Top Gun Culture and Your Business

by Jack Liles, updated May 2022

National Top Gun Day (May 13, the anniversary of the original movie release) and the release of the new Top Gun Maverick sequel are a great opportunity to request a fly-by, play some shirtless beach sports or fly inverted 5 feet above a MIG.

If those activities are a bit outside your current capability or comfort zone, turn down your collar and take a moment to draw some parallels between the successful culture and leadership of a real Navy fighter squadron (not the Hollywood version) and your business.

I write of both “strategy” and “culture” here. I realize the Peter Drucker quote made this a hot topic, but I don’t think either one needs to eat the other. They’re both critical to the success of your business.

Within the context of strategy and culture, here are a few ‘gutsy moves” to share in this 2022 Top Gun season.

  1. Work from a set of clearly defined and understood objectives and strategies.

Navy fleets, aircraft carriers and fighter squadrons all understand their objectives during the year-long lifecycle of an overseas deployment. They develop strategies to accomplish the preparation and training necessary to be “combat-ready”. Targets and missions may change or be augmented, but all are aware when they do and know when/how to shift tactics, remain on-strategy, and accomplish the objective.

Companies must similarly over-communicate and exercise the same discipline:

  • Have you communicated your annual objectives (targets) to all employees?
  • Can they recite those back to you today?
  • Does everyone understand their part in accomplishing your objectives?
  • Are your personal and organizational KPIs in line with the objectives and strategies?

Management teams that believe their Objectives and Strategies are top-secret, with a need-to-know communication plan, or who exercise an Idea-of-the-Week approach to leadership usually struggle to succeed.  Operating without clearly defined objectives, targets, and well-understood strategies is like flying without instruments in the clouds. It creates a strategy of personal agendas.

Build employee engagement, purpose, and confidence in your team. Set smart targets and strategies, and your wingmen will stay in formation and fly happily.

2. Work relentlessly on a culture that embraces continuous improvement and innovation.

Fighter pilots realize every mission creates a learning experience. They must continuously improve to stay alive and ensure success. To that end, their culture evolved and continues as one of disciplined, continuous improvement.

Both in training and in combat military pilots DEBRIEF every campaign or mission thoroughly, document lessons learned, and build new training plans to reinforce successes and correct for mistakes. It’s an open and honest process that rewards humility and honest feedback and sets the bar higher every day. To fail to debrief a mission following a military flight would be considered highly unprofessional.

I know it is challenging for civilian companies to embrace debriefing and gap assessment like a fighter squadron, but effective continuous improvement cultures do exist and flourish. Professionals that collaborate, continuously learn and share both successful and unsuccessful experiences are far more likely to evolve into high-performance teams.

Various forms of feedback loops, training and debriefing exist in most businesses. Leaders must support and foster these processes and culture traits, demonstrating a “let’s keep improving” mindset and culture. 

3. Regardless of your size and lifecycle stage, create and lead an ongoing training effort that emphasizes learning and growth. 

Top Gun aviators benefit from a unique culture of humility, critical thinking, continuous improvement and just the right amount of confidence. Flying a fighter jet, much like leading a business, can be a humbling experience. It takes a mindset of learning and growth to be successful.

A company’s best players are no different. They’re eager to learn, be exposed to new concepts, and continuously strive to master their craft.  Leaders that foster training activities are sharpening the spear, retaining their best, and reinforcing the right culture and experiences to win in their markets.   

If you wing it on training, you’ll collect a group of young Mavericks buzzing the tower, and even worse:  an unmotivated, misinformed group that fails to meet your targets.

Bring back that Lovin’ Feelin’, feel the Need for Speed, and catapult your team towards successful results with strategic leadership and a culture of continuous improvement.

Jack Liles is a seasoned Sales Leader with 25 years of Fortune 100 and early/growth-stage marketing and sales experience. Prior to his business career, Jack served as a Naval Flight Officer in both the E2 Hawkeye and F-14 Tomcat. Connect with Jack at jonpliles2@gmail.com.

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