Do you have Top Gun training in your organization?

Guy Snodgrass, CEO of Defense Analytics, knows how to manage in times of crisis. Now a successful executive, he spent more than twenty years as a fighter pilot, alumni and ultimately instructor at the famous “Top Gun” school, which trains the elite fighter pilots for the US military.

Snodgrass spoke at the CIO Association of Canada‘s Peer Forum last week and closed the event with an inspiring and instructive presentation. I have taken a lot of that with me, as I have from other peer forum sessions.

Although this was advertised as “leadership in times of crisis,” Snodgrass proved his agility as a moderator when he talked more about the “sheer importance of teamwork.”

He immediately established his credentials in this area by showing an image of an aircraft carrier and pointing out that over 4,500 people were sailing on an aircraft carrier to support a maximum of 30 to 50 aircraft. Later in his presentation, he proved that he had “the right stuff” and shared some ideas with me.

Nothing worthwhile is ever easy

Snodgrass started with a picture of a scheduled landing on an aircraft carrier and a routine landing, which looked challenging enough. Then, he told us that the average commercial runway was ten to twelve thousand feet long, but the length of an aircraft carrier was a thousand feet.

Then he showed us a picture at night of the aircraft carrier moving in the storm. You don’t have to be a bald eagle to be amazed at how skilful and brave it must be to do what Snodgrass did hundreds of times at the start of his career.

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Then he told us that this was not the hardest thing he had done in his career. It was the most difficult thing when he had to give a four-hour lecture at the Top Gun Academy as an instructor. If someone who could land a plane on an aircraft carrier at night said something was “the most challenging thing in my career,” you had to believe him. 

How did he conquer this fear? He took the challenge and cut it into small pieces and mastered each part one by one. Then he neatly tied this first lesson together. “Small successes lead to big achievements. Make things happen, don’t let them happen.” And further, “Success in a crisis leads to a stronger team.” 

This is a lesson that we may know intuitively, but it’s always worth reinforcing. When you are overwhelmed, take control, break down the problem into small pieces and trust your team.

“Small successes lead to big successes,” Snodgrass said.

Anticipate challenges

After hearing his story of a near-accident in an F16, I will never again complain about the difficulty of dealing with an operational crisis. An F16 can fly at speeds of up to 2,400 km per hour, or 40 km per minute. At these speeds, you have to predict because you don’t have time to react.

With all the complexity in the cockpit, there is much to consider while all this is going on. 

Snodgrass told a story about training with a Jordanian pilot for a series of exercises. He did not expect any problems in a routine exercise. However, the Jordanian pilot was completely erratic in his behaviour for Snodgrass. Every time Snodgrass tried to move away, the other pilot pivoted towards him. Finally, he broke out after an amazing evasive manoeuvre.

In the practice debriefing – which was indeed valuable – he asked the Jordanian why he kept taking these dangerous steps. In this discussion, Snodgrass realized that Jordanian pilots have a completely different training. Snodgrass himself was unpredictable and even deadly for the other pilot.

The lesson emphasized the importance of planning. You can never predict perfectly how someone else will react. It’s only by planning for every known scenario that you can see trends and patterns – the bigger picture – and remain flexible and agile enough to recognize and manage emerging scenarios. He asked us all to think about how well we plan our operations, just as Top Gun pilots plan for a single flight.

He also stressed the need for “de-briefing” – something that we definitely don’t have enough of in corporate work. Although he did not stress this, I was impressed with the way he approached the debrief with the Jordanian pilot, not with anger or frustration, but with a legitimate need to understand why the pilot had behaved in this way. If only we could do this in the corporate environment – starting with genuine curiosity and the need to understand, rather than frustration and blame – how much more would we learn and develop our teams?

Always have a wingman

Contrary to the macho version we know from the Top Gun film and other uses of the term, Snodgrass stressed that the term is “gender-agnostic” and absolutely mandatory.

Once again, he sketched a lesson from an F15 training session, this time from the movie Top Gun. It’s the famous scene where Tom Cruise and his wingman take on the instructors. Cruise and his partner were very different, but they made a great team. They proved this by running after each other flawlessly and successfully targeting one of their instructor opponents early in the exercise.

At a crucial moment, when Cruise and his partner get involved in the “kill,” Cruise is distracted by another instructor who seems to be easy prey. Cruise leaves his wingman alone. Anyone who has seen the film knows how it ends – Cruise is humiliated by the loss after falling for an old trick – divide and conquer.

The lesson? We all need other people who are different in order to be our partners – our “wingman.” These differences, that diversity, equality and inclusion bring with them different backgrounds, experiences and ideas. We often think that we are more effective than we are. If we break out of the team and go into “hero” mode, we make mistakes.

However, when we work together and develop effective communication and identify best practices and lessons, we strengthen the team.

Do you have a Top Gun function in your organization?

Here are the questions Snodgrass has left us: Do we have a role like Top Gun in our organizations? Do we proactively train our teams? Do we foster diversity, inclusion and look for new ideas?

Do we plan, rehearse and train for our operations? Do we tackle debriefs with a genuine desire to understand and learn? Do we demonstrate our commitment to learning?

Snodgrass pointed out that although he is an excellent presenter he once feared this, and he overcame his fears and learned how to do it. He said he still goes out and asks a crucial question. It’s not “how’d I do?” It’s, “what do you remember?” 

“If they don’t remember two or three things from your presentation, you haven’t been an effective presenter,” Snodgrass said.

Why is this so important?

We have lived through the crisis of the pandemic, but we cannot rest on our laurels. The future is uncertain, and we have the same limitation as an F16. We can only go forward and when we do it’s at hyper speeds that allow little time to react in a complex situation. So whether it’s the hybrid workplace, cybersecurity and the ongoing and growing threats, the explosion of data growth or any of a range of challenges, we have a choice. We can react at high speed without planning. Or we can be “Top Guns”.

It was a great session – one of many and just one of the benefits of being a member of the CIO Association. I will try to write more of it down for those who missed it. Write me a note and tell me your favourite. Just click the “Like” or even “Don’t Like” button below and send me a note with your comments.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Jim Love
Jim Love
I've been in IT and business for over 30 years. I worked my way up, literally from the mail room and I've done every job from mail clerk to CEO. Today I'm CIO and Chief Digital Officer of IT World Canada - Canada's leader in ICT publishing and digital marketing.

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