Using Debriefing to Foster Continuous Improvement, with Leadership Speaker Anthony Bourke


Exclusive Interview with: Anthony Bourke

Accomplished fighter pilot, seasoned CEO, and leadership keynote speaker, Major Anthony Bourke has helped thousands of leaders streamline growth and improvement in their companies. After flying hundreds of tactical missions across the globe and increasing his startup’s revenue from $500,000 to $65M in just three years, Major Bourke helped build Afterburner Seminars where he served as it’s CEO & President so he could share the lessons he learned in the military with organizations eager to get to the next level. Today, as the CEO and Founder of Mach 2 Consulting, he continues to show teams how they can become top performers in even the toughest conditions.

Successful businesses are constantly looking for ways to improve, innovate and reduce execution errors. Debrief fosters a culture of continuous improvement in any organization.

SPEAKING.COM: Why is debriefing an important part of Air Force culture?

BOURKE: Debriefing is the secret to continuous improvement in any organization. In the military, we risk our lives every day we go to work, therefore making continuous improvements and eliminating mistakes is a critical part of our success.

SPEAKING.COM: What purpose can debriefing serve in the business world?

BOURKE: By the same token, while business professionals may not risk their lives every day they go to work, they do risk their way of life. Successful businesses are constantly looking for ways to improve, innovate and reduce execution errors. Debrief fosters a culture of continuous improvement in any organization.

During the Debrief, we remove rank and we talk about what worked on the mission and what we could have done better individually or as a team. Our Debriefs are a safe space so that people speak openly, and without fear of reputational risk.

SPEAKING.COM: What exactly does debriefing entail?

BOURKE: Debriefing in the military means that at the end of our missions, the pilots who flew during the mission gather together behind closed doors and review our performance. During the Debrief, we remove rank and we talk about what worked on the mission and what we could have done better individually or as a team. Our Debriefs are a safe space so that people speak openly, and without fear of reputational risk. From our Debriefs we capture “key lessons learned” and roll those key lessons into future plans.

SPEAKING.COM: What steps do teams need to take to get the most out of debriefing?

BOURKE: First and foremost a Debrief must be planned. For business, this means building the Debrief into employee’s outlook calendars whether conducting a standard weekly Debrief every Friday at 4 PM, or blocking 15 minutes after a sales pitch to review what worked, what didn’t and next steps.

SPEAKING.COM: What can leaders do to remove the negative connotations that some employees might have of debriefings?

BOURKE: Leaders must find a way to reset the tone at the beginning of any Debrief so the team feels comfortable speaking honestly and without fear of reputational risk. Leaders can reset the tone by being the first to admit their errors which serves to disarm others in the Debrief. Leaders can also develop a standard verbiage that they use at the beginning of every Debrief to remind their team that they are in a safe zone that is focused exclusively on learning and growing together.

Businesses who care about execution and maintaining high standards should develop normal procedures checklists for their teams. This will ensure that new hires perform their jobs the right way the first time and every time thereafter, and will provide their experienced employees a tool to fall back on when they are feeling overloaded or not thinking clearly.

SPEAKING.COM: Why is a “checklist approach” so important when it comes to execution?

BOURKE: Checklists are one of the most important tools to any organization where execution truly matters. Whether it’s tactical aviators, surgical teams in the OR, employees in a manufacturing plant or a CEO preparing for the quarterly board meeting, checklists provide two key functions:

1. Checklists are there to keep you on track in an emergency. Emergency procedures checklists are designed to make sure that pilots react the right way, the first time and every time when things go wrong in their jets. Emergency procedures checklists can provide the same benefit to any business whether you are a customer service specialist reacting to a customer complaint, or the foreman on a building project reacting to an onsite accident.

2. Checklists keep us on track in our normal daily procedures. For pilots, normal procedures checklists make sure that their new hires operate aircraft the right way the first time they fly an airplane and every time thereafter. Disciplined use of checklists helps pilots develop good habit patterns which ultimately allow them to correctly execute many regular procedures by memory.

