to keep. And we worked hard to plan ahead. Our planning was made more effective and easier because everyone was onboard. We were aligned and synchronized. All members of the crew understood the mission, and were committed to its success.

Any organization can achieve the same level of success on their mission – whether it is launching a new product, revamping a retail store, or implementing a new corporate strategy. The entire team needs to be onboard and motivated to reach the same goal together. Leadership needs to recognize the rhythm and pace that the mission will demand. An exciting kick-off event is not enough. The entire performance must be in-synch from beginning to end.

Any kind of change—whether it is making changes to an air show routine or reengineering a corporation—takes buy-in from all levels of the organization.

At TOPGUN, we got buy-in for strategic efforts and for other organizational change through our Stafex process, namely “The Brute Force Alignment Method.” In Stafex, we deliberated until we reached STAN, or standardization. Sometimes the discussions would last until late in the night. That was fine, because we took all the time we needed to get buy-in from the whole team.

The Blue Angels has a similar tactic whereby everyone gets together and discusses strategy. All team members review the mission and get input from people throughout the command. They take all the information that has come from everyone and compile it into a master strategy, which the team members approve.

When working in large organizations where buy-in from entire staffs may seem impractical, leaders can identify their own elite team, such as their direct reports, with whom they can create STAN. In turn, those direct reports should encourage and gather feedback from their staffs, so that everyone has an opportunity to have their voices heard, up and down the chain of command. This practice can take a lot of time, but will pay off in the end.

For elite teams, each person in an organization must feel like his or her voice is being heard to ensure that they all have complete confidence in the plan, especially at the moment difficulties arise in the execution of the plan. It is difficult times that pose challenges to a team’s alignment and inspiration on all levels.

This intense process is a great example of The Performance Triad – passion, free will, and focus – in action. It served us well under the most trying circumstances anyone could imagine.

Dedicated to Freedom: Inspirational Strategic Planning

It was November in my second year as Boss of the Blue Angels, and in Blue Angels tradition, we were in the process of developing our strategic plan. The year was 2001; the plan was to be for 2002.

To the public, the Blues represent all of the men and women of the Armed Forces, though they are technically Navy and Marine airmen and women. So a vital part of the coming year’s strategic plan would be for us to assure the American public that their military was there for them and to show the public our professionalism.

In June 2001, we had done low altitude flying over New York City during which we took panoramic images for a lithograph. We had visions of presenting an amazing shot of the skyline to Mayor Giuliani and the people of New York City.

Due to weather conditions, however, the photos turned out less than ideal. A haze that hung over the Northeast U.S. that day dulled the photo. We were disappointed that we would not be able to use them.

Who would have imagined this would be the last flyby of the Twin Towers? Roaring back after 9-11, the country stayed true to the Founding Father’s vision of a nation built on a culture of excellence! U.S. Navy Photo

Three months later, the 9-11 attacks occurred and those snapshots took on a poignancy that no one could ever have foreseen. With the photos, we created a lithograph—our aircraft and the pre-attack New York Skyline—called, “Dedicated to Freedom.”

The outpouring of support from everyone who saw the lithograph was amazing. They told us it was a truly inspiring image. “Dedicated to Freedom” then became our theme for the coming year’s strategic plan. This theme helped us focus our plan on that inspiration.

Inspirational strategic planning is a concept that the Blue Angels embraced before 9-11, but it took on a whole new dimension after 9-11. It is a concept that all world-class organizations have in their culture. The Blue Angels of 2001 reflected the national sentiment and found itself with inspiration of epic proportions that year.

You and your organization can easily find your own inspiration, whether it is launching a breakthrough new product, revolutionizing a process that has been unchanged for years, or leading your team to reach aggressive new revenue goals that will allow you to upgrade your facilities.

The basic concept of inspirational strategic planning is that you must find a new goal that inspires your team to work together to reach it. The plan needs to mean something to everyone in the organization.

To be successful, you must clearly communicate the plan to the team, and challenge them to consider everything that must change – down to the tiniest detail. It is up to your leadership to manage the execution of the plan—to motivate people and set a battle rhythm—and set the course of action that embraces The Performance Triad of your team members.

Our strategic plan for “Dedicated to Freedom” included the goal to tighten up our shows, which had grown to be about 45 minutes long.

In light of everything we were already doing right, we still wanted to take things to the next level and make our shows even more exciting. To figure out how to do this, my flight crew and I talked to the ground crew, former Blue Angels, and some of our biggest fans.

As a result of these talks, we realized that to give the show more excitement, we needed to get rid of the long stretches between the sequential maneuvers of the show.

Our challenge was to do the same number of maneuvers, but in less time.

We examined the periods during which we were waiting for planes to get set up and do passes to see how we could get back in front of the crowd in the shortest amount of time. We also had to consider ways to do this smoothly so the wingman could maintain formation while pulling excessive G-forces.

Because the Blue Angels alternate on the show line between the Diamond maneuvers and the Swithout damaging the landing gear doors.olos maneuvers, I had to work hard with the lead Solo pilot, and opposing Solo pilot. We were all vested in the concept of looking as precise as possible while moving the show along faster and making it more thrilling for the audience. This passion permeated throughout the whole organization, from pilots to support personnel.

With our goal of speeding up the demo in our sites throughout the season, we methodically became more precise. As a result, the shows became tighter and faster. Working together throughout the year, we were able to chop 10 minutes off our shows – a great achievement. It was an achievement that required the entire team be fully engaged, and fully inspired, to reach the goal together.

