The Red Arrows are undeniably the pinnacle of what high performance teamwork is all about; they represent death defying precision, speed and spectacle and when out of the cockpit; inspiration, humility and honesty. It is therefore little wonder that in their British built aircraft (The BAE manufactured Hawk), they also form part of the United Kingdom’s International PR Team, helping to generate billions of pounds in overseas trade every year.
At a recent High Growth presentation given by pilots, known by their call signs as Red 2,3 and 5 and to their families as Toby, Dan and Chris, some of their magic was demystified into the processes and techniques they employ to ensure the team comprises people of the highest standard, tasked with maintaining peak performance at all times.
Many of these lessons we can directly apply to improving our own organisational teams:
- Trust is Everything: When flying in close formation at speeds of around 350 mph, the ability to trust the people in close proximity (within 6 feet), is absolutely critical. This trust isn’t just founded on the flying ability of team members but also a knowledge that they can be trusted to do the right thing when things go wrong. Every practice session and show (known as a sortie) is recorded by on-board cameras for a detailed debrief. Before any footage is shown however, Red One, “The Boss” leads the way in being open about any mistakes made and colleagues continue by critiquing themselves and one another. This means that when the film of the sortie is shown there are no surprises and everyone on the team can trust that no team member has hidden a weakness or mistake. During a sortie, team members will also remove themselves from the formation if something is wrong and won’t fly to such exacting standards if they are not fit to do so. Creating a culture where bravado is absent and permission to remain on the ground rather than create a risk is essential to the safety of the team. This is apparent when meeting the pilots face to face, as one of their most striking qualities is a complete absence of personal ego. As described by Red 5 “The brand is the Red Arrows, not the individual pilot.” Continuous self-appraisal and peer review of how things are being done in any organisation is a powerful way to increase accountability and drive both improvement and trust.
- Recruitment is Rigorous: A Red Arrow Pilot stays on the team for 3 years. Membership is staggered, meaning that each year two places become available. To become a Red Arrow Pilot a high minimum standard is set; applicants must have at least 1,500 hours flying time in a fast jet and have completed no fewer than one operational tour in a frontline squadron, flying a fast jet such as a Typhoon or Tornado. Setting a minimum standard for any role we have within our teams should be an uncompromising bar to create a high performance culture. Within the RAF, the Red Arrows are clearly an “employer of choice” with typically 40 applications for the two annually available places. By setting and demonstrating exceptional standards you can build a reputation where people want to work and share those standards and reputation. Selecting only the very best people from the high number of applications is therefore critical. This process begins with all applications filtered to meet the minimum requirements set. Remaining applications with names removed are then peer reviewed by the flying team and graded for experience and recognised skills before a select few are invited to perform a week long skills test; in this case flying barrel rolls and loops, but in your organisation it is equally essential to provide a relevant set of practical tests to ensure the person hired is one of the best at performing the job. Pilots are also rated for their social skills and ability to fit in with the rest of the team during the intensive and high pressure selection process. Putting applicants through an assessment centre can have similar effects and matching people who are a strong cultural fit is one of the key success factors to all high performing teams and organisations.
- A Cast of Characters: Whilst all Red Arrow pilots need to get on and share a strong foundation of traits, in particular the interesting contrast between high levels of self-esteem and the pride of being a Red Arrow pilot combined with low levels of personal ego: Having different characters is also considered important to generate a vibrant team atmosphere. Pilots have quite different backgrounds and personality, bringing an interesting dimension to the team.
- Succession Planning: The way in which the Red Arrows introduce two new pilots each year ensures a continuity of succession, much like a sports team brings new players through an academy or a business can recruit apprentices and trainees. New blood accounts for approximately 20% of the team, a level where there is always a succession plan in place but no higher, which could dilute the performance of the team.
- Historical Roots: The history of the Red Arrows is a huge part of the teams legacy. In particular the learning experiences gained from over 50 years operation (The Red Arrows were constituted in 1965). Current team members pass on knowledge to new ones. Every learning experience has become part of the teams continuous improvement over the years with standard operating procedures evolving to include newer and safer ways of doing things. Ensuring your business has one continuously improving “best way” to operate its core practices is a key takeaway for any organisation wishing to perform at a continuously higher level.
- The Basics Done Well: The Red Arrows use the most basic aircraft, dating back to the 1970’s. In which they perform a variety of crowd amazing display sequences. They do not use the latest computer rigged aircraft and rely on a simple stopwatch for the majority of in-flight measurement, during sorties and for navigational purposes. Organisations can often over complicate things, particularly as they grow, but sticking to doing the basic to an exceptional standard is what really matters in a high performance environment.
- Practice Makes Perfect: The Red Arrows practice relentlessly, often they focus on perfecting their most basic and therefore for the pilots, most boring manoeuvres over and over again. Based on the fact that getting the fundamental things right is key to their safety and success. Too many organisations overlook the need to continuously drill on the basics and yet many seasoned team members have forgotten the basics over time due to the distraction of complexity. Keeping a culture of practice around the basics in any occupation is a key foundation to success. Being able to demonstrate an unconscious competence in the fundamental skills also loops back into the building of trust amongst fellow team members; if a colleague knows a team member can operate to such a standard on the basics, they can trust that person to have the capacity to make sound judgement when there is an unusual occurrence.
- Pride in the Brand: A Red Arrow pilot has earned their place on the team and is rightly proud of this position. It is important that such a sense of achievement and pride is generated in all team members of an organisation seeking to build a high performance culture. The red G-Suits worn by Red Arrow pilots are highly prized and are only awarded when the pilot completes training. Providing an environment where people achieve and earn their right is another characteristic of high performing teams.