#FreeChapterFriday – Building a Culture to Win: Chapter 3

#FreeChapterFriday – Building a Culture to Win: Chapter 3

As part of our #FreeChapterFriday Series, every first Friday of the month, CATSHOT Group will release a new chapter of  Building a Culture to Win: Expanding the Frontier of Human Achievement.

Click the link above and use the Promotional Code: “FreeChapterFridays” to purchase a discounted, full copy of the book!

This week, we’re looking at Chapter 3: Fostering Chemistry, Core Values, and Trust

Below you can find the chapter in full. Enjoy!



Building a Better Team

Early July 2002: The Day of Reckoning for the 15 Blue Angel candidates who made it to the final round of interviews for the 2003 team. As I sat at my desk in the hangar that housed the Blue Angels’ F/A-18 Hornets, I prepared for the hardest part of being the Boss – turning down 10 amazing candidates.

Only five would survive.

After the interviews ended just one week before, the finalists had each flown to their home base and were to call me at a prescheduled time to find out if they made it.

Our team had been up almost all night the night before, deliberating. The decision was hard because our options were all so good. To be among the finalists is an honor in itself, as they represent the elite pilots, maintenance and supply officers, and flight surgeons from the Navy and Marine Corps. Some of them had been vying for the team for several years, and to be selected would have been the culmination of a lifelong dream.

So, as I prepared for the phone calls to come, I remember thinking what a privilege it is to be able to handpick our team from such a talented pool. I was essentially living every CEO’s dream – we were selecting the most technically proficient Relentless Innovators, who also had the personalities, values and character that would make it fun and rewarding to tackle the incredible challenges we would face over the next year.

We were going to succeed with style and have fun doing it.

Chemistry: Creating a “Family”

The deliberations during the selection process for both TOPGUN and the Blue Angels will always remain confidential. However, the results of the selection process are clear – we build an elite team whose members enjoy being together, even under the most stressful circumstances.

Elite teams require extensive time to focus on becoming the best, both technically and culturally. This is true across the board from sports teams to industry. It certainly is true at the Blue Angels and TOPGUN. You need people who can create and maintain a positive reinforcing chemistry within the team. They get excited about tackling tough challenges together.

The Blue Angels Diamond and Solo pilots are an extreme example. The six pilots spend almost every available hour of every day together from December through March. This is to just prepare for the show season.

They extensively pre-brief, fly and thoroughly debrief for two-to-three practices every day. Then, during the show season – March through mid-November – this grueling pace increases to add travel and air show performances to the continuous practice and training. Public commitments are constant and the team is always “on stage” regardless of where it is.

Additionally, the six pilots also require rigorous physical training every day so they can pull up to 7.5 Gs without the protection of a G-suit. A G-suit wraps around and squeezes the pilot’s legs and lower abdomen to prevent the pilot from blacking out under high G-load. Unfortunately, the G-suit also interferes with the precise control movements necessary to fly very tight formations—so the Blue Angels do not use them.

The six pilots spend almost every waking hour with each other in this very intense environment. The process of mastering every element of the show can be stressful as new maneuvers are introduced every week, and the team begins to fly closer each day. The team has developed a culture of excellence that selects individuals who thrive in this kind of fast-paced environment.

Stress, doubt, and frustration can never be allowed to creep into this environment. The effects are corrosive to the team. That is why elite teams always look like they are enjoying what they do, no matter where they are on the scale of mastery that particular day. Their culture of excellence promotes the positive and immediately crushes any hint of negativity.

To be clear, they are always highly critical of their performance. The extensive and intense flight debriefs that we will discuss in a later chapter are very frank. The team needs individuals who can both dish out and take constructive criticism every day as they seek to relentlessly improve.

World-class teams do not waste energy on being negative. They select individuals who, in addition to being Relentless Innovators, have positive and constructive attitudes. They help create positive chemistry and personal dynamics within the team—and it shows!

When I was an air-wing commander and I had seven squadrons reporting to me on the ship, I could always judge how each squadron was doing by sensing the atmosphere in the ready-room. The performance metrics always confirmed my observations.

The ready-room on an aircraft carrier is a place where naval aviators build their bonds. It is where you sit for pre- and post-mission briefings and debriefings. You and your fellow aviators are keyed up and focused. Yet, we still leave room for both levity and frank discussions.