Stoke Enthusiasm Through Internal Feedback

Our team faced a lot of roadblocks along the journey to our goal. We found a lot of great ideas on how to overcome those roadblocks from all people in all areas of our operation. Some of the most constructive feedback we received on how to improve the show came from our support personnel, not just the demonstration pilots.

My two ground crew chiefs would give blunt assessment after every practice or show. I trusted and used their feedback to continually fine-tune our plan. The side benefit to this process was that they knew I valued their input because I incorporated many of their suggestions.

Over time, when people know their feedback is both necessary and desired for the betterment of the whole team, enthusiasm is amped up and their participation leads to fervent support and passionate execution of the team’s plan.

After we shortened the show to a much more dynamic 35 minutes, we still faced the challenge of getting the word out about our show and gaining visibility.

As popular as the Blue Angels are, many Americans still had never been to an air show and had never seen us perform. Just as with speeding up our shows, team enthusiasm for our media-related goals permeated the entire organization.

Our Public Affairs officer was aggressive. He went way outside the box of conventional media coverage to work with the Discovery Channel to get a documentary crew to follow the team around for a year. It was a real breakthrough, a chance to increase awareness of our performances and us, and also a chance to share some aspects of our culture.

Setting in motion a significant increase in media exposure not only provided a wonderful wrap-up to our “Dedicated to Freedom” year, but it also set the stage for a series of subsequent media engagements and documentary re-runs that spanned several more years and continued to help with the mission of the Blues.

Blues in Business – Inspiration 101

The greatest achievements of mankind were fueled by visions, goals that sparked the passion in individuals to come together as teams and make things happen. When President John F. Kennedy set the challenge to the United States of going to the moon, he spoke these inspiring words:

“We choose to go to the moon in this decade … because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”

During my growing-up years, everyone was focused on the Space Race. I will never forget when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon for the first time. It felt like the whole nation had pulled together to make John F. Kennedy’s vision a reality.

Just as revolutionary were people like Bill Gates who had a vision of putting a computer on every desk, or the 1980 United States hockey team that focused on winning an Olympic gold medal for its country. The Founding Fathers also had an inspirational strategic plan for the United States: Leverage the promise of individual liberty as key to a great and thriving nation.

The keys to having a good plan with a vision are: (1) Make it simple, (2) Make it easy to understand, and (3) Make it easy to remember at every level. In short, there must be something in it for everyone.

Passion, focus, and free will are the starting points. When ground troops are out in the field, away from headquarters, they must understand their missions. Generals can’t be everywhere.

Instead, generals must communicate the strategic plan and a passion for success to the troops in an understandable way and inspire them to carry it out with their free will; so they can focus on their mission and have the knowledge necessary to adapt to challenges that arise.

Getting the troops focused on the same page is absolutely essential. The Blue Angels get together to talk about strategic plans and goals for the year. Business leaders and professionals create their own corporate campaigns.

Ford Motor Company’s famous slogan: “Quality is Job 1” was a great motivator for the company. When all team members are passionate about quality – the quality of their mission, the quality of their organization, and the quality of each team member’s unique contributions – then they can all get onboard for planning, both for short-term goals and long-term goals. These plans get leveraged into inspirational strategies that keep on giving, to individuals and to the team as a whole.

Winning is not the only goal. The goal is one of developing a culture of excellence that will give you the very best chance of winning every time, and then executing the development of that culture and the plan to the best of the team’s ability.

The best winning organizations focus on creating a culture that ingrains the elements of winning methodology into its DNA. An inspirational, strategic plan is a hallmark of a culture of excellence: planning to win, then inspiring the team to do whatever it takes to put forth its best efforts.

An inspirational plan, delivered to a team that has learned to promote and harness the power of passion, where team members trust each other, will adapt and continue to deliver, regardless of how the field of play changes. That agility needed to win is a product of each individual’s mission understanding and the use of their free will to make smart, informed decisions that support the overall objective.

In other words, a culture of excellence promotes an attitude of independent, passionate thinking and executions tempered with the focus of complete and comprehensive mission understanding and buy-in.

Points to Remember

1. Inspirational strategic planning requires a big goal that motivates the entire team to pull together to make it work.

2. World-class organizations work hard to earn buy-in at all levels of an organization by asking for feedback from everyone and looking for ways to incorporate changes and input from all team members, not just those directly affected nor just those at the top of the organization.

3. A good plan with a vision is simple, easily understandable, and easy to remember.


4. Cultures of excellence make the process of inspirational strategic planning part of their cultural makeup, its DNA.

Chair Flying Exercise

Think about the last three company-wide or organization-wide goals that you have implemented. Write a one-line description of each goal along the top of separate sheets of paper and lay them out in front of you. Add the approximate date of each from start to finish.

Now on each paper write the different names of the people in your organization/company if it is small, and the names of the departments, if it is a large organization/company. How was each of them involved in the goal? What was their contribution?

If no involvement or contribution, then ask yourself why not. Did you ask them to be involved? Did you encourage them? Include them in meetings?

Visualize asking those who were not involved, or were barely involved, and imagine yourself approaching them and asking for their input. Do you see conflict? Complacency? Enthusiasm? What could you have done differently to engage them? Is there a process that you could implement for future projects that would include them, or encourage them to be more enthusiastic?

Imagine what it would look like to have everyone engaged – even your biggest naysayer or that one person who keeps to themselves. What can you do to make sure they are tapped for their input? What would it look like to have everyone engaged and onboard?




Also published on Medium.