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This post is part of an HBR Spotlight examining leadership lessons from the military.
Two long minutes passed since we had changed radio frequencies and I hadn’t heard from my wingmen. We were approaching the Iraqi border and my flight lead still had not checked me in. I was getting nervous.
Having no radio contact at 20,000 feet and separated from my fellow pilots by 10 miles on a night combat mission in hostile territory was a dire situation. What if I lost my engine or was engaged by ground fire? How could I call for help? Without my radio, I felt extremely alone and vulnerable.
Suddenly my back-up VHF radio blared with the terse (yet comforting) sound of my flight lead, “2, come up 239.9.” I responded with a “2″ and changed frequencies immediately. He continued, “Vipers, check in!” We responded in a crisp, monotone cadence, “2, 3, 4.” We were now marching to the same beat.
“Vipers, FENCE-IN, Check Master-Arm Hot!” I flipped the master arm switch to the “hot” position, readying my weapons to be fired. We were now one synchronized formation, with a clear flight plan and a mission objective that had been delivered in our pre-mission briefing. Our radios and radar were the links that tied us together. We were ready for battle.
Communication in military combat is essential to successfully execute a plan. It ensures safety, keeps everyone focused on their responsibilities, and builds awareness in rapidly changing environments.
In the heat of battle, where effective communication is critical, fighter pilots:
Brief the mission in order to establish objectives, delegate responsibilities, analyze threats, and review contingency plans.
Establish a communication (“comm”) game plan which confirms when and where to change frequencies.
Ensure positive two-way communication is established during critical elements of a mission.
Brief a back-up plan in case communication fails (known as “radio-out” procedures).
Debrief every mission to review lessons learned and reinforce training.
As a business leader, do you have a “comm plan” with your employees and colleagues? Are you taking the time to brief your missions to ensure all your wingmen are on the same wave length and understand their roles, responsibilities, and objectives? Finally, are you aware of those who might be on the wrong frequency or off course? What’s your plan to get them back on target?
Checking in with your wingmen, listening to their questions, and understanding their challenges are fundamental components of teamwork and leadership. They are the cornerstones in building an environment of mutual support and trust. . Here are several communication “wingtips” gleaned from my experience as a fighter pilot that can apply to you as a business leader:
• Have a mass briefing at least once a month. Gather your troops and communicate the latest trends, organizational goals, sales updates, and product upgrades etc. Your wingmen need to hear important news — whether good or bad — from you first. This is also a great time to publicly recognize your top performers.
• Conduct feedback sessions on a regular basis. Sit down with your wingmen and let them know how they are doing. Are they meeting your expectations? Ask them about their goals and challenges and how you can help. Then solicit feedback on you as a leader. What would they like to see from you? Avoid letting your ego get in the way of their feedback.
• Walk the flight line. Get your hands dirty with your wingmen. Spend time with them on the job and observe how they do business. Ask questions. Show them your appreciation by connecting with them as people first and employees second.
• De-brief your missions. Remove your “rank” and conduct a nameless, blameless, and rank-less de-brief after every critical mission. Find out if objectives were met, and analyze why they weren’t. Search for trends and communicate these to the rest of your organization.
Your aim should be to listen as much as possible in order to build what we call situational awareness — a comprehensive understanding of the mission. The greater your situational awareness, the better your ability to handle contingencies and adapt to change. As the flight lead of your team, it’s very important that you create an environment where others can come to you for help. This inspires a culture of trust which is mission critical in business.
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Lt. Col. Rob “Waldo” Waldman is the author of Never Fly Solo and a leadership consultant.