Lessons from a Fighter Pilot: Creating a Harmonious and Supportive Team

Does your team feel they have your back? Do you feel they have yours?

Lieutenant Colonel Rob “Waldo” Waldman is fighter pilot with 65 combat missions across Iraq, Southeast Asia and Kosovo.

I had the pleasure of speaking to Waldo on my podcast recently, about how these experiences and lessons have him in high demand with Fortune 500 clients like Hewlett Packard, Marriott and Nokia.

One of the highlights was around building a team that supports you as you do them, and the “check 6 culture” which aims at minimizing the visibility you have over your own startup:

“So if you can imagine folks who are listening, you know, if you’re sitting down in your seat or even if you’re driving in the car listening to this podcast, that your seat is a cockpit and it’s really darn small, you barely can move around in this cockpit, you got switches in your left hand and your right hand, stick and throttle. And you’ve got a cockpit that’s so tiny that you can’t even see behind you at what we call the six o’clock, 12:00. So outfront, I can see that pretty well. Left 3 o’clock, left 9 o’clock, right, 3 o’clock. I can see all those pretty easy. But guess where the threat in battle comes from?”

I correctly (and obviously) guess it was 6:00! Waldo said this is where the enemy is “sneaking” up on you:

“You may be on fire or leaking fuel for that matter, and you can’t see it. However, if you have a wingman or a wing mam on your left-wing or right-wing, at a distance they can look over their shoulder and check your six, check your blind spot and you can check theirs. So part of mutual support, part of creating a culture of collaboration and trust, is creating those relationships with people who have your back and your six, (and) you have theirs, and you’re calling out threats to each other and even targets of opportunity.

Waldo says at the end of it all, you’re only as strong as your weakest link:

“When I walk out on the flight line, getting ready to fly a battle, or when you’re going into a sales meeting and you know that Joe or Lisa slept through the briefing in the morning or didn’t do their due diligence or showed up late, or aren’t coming in looking sharp and professional, or (haven’t) studied the threat (or) reviewed the proposal and come up with some planned questions to build trust with this prospect — it would tick you off. And so we have to have this high standard and the most critical standard that must be attained is by the leader of that group, the commander, the flight lead. He or she is always outfront, making the tough calls, making the tough decisions, leading the way, falling on their sword if they need to, admitting their mistakes. But they are the ones in early, leaving late; demonstrating the acumen and excellence needed, both on a relationship side, on a communication side, as well as a tactical business process side. So that it builds that trust. It truly is a dynamic environment.”

Waldo says this is why your process of looking for staff is so critical:

“The hiring process is so important; inculcating those folks into the culture. But when you’re assessing the character of that new hire, somebody looking to expand on, they have to be asking you some questions. It’s a sale for you. They’ve got to trust you. They’ve got to see who you are. And so I’m always interested when I’m hiring a new employee, what are they asking me? Are they just looking for a job? Are they really looking to assess the leadership skills and communication and honesty and integrity and values of the leader?”

Waldo says this is very important in this “war for talent”, where it’s harder to “keep, to attract and find, attract, retain and maintain the top guns in your organization.”

Raw Humanity: Owning Your Mistakes as a Leader

I think when you admit your mistakes and say, hey, folks, I messed up here, I didn’t follow up in time, I improperly input our information into a CRM. I used foul language today. I was hotheaded. I apologize and I was wrong. People want the raw humanity more than ever.

“Hiring is tough, but firing should be a lot easier”

Waldo says some employees might have the ability, but not the passion or the work ethic, and you need to fire them quickly, before they destroy your business:

“We’ve all worked with people who may be great on the phone customer service or can close and deals, but they are hostile to their fellow team. They they lie on sales and numbers and deliverables, and that will ruin the reputation of an organization, very, very, very quickly. So it’s hard sometimes having those tough conversations. But as the leader, as a startup, Top Gun, as a flight leader of your organization, you’ve got to foster environments where you can have those tough conversations and facilitate an environment where your teammates are calling out infractions and core values and the fundamentals of a great culture.”

Waldo says those hard conversations are critical to your startup’s success:

“And if they can’t do it, they’ve got to approach you and you’ve got to have the courage, because if you don’t and you let infractions of culture and integrity and honesty and discipline fall through the cracks and don’t do anything about it, it will implode your culture. It will erode your morale. And it’s a slow, insidious descent to irrelevance. When you don’t make the tough call, so something to think about. Hiring is tough, but firing should be a lot easier. It should be. But some are afraid to have those tough conversations.”


For my full interview with Lieutenant Colonel Rob “Waldo” Waldman, take a listen via this link.

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