The best squadrons always had a great ready-room atmosphere. The aircrew liked being there and positive energy was where naval aviators build their bonds. It is where you sit for pre- and post-mission briefings and debriefings. You and your fellow aviators are keyed up and focused. Yet, we still leave room for both levity and frank discussions.

The best squadrons always had a great ready-room atmosphere. The aircrew liked being there and positive energy was always at a high level. Not only were they good at their professional duty, they were excited to be there doing it. These organizations were full of winners.

The Blue Angels and TOPGUN also had ready-rooms. The Blues set one up at every air show site in a borrowed hangar space, conference room, or hotel. It is where they conduct very serious airshow briefings and debriefings. The culture of excellence demands and selects team players that promote this positive professional approach, no matter where the room is located.

Selecting the Next Generation

The fact is, not every Relentless Innovator can work well with others. Finding the individuals who not only have the skills, but who have what it takes to enhance the chemistry of the team, embrace the culture, and make the group story their story is essential to fostering and maintaining a culture of excellence. Anything less weakens an organization.

I have learned keys to picking winning teams from selecting people for the Blue Angels, TOPGUN, and four-star generals’ staffs, as well as industry. The same principles – the importance of chemistry and matching core values as the tiebreakers between candidates – apply to any organization.

Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, said it best:

“Great companies are not based on great strategies. Great companies that are enduring and sustainable are based on great people who have like-minded values and are all pointed in the right direction.”

I have found no metric you can measure to reliably score these intangibles. Therefore, it comes down to developing a process that allows you to get a clear sense about someone. The Blue Angels, again, has a great example of this process in action.

Core Values: “Glad To Be Here”

When I was first introduced to the Blue Angels, before I became a member myself, I had the opportunity to fly in the back of a two-seat F/A-18 during a practice demonstration. Not only was I amazed at the level of professionalism of everyone on the team, but I was also totally impressed with their attitudes.

“Glad to be here.” That’s a saying all the Blues say at the beginning and ending of every brief and every flight. Why? Because when the daily grind gets difficult and challenging, they could easily forget what a privilege it is to fly for the Blues. The phrase “Glad to be here” reminds team members that it is a privilege to be part of such a world-class team.

It is a combination of “thanks,” “good day,” and “best wishes,” but it goes even further. Each time the team says, “Glad to be here,” they reaffirm their commitment to the shared core values of the team. Even though the job gets tough, the team understands that their hard work is all for the common good.

A person’s character is a reflection of their core values. While difficult to perfectly define, it is important to make clear a basic framework of what is expected and put it in writing.

Both TOPGUN and the Blue Angels have personal and professional codes of conduct. The team members are always expected to self-critique and acknowledge publicly to the team any violation. Sincerely embracing the team’s core values and standards shows character, especially when you are expected to uphold them when no one else is around.

For example, the Blues have a dress code and grooming standards that apply whether you are in public or on your own personal time. Team members would often acknowledge violations, no matter how minor, during our team meetings. Knowing that your teammates are as serious as you are at upholding the standards, strengthens passion, promotes free will and helps focus the team on what is truly important – facing the challenge of the job.

Upholding Your Contract

The Blue Angels operate in one of the most unforgiving environments, where precision is a must. The margins are quite literally very small. As a result, we had unwritten flying contracts that were absolute. Everyone had to uphold them or death would result.

My contract as the Boss leading the team was, “I will never fly the formation into the ground.” The wingmen’s contracts were, “We will never hit the Boss or each other.” Pretty simple, right? Well, because of the speeds, altitudes, and close proximity to each other, honoring these contracts requires all of your skill and attention. Throughout winter training and the show season, the team members develop more and more trust in each other and the team gets tighter and flies better.

Eventually, we are ready for the Double Farvel.

The Double Farvel is a complex, high-precision formation during which half the Diamond is flying upside down. Trust is necessary at every phase of “this maneuver. First the Boss must line the formation up at just the right distance to the right of the air show center-point, and at just the right airspeed and altitude. Then the Boss and the #4 pilot must flip their jets upside down while in tight formation, without hitting the wingmen. They must then make smooth control movements – the opposite direction than they normally do – to make corrections as the Diamond flies in front of the crowd.

The maneuver becomes even more complicated in towns with radio and cell towers that are right on the show line and that must be threaded like a needle—while upside down.

Photo by Bernard Zee. ©


“Success in the Double Farvel is achieved through trust from the wrench turner, to your crew chief and ultimately your fellow pilots!”



