#FreeChapterFriday – Building a Culture to Win: Chapter 4

#FreeChapterFriday – Building a Culture to Win: Chapter 4

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 4: Aligning The Team

Below you can find the chapter in full. Enjoy!



“All Together Now – “Up We Go…”

It is November, and we’re waiting to take off on our final show of the season in sunny Pensacola, FL. As Boss, I have the privilege of sitting in the #1 spot – smack dab in the middle of four shining blue and gold F/A-18 fighter jets at the end of the runway.

My team and I are lined up in fingertip formation, which looks like the fingertips of your right hand. The Boss (#1) is your middle finger. The right wingman (#2) is the ring finger. The left wingman (#3) is the index finger, and the slot pilot (#4) is the pinky finger.

As Boss, my job is to lead the team through voice calls that serve as the drummer of a rock band, creating and keeping a tempo that we can all follow. This synchronicity will allow all three Diamond wingmen to fly extremely close as all four of us execute our stick-and-throttle movements together.

As I am given clearance to take off, I start my cadence: “We’re cleared for takeoff, the winds are calm, check your parking brake off, check your trim set. Maneuver is Diamond Burner Loop with a right turn out.” The team acknowledges my commands. I then command the engine run up, “Let’s run ’em up.”

I look over to my right and left to receive a visual thumbs-up from each of my wingmen. “Smoke on… off brakes now… burners ready now,” I say as we begin the show.

A huge cloud of air show smoke billows behind the formation, as the 36,000 pounds of thrust per aircraft has our body weight pushing us firmly against our seats. All four jets accelerate down the runway in very tight formation. Within a few seconds, we have reached 150 knots, as we begin to lift off.

I call out several command bursts “Gear,” “A little drive,” “Up we go… a little more pulllll.” My team is in sync with my tempo, understanding that timing is everything. They know to keep pulling on the control stick until the last “L” in “pullll” is sounded. I sense the #4 jet move into the slot position behind me.

The Diamond is now performing a loop at three times the pull of gravity and is shooting through thousands of feet in altitude in a matter of seconds. The goal is to complete the loop maneuver almost where it started with a safety buffer of a couple hundred feet, and to do it in a smooth manner so that the wingmen can maintain the very tight formation throughout.

We rely on the timing, tempo and the “muscle memory” the team has developed over hundreds of practices to safely complete the maneuver without hitting each other or the ground.

The importance of critical alignment is clear when the Blue Angels maintain such a tight formation – wing tips and canopy to wing-tip distances are mere inches apart. The Boss never moves his airplane without making a call in a predictable manner.

As in business, the Boss’s cadence must be steady, synchronizing his team’s stick-and-throttle movements precisely so we can reach our goal without crashing.

In the Blues, if the Boss or a team member rushes a maneuver or changes the cadence of communication and action, the formation becomes misaligned and people can run into each other, causing serious issues. Everything must be in synch if you are going to have a high-performing, world-class organization – from the Chief to the entry-level team member.

World-Class Teams Work on Alignment from Day One

One of the most exciting and inspirational days for me as a Blue Angel was the very first day of winter training with the new team. It did not involve any flying.

The day was dedicated to getting the entire team aligned and reviewing the basics. Everyone was in attendance from the Boss down to the administrators and maintenance crew. The whole Blue Angels organization gathers and reviews command history, core values and mission. The annual goals developed by various dedicated teams were also discussed. We got buy-in at every level through participation.

Additionally, and most importantly, the Blue Angels code of conduct was reviewed. This included the very basics of how as Blue Angels we were expected dress, appear, and interact in public. By the end of the day, everyone was reminded of what it meant to be a Blue Angel.

This happened every single year, without exception. We never took it for granted that everyone was in synch. We made getting everyone in synch part of our daily lives.

Coach Wooden on Alignment and Focus

For anyone who thinks that this attention to detail and planning is a military phenomenon, consider UCLA Varsity Basketball Coach John Wooden. In the early 1960s to mid-1970s, Coach Wooden led his teams to numerous national championships.

