On May 10, 1972, Bill Driscoll was flying his 170th combat mission over North Vietnam, a radar intercept officer in the back seat of an U.S. F-4 Phantom jet fighter. He and his crew were providing cover near the Gulf of Tonkin for 18 essentially defenceless aircraft and things were going smoothly – too smoothly, as it turned out.
They had dropped their focus, not intently watching their gauges, when they were jumped by about 25 enemy MiG jet fighters and immediately hit by a surface-to-air missile. What followed, as they fought to maintain control of their severely damaged aircraft and ward off the enemy, was apparently the largest air battle of the Vietnam War, taking about two minutes, when skirmishes generally lasted 10 to 15 seconds. It ended with three enemy aircraft downed and Mr. Driscoll and his pilot in the waters of the gulf, rescued by Navy helicopters after the U.S. aircraft he called in dealt with enemy patrol boats aiming to get them first.
The message from that mission, which applies to the business groups he speaks to in his keynote addresses these days, is twofold. Keep your focus: He lost his, and almost lost his life. And stay abreast of your field, reading widely and probing for information. His team's knowledge of how to handle the dire situation they faced, from outwitting the enemy after being hit, to the latest survival training when plunged into the water, kept them alive. "The better informed you are, the better you will be," he said.
A third bit of advice comes from his 25 years training pilots at the famed Top Gun program run by the Navy. The trainees, already excellent pilots, initially fail at the tactical dogfights the program sets up. After each session, they are debriefed, trying to remember exactly what happened – initially, too much occurred too quickly for them to recall. Then, on a whiteboard, they divide what they have learned into two categories instead of the traditional pro/con: Goods and Others. They list the good aspects of the dogfight and then everything else, from which they can learn. "The psyche of the fighter pilot is pretty fragile. Rather than listing bad, we look at good things and others," he says.
That delineation may be worthwhile for your own feedback session. But the bigger point he makes is that, like those pilots, to get better you have to debrief after your skirmishes. In his keynotes, he tries to shine a metaphorical mirror on his audience, so they can reflect, and in his recent book Peak Business Performance Under Pressure, he offers some debriefing questions, which include:
What do you consider to be the three primary strengths of your people? These are the goods elements, and vital to catalogue as you look ahead for your business.
What four areas of your or your team's overall performance needs improvement? This edges into the others.
If you could wave a magic wand and implement one change that would have the most immediate positive impact on your productivity, what would you change? Audience members are often startled by this question because nobody has put it to them before. "Ask the question," he said in an interview. "Give yourself an honest answer. And then ask how you could take action – chipping away at it. Nothing happens overnight. But if you wait for when you're in the mood, nothing will happen."
Do you consistently get the most important things done at work? Your day is jammed with many activities, some important and some minutia. You need to know: If you could only accomplish only one thing, what that would be. Events will arise during the day that require your attention, and you must deal with them. But he notes that we often find ourselves in reactive mode, which can sometimes be misguided. This question addresses the active mode, setting out a plan of what to accomplish for the day.
How well do you know the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors? If your focus is solely on your own company, that's also misguided. You need to know as much as you can about your competitors. Don't focus on their performance; focus on your own. But when you can, take advantage of their weaknesses.
How do you and your teammates prepare for each day's biggest challenges at work? Top guns have lots of computer displays surrounding them in the cockpit. Because of that complexity, they need a simple plan and to spend time discussing the "what ifs," so when plans need to be altered, they can manoeuvre effectively. "It's the same with business people. If you're surprised, you will have trouble," he warned.
Roll that into one message and it's probably these words from the Navy ace: "The day you stop trying to improve is the day you stop being good."
Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.