Obviously, the maneuver requires a great deal of trust, not only among all team members – wingmen and Boss – but also with the maintenance crew. Aircraft must be 100 percent correct, and crew chiefs need to prepare and strap the pilots into the seat perfectly so they do not fall out while upside down and lose control of the jet. The right wingman has the critical job of punching a stopwatch at roll in and calling for the Boss to finish the maneuver before the inverted fuel tanks run dry.

If any of these elements are missing, disaster can happen.

Pilots, just like your team, can only pull a Double Farvel – pushing themselves to their limits – when they have complete trust in themselves, their teammates, and their equipment.

Trust: The Team Comes First

Trust extends to assuming that everyone will put the team first – even when their own life is on the line. When selecting someone for an elite team, I want to know they are sincere about putting the team first.

The Blue Angels do everything in their power to fly the safest air show in the world. There are times when one must self-sacrifice to ensure the team’s overall safety. The Diamond takeoff is a great example.

During this maneuver, all four F/A-18s accelerate down the runway together in close formation. In the event one of the Boss’s two engines fails, requiring him to abort his takeoff, he cannot apply the brakes and throttle back the other engine until the other three wingman behind him have safely slowed their aircraft to avoid collision.

This means that at some point the Boss may have to run off the end of the runway to ensure the safety of his team.

High-performance teams that share chemistry and core values – as well as outstanding skills and expertise – have members that trust each other. In the best teams, business development, engineering, finance, and research all trust each other to do their jobs, do them well, and do them on time. They usually follow the example set by their sector presidents and vice presidents. The best of them will “run off the end of the runway” for their team in supporting their efforts. Otherwise, the team is weakened.

When team members trust each other they function in a seamless fashion that maximizes the value of each individual and supercharges the organization as a whole.

Making the Call

Back in that hangar in 2002 on the verge of taking the phone calls from excited Navy and Marine Corps airmen and women, I thought to myself what an awesome process and culture we inherited from previous teams dating back to 1946.

The team has an aggressive, thorough and meticulous hiring culture. It was fun and professionally rewarding. New friends were made and a lot was learned – both ways – in the process. Every relevant piece of information gathered over a period of months, and in some cases years, was used.

We went well beyond mere skill evaluation. We understood the applicants’ core values, aspirations and goals. We knew if they truly were Relentless Innovators, and we knew we could trust them to put the team’s priorities first. The new selectees would need all of that to be successful over their next few years on the team.

The applicants each called in at their appropriate time slots. Like other parts of the Blue Angels selection process, the particulars of the phone calls will always remain confidential. But each time, I was reassured that we had a great process. All the non-selects, although disappointed, remarked how much they enjoyed getting to know the team.

You know you have perpetuated a great culture, when the new hire’s response to hearing the great news of their selection is, “Glad to be here, Boss!”

Points to Remember

  1. It is critical for harmonizing The Performance Triad that each member is a Relentless Innovator with common core values, which leads to good chemistry and ultimately to complete trust.
  2. Team members must have good chemistry so that you can create a close-knit group that can candidly critique performances and work to improve based on feedback.
  3. World-class teams that share the same core values will truly be “Glad to be here,” even when times are tough because they know the job will not be easy, but it will be rewarding.
  4. Team members cannot be expected to perform at their best unless they have complete trust in all team members, from support crew all the way up to the Boss.

Chair Flying Exercise

Visualize yourself in your office on a very challenging day. Your largest client, customer, or donor has just called to say that they have had a technical complication that will delay their check to your company, division, or organization. Your largest vendor is expecting your check today or they will not ship the item or perform the service on time for you to deliver to your own clients or customers.

Are you feeling stressed? Are you pacing? Who are you contacting in your company, division, or your organization to ensure that things run as smoothly as possible? What members of your team are working together to solve the problem? What members are likely refusing to work together? How do you see the final outcome of the situation?

Now imagine yourself in the same situation of a late customer and a time-sensitive vendor, but this time you are relaxing in a comfortable chair in your office. You are thinking about your next meeting that will move the company, division, or organization forward. You are not distracted by a large financial glitch. Your team will handle it and keep you informed.

In this more relaxed scenario, who in your company, division or organization is responsible for making sure that no single late receivable or urgent payable – no matter how large – will affect your team’s ability to make sure your business flows properly? What do you need to do to make sure this happens? Do you need to work on trust among members? Do you need to re-evaluate the core values you want in your team? What improvements need to happen to ensure that your team is as effective and efficient as it can be – to be world-class?

Also published on Medium.