When Coach Wooden started a season, he welcomed all the players, and said, “Let’s get down to business.” He then gave the team his words of wisdom, but they were not the words the players had expected. He told his team about the rules he expected them to follow as UCLA basketball players: Keep your fingernails trimmed, your hair short, and your jerseys tucked into your trunks.

At first, the players thought the coach must be joking. When they realized he was serious, they were shocked. Why was Coach Wooden making such a big deal out of such little details?

Far from being insignificant, these details were vital to the performance of the team. Short fingernails, short hair, and properly worn jerseys translate into higher overall performance – in other words, if you focus on doing the little things right, that will translate into greatness in the big picture.

When you strive for excellence while doing the small things – never, ever allowing sloppiness to creep in – that precise, meticulous dynamic becomes part of your team’s overall method, both in practice and in execution.

Before the NCAA tournament finals in Louisville in 1967, the team gathered together for Coach Wooden’s pregame talk. He went to the chalkboard, and the team expected him to diagram a new tactic or play he wanted them to try.

Instead, he illustrated where he wanted the players to stand while the national anthem was being played. Then he told them how he expected them to behave after the game, in light of the bad behavior of another team the day before.

He never said a word about the specifics of the upcoming game or UCLA’s opponent that day. He clearly figured he had already taught the players what they needed to know, which had started that first day when he told them he expected short fingernails, short hair, and tucked-in jerseys. He had begun with the basics.

Coach Wooden understood the importance of team alignment. He was also a master at balancing passion and free will with the right amount of focus to win. They did win that day – 79 to 64 over Dayton – and became national champions.

Aligning the “Newbies” into the Team

The Blue Angels call new teammates, “newbies.” By tradition, an individual is considered a newbie for their first eight months on the team. During that time, they immerse themselves in the team’s legacy and its culture of excellence. At the end, they are expected to have made the organization’s story their own—they are now truly part of the team.

It is an inspirational transformation to becoming a Blue Angel. It is not about breaking anyone – it is about individuals bringing their personal capabilities and passion into alignment with those of the others on the team.

Once newbies have earned the trust of the rest of the team they become, in everyone’s mind, full team and family members.

Maximizing Alignment and Chemistry Through Careful Placement of the Relentless Innovators

Recruiting excellent candidates is obviously important to the Blue Angels, as is the newbie process. The team rapidly integrates new recruits and makes them family.

Cultures of excellence also maximize team alignment by considering continuity and chemistry when placing new hires.

First, continuity. The Blue Angels have very specialized skill sets that are required for their air show demonstrations. These skills are unique and found nowhere else in the Navy. Therefore, to maintain team alignment, it is critical to have a continuity plan whereby the experience and nuances of each position in the formation are directly passed from one generation to the next.

In the Blue Angels, the Boss position turns over every two years. Everybody else in the Diamond Formation has some kind of movement or training responsibility shift in the process, which helps maintain continuity. For example, during my first year as Boss, the left wingman, #3, was also on his first year on the team. We learned the maneuvers from the right wingman, #2, and the slot pilot, #4, who were seasoned second-year Blue Angels.

Then, during my second year as Boss, the previous #3 rotated to become the new #4 and we trained a new #2 and #3. That continuity dynamic continues from year-to-year and it works great for the Blue Angels.

In business, the best performing organization considers continuity when making personnel changes as a way to maximize alignment. Not only are you passing on training for each position, but you are also spreading a fuller understanding of the company and how each department works.

Chemistry is next. World-class teams consider chemistry for maintaining alignment. For example, the Blue Angels Solo pilots work closely with each other everyday, since the Lead Solo teaches the Opposing Solo for continuity. The right chemistry between the two is critical because without it, the Lead’s constant critiques could cause strain in the relationship and lead to deteriorating performance.

