A Recipe for High Performance

The Blue Angels flight demonstration squadron performing at 2015 San Francisco Fleet Week

What do Fortune 500 companies, world-champion athletes, and pilots with the U.S. Navy Blue Angels have in common? Simple. They all drive for exceptional performance. Unfortunately, not all of them share a culture of preparation and focus, which provides an ability to learn and adapt quickly. As a venture capitalist and former lead pilot with the Blue Angels, I don’t think this needs to be the case. After all, as I note in Fearless Success: Beyond High Performance, there is a unique tool that anyone can use to instill the mindset and culture that exceptional performance demands. It’s called the “Glad to Be Here” debrief.

In the business world, the term “debrief” frequently has had a negative bias associated with it, probably because it is used only when there’s a mistake, a negative outcome, or a fault to find. But such a fear-based approach is the opposite of how Blue Angels pilots structure their training, practice, and subsequent success. On the contrary, their goal is to drive fear out of the organization.

Blue Angels pilots create a safe environment for debriefing, where they open up and share their wisdoms of success and failure, side by side. It’s something elite teams know well. And as a former Blue Angels pilot, I can attest to its results.

When I was a member of the U.S. Navy Blue Angels, we used the debrief tool at the end of every single day. It was built into our culture—our DNA. We used these gatherings to cultivate positive interpersonal dynamics within the team. The process went much further than a simple analysis of root causes. It was intended to instill chemistry and camaraderie in the team, and to provide leadership opportunities for every member. It reinforced the positive and raised expectations. It was much more than a team-building process; it was a team-building mindset.

You might wonder why, if you had a great performance, you would need to deconstruct it. However, if an organization can implement a process that’s been proven to work, it can be a game changer. In sports and in business alike, debriefing sessions have led to wins and increased bottom lines. And the benefits can be even greater. In the right setting, debriefs have the power to save lives. The extreme environment within which Blue Angels pilots perform airborne acrobatics demands effective debriefs—both for the safety of the pilots and spectators.

“Suspend any hierarchical thinking in the interest of achieving results. This type of openness requires humility, transparency, and fearlessness, which is only possible in a respectful safe environment.”

Based on the Blue Angels model, a successful debrief consists of two main parts: the general-safe statements and the specific details that each member contributes.

The general-safe statements serve as points of entry for the debrief. Each participant takes a turn making several brief statements, providing a general overview and a safety note that may vary from standard operating procedures. This first part of the debrief sets a collective mood for input and exchange from all team members using five key components.

Feelings statement: The first component allows each individual to offer a quick overview of the event, focusing on personal feelings. The participant opens up to the team with insight into an open, honest, and transparent frame of mind.

“I’ll fix it” statement: Every team needs standards to define the team’s performance. In the debrief, you determine where you have strayed from those standards and acknowledge that you stepped outside those parameters. Be the first to recount your mistakes—without fear. You address them with an “I’ll fix it” statement that demonstrates your awareness and commitment to the team. This doesn’t mean you’ll never make a mistake again, but it shows you’re aware and are taking corrective action. It builds trust and inspires personal responsibility.

Acknowledgments: Next, you talk about what went well. You give credit and praise to deserving individuals in a public setting. A simple thank you can be very powerful.

“Glad to be here” statement: You complete this first part with four words: “Glad to be here.” The daily repetition of “Glad to be here” reaffirms your commitment to the team and reminds you of a purpose that is larger than each team member. You acknowledge that you are thankful for the opportunities and challenges that life offers you. Emotions vary from one day to the next, but the simple affirmation of these words helps you stay aligned on a positive mindset.

“Oh, by the way” statement: After every team member has had the opportunity to provide the four general-safe statements, the floor is open to any comments that were triggered as a result of a participant’s comments. A relatively insignificant, but worthwhile, note can be expressed with an “Oh, by the way” statement.

The second part of the debrief presents specific details. The opening general-safe statements, which can be adapted based on the scope of the debrief, provide an appropriate setting for the specific details offered in this second part to grow and elaborate.

Each individual comes to the debrief with prepared notes that the team can debate, respond to, or contribute to as necessary. Specific comments should address what went well, what didn’t go well, and what could be improved. In

Book Cover of Fearless Success written by John Foley

this critical part of the debrief, the crucial aspect is perspective, regardless of the team’s purpose or the organization’s focus.

Years after I left the Blue Angels, I began to analyze the keys to our success, and I realized that each day’s debrief was defined by ensuring five specific interpersonal dynamics:

Provide a safe environment: In a safe and respectful environment, individual perspectives are openly communicated and provide a clear picture of what went well and what didn’t. Without this dynamic, individuals withhold essential information out of fear, creating blind spots that inhibit improvement. Each team member should be equally valued, regardless of experience or position. Ideas should flow freely in the discussion so that what might seem merely a simple or insignificant comment can trigger a conversation that solves a major issue.

Check your ego at the door: Individual talent fuels team performance. However, egos can have a negative effect on the complete debrief process. High performer Blue Angels pilots have high egos, but they also recognize the importance of being together. You must acknowledge the role of each team member and the importance of a level playing field. Check your ego at the door and commit to be a part of the team.

Lay everything on the table: Suspend any hierarchical thinking in the interest of achieving results. This type of openness requires humility, transparency, and fearlessness, which is only possible in a respectful safe environment. Allow all members to shine, step up, and speak their minds without fear of being bullied or steamrolled.

Own it and fix it: When you own something, you’re more likely to look after it and fix any problems as soon as you spot them. You don’t wait for someone else to do it because you own it. It’s your responsibility. High-performance teams are made up of individuals who accept and seize ownership of their role. When you have a personal responsibility, accountability is a given.

Be glad to be here: Always bring a “glad to be here” mindset to the table. It sets the tone for buy-in and ownership of outcomes. Gratitude is the secret sauce for continuous improvement. It’s the energy that allows you to sustain greatness.

Various studies have confirmed a correlation between gratitude and positive results. One particular case, conducted by the University of Kentucky, showed that gratitude increased pro-social behaviors and lowered aggression.

That’s exactly the kind of effect that teams need, especially in an open, honest environment where everything is openly discussed. Gratitude is a social emotion; it binds us together and strengthens our bonds, regardless of the nature of our relationships. With this mindset, teams can more easily process negative feedback and turn it into positive results.

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