Great chemistry promotes great communication and elevates everyone’s spirit. Next time you see what you think is a great team, observe how the team members interact with each other, and how much fun they look like they are having.

I have seen teams maintain high morale and positive energy through some of the most challenging conditions, including combat, because they have great chemistry and, thus, great alignment.

World-Class Teams Have Cultures that Focus on Enhancing Alignment Every Day through Great Communication

The best organizations work hard and inspire everyone by maintaining great communications both up and down the chain of command, as well as laterally. This holistic communication is usually accomplished through a communication battle rhythm that has become part of those organizations’ cultures.

Two organizations with the widest ranging global operations in the military, for which I had the pleasure of working, were the Joint Chiefs of Staff and North American Aerospace Defense Command/U.S. Northern Command (NORAD/U.S. NORTHCOM).

Both of these organizations had to maintain alignment with the other four-star regional and functional combatant commands, as well as with our international partners. They also had to maintain alignment with the President of the United States and other governmental departments such as the State Department.

Both organizations had very effective battle rhythms, which provide a way for everyone on a team to connect with one another and which also facilitate alignment.

Battle rhythm is the timing and tempo of information flow. It synchronizes critical meetings so decision-makers get the important information they need at the right time.

In my advisor capacity in business, I can tell almost immediately whether there is alignment at the top and throughout the organization.

For example a vice president can unwittingly undermine the direction set by the president if he or she is not showing sufficient commitment or is perhaps draining off focus on a subsidiary effort. The president can contribute to this by releasing corporate data erratically or having meetings without proper notice so staff can prepare.

Working out-of-step always leads to poor performance because it creates confusion and distraction.

By contrast, cultures of excellence develop ways of working through these types of differences so that there is a high level of coordination and support between and among functions in the organization.

Battle rhythm shows in the tactical and day-to-day operations. However, the rhythm should extend for longer periods for strategic reasons.

For example, to achieve overall alignment, you need a way to get everyone together to talk about big-picture issues such as the organization’s mission and vision. This get-together is usually a big event that happens maybe once a year. Ideally, you then have daily, weekly, and monthly battle rhythm activities you conduct to strengthen alignment throughout the organization.

In the Joint Chiefs, NORAD, and NORTHCOM, department heads would take information back and distribute to their departments as needed. Town-hall-style meetings were used as well, but mainly for big announcements, because they could not serve as the sole method of communication for a whole organization.

One interesting thing about battle rhythm for the Joint Chiefs, NORAD and NORTHCOM: It was a consistent drum beat whether things were going smoothly or they were in crisis mode. The battle rhythm pretty much worked the same way regardless of what was going on because it was established.

Even when additional meetings with external organizations like FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security were layered in on top of what these world-class organizations already had in place, their battle rhythm did not change. The Joint Chiefs, NORAD, and NORTHCOM could handle any contingency – and easily make it march to their battle rhythms.

World-Class Teams Take Whatever Time is Needed to Ensure Alignment

A TOPGUN staff instructor’s meeting is known as a Stafex. They are legendary in the Navy for their length and thoroughness. They constitute a critical element in ensuring alignment throughout TOPGUN and the rest of the Naval Aviation community. They are legendary because they achieve alignment by a process I call the “Brute Force Method.”

When I was a TOPGUN instructor, I found myself with my fellow instructors working late at night. We all had long ago called home to tell families that we were not going to make it home for dinner.

Since TOPGUN instructors are responsible for standardizing the fighter tactics that the fleet uses in combat, all of us were constantly searching for the best tactic against the threats our peers were facing in overseas combat.

When we had particular issues to decide, the rule was that we were not going home until we had finished. Often, that meant staying very late at night, with heated discussions and differences of opinion. Our focus helped us harness our free will and our passion to work through the tough issues.

For communication to work well, people must feel free to honestly talk about differences of opinion. The TOPGUN method is called Brute Force because it is hard and because it continues until you come to an agreement.

After the decision was accepted, it became the naval standard, or STAN. TOPGUN instructors were expected to espouse it at all times. This ensured that our students and the Navy were always aligned as well—no one ever saw a difference of opinion from a TOPGUN instructor, and therefore everyone would follow that same tactic.

“In cultures of excellence, it’s vital that people on all levels of the chain of command be able to articulate and discuss their differences, using their free will. Then, with the decision made by the team and leadership, even if it is against what you think is best, support it and move on…or get out.”

You Have Alignment When Everyone on the Team Can Be a Credible Spokesman

Can everyone in your organization articulate your mission and your vision as well as you can? I’ve learned that everyone in a world-class organization is – and should be – a company spokesperson.

In the case of the Blues, I was always very comfortable with media attention because each person on the team, from the Boss to the technician turning wrenches, could articulately speak to any reporter about the mission of the Blues.

In the air and on the ground, the Blue Angels are always aligned.

I am reminded of an Airframes Machinist’s Mate Second Class. His nickname was “Cruiser.” He gave some of the most memorable media interviews I can remember. He was a great example of the high quality individuals we had on the team. He was also a great example of how well we were aligned as an organization.

I recall being in a hotel room at a show site, reviewing my maneuvers for the air show. At the same time, I was catching news clips from media footage about the show. Cruiser happened to get picked at random to do an interview by a local news channel.

As I watched the clip, I knew I would be happy with his performance because everyone on the team knew how to handle themselves with the media. Since it was just after 9-11, though, and we had a vital role in giving our country confidence in our military, I watched intently to make sure he struck just the right note.

Cruiser was spectacular. At the time of the interview, he had just finished a repair on a jet, but he spoke magnificently and looked great. His demeanor was perfect for the situation: confident, direct, articulate, and reverent.

He was able to describe the mission of the Blue Angels and how it related to national security. He also related the vision and goals of what we were doing at the Blue Angels, and how they were representative of the men and women who were deployed overseas. He struck a patriotic tone that instilled confidence, calmness, and an assurance to all those watching – including me!

All in all, that interview was one of the best I’ve ever seen from anyone at any level. It was genuine; it came from the heart. Cruiser believed in our mission, and it came across that way. He was passionate and you could tell it was his passion and free will doing the talking – not just something he had been told to say.

I am convinced that this one video clip has recruited thousands more young men and women just like him and has given the American public a glimpse into the outstanding volunteers who protect our country every day. You couldn’t help but be proud.

Even though I was the Boss and by position the head team spokesperson, realistically, we had an entire organization of individuals just like Cruiser who were far more effective in telling our story than I could ever be by myself.

Points to Remember

1. World-class teams have cultures that constantly work to align the organization down to the smallest detail.

2. The alignment of goals, timing and tempo must be set prior to starting any new business line, project, or yearly strategy session.

3. Battle rhythm establishes communication expectations between players to ensure there is alignment in the daily routine, organizational processes and even messaging.

Chair Flying Exercise

Imagine your company or organization being awarded the largest project in its history. You will need to bring in a few new employees to work alongside those who have been with you for years. The deadline for delivery is tight. If you are going to make this project work, every step of the process, every member of the team must work in perfect alignment. If the process breaks down, the delivery will not be made and you will be out millions of dollars.

What are some of the issues that your team would face if this project happened today? Would everyone be ready to go? Would the leadership team be able to communicate a clear vision and a clear plan to the whole team? Does every person on your team have someone who can cover for them if they become ill or fall behind? Who are your weak links? Is it the newbies?

Think about what processes you need to create in your company to fulfill that big order. What training do you need to provide? Who are your weakest links? Who are your Relentless Innovators who will lead your team and work with you to improve the process along the way? If you do not have anyone you trust to step up and take the lead in any scenario, what can you do to develop this in your current team?

Visualize how you would like the process to run, and then think about what you need to put in place to make the reality match the ideas forming in your head.

Also published on Medium.