With that said, when experienced pilots find themselves overloaded by clutter in their cockpit and are not thinking clearly, they can fall back on their checklists to continue to execute at the highest level even when feeling overloaded by external inputs. By the same token, businesses who care about execution and maintaining high standards should develop normal procedures checklists for their teams. This will ensure that new hires perform their jobs the right way the first time and every time thereafter, and will provide their experienced employees a tool to fall back on when they are feeling overloaded or not thinking clearly.

SPEAKING.COM: How can organizations and leaders build checklists that will truly add value to their teams?

BOURKE: Think about the “emergencies” and “normal procedures” that are most important to your company and develop checklists to support them. You likely already have training manuals that address many of these key issues. Checklists are simply abbreviated memory joggers that distill down the key elements. For a sales team this might mean normal procedures to prepare for your day or week as well as preparing for specific sales meetings. It might also address emergencies like handling key customer complaints, returned orders, loss of a sale to a competitor, or loss of a key team member.

My brain was racing and while I still hadn’t figured out what had gone wrong, I knew I had a major emergency.

SPEAKING.COM: Could you discuss a complex situation you found yourself in, either during your military or business career, and explain how a checklist approach and training enabled you to succeed in that situation?

BOURKE: As a young pilot flying the F-4 Phantom, I joined a test bombing mission to fill in as a replacement the morning of the flight. In addition to being given a poorly copied map, I had to reject my first plane due to maintenance issues and took off after the other pilots had departed. Given the unusual circumstances, my training warned that I should be extra cautious. Therefore, I wrote down radio frequencies and navigational aids on my map in the event that something should go wrong. During the mission, there was a loud explosion inside the cockpit, everything went white and I couldn’t hear a thing. My training and checklist immediately kicked in:

1. “Climb to Cope”
A healthy spacing from the ground would inevitably buy me a little more time to figure out what went wrong.

2. “Speed is Life”
I parked both throttles in the Northwest quadrant and lit my afterburners to make sure that I had as much potential energy as possible should I need to try to glide to a safe landing area or ejection zone.

3. “Analyze the Situation and Take the Appropriate Action”
My brain was racing and while I still hadn’t figured out what had gone wrong, I knew I had a major emergency. So, I looked at my map, and picked out one of the radio frequencies I had written down. The navaid pointed me towards the closest airfield where I might be able to land., I squawked 7700, the universal distress code, and declared an emergency with air traffic control.

4. “Wind Your Watch”
By now I was pointed at a safe airfield about 90 miles on my nose, I was 20,000’ above the ground and I was accelerating through 450 Knots. I leveled off, pulled the throttles out of afterburner and took a deep breath to try and figure out what was going on. Knowing that speed was life I cautiously slowed below 250 knots and suddenly I could begin to communicate with ATC and my back seater. Doing so, I discovered that I had hit some power lines and my ejection seat was potentially damaged.

5. “Fly The Airplane First”
With my ejection option ruled out, I realized that I had only one choice and that was to touch down at the nearest airport as gingerly as possible. But with all the real and potential damage to my airplane, I was worried about the airworthiness of the jet at the slow speeds I needed to fly to touch down. My wingman and I ran a controllability check above 10,000’. I lowered the landing gear and flaps, slowed to a safe landing speed and low and behold my trusty beast kept flying.

This was all the encouragement I needed to continue my approach. I forced myself to remain calm and execute my normal landing checks knowing that at any moment something could go terribly wrong. I touched down ever so gingerly on the 10,000’ long runway, pulled my drag shoot and let out a huge exhale as I slowed my wounded jet to taxi speed.

SPEAKING.COM: You were part of a special defense mission in the hours following the World Trade Center Attack. What was going on in your mind during that flight?

BOURKE: Flying homeland defense over New York City following the terrorist attacks on 9/11 was one of the most impactful experiences of my life. At that time, all of us involved in our nation’s homeland defense were worried that if taking out the World Trade Center was phase one of the attack, what was phase two and how would we defend against it?

There was also a constant internal struggle that the mission might be to shoot down a large commercial airliner filled with US Citizens flying over my own country. This was a terrible conflict and certainly not something any of us as US Fighter Pilots had signed up for when we joined the military. For a better overview of this story you can watch this video.

SPEAKING.COM: Could you tell us about the book you’re currently working on?

BOURKE: The Art of The Debrief is a business and leadership book focused on how business people can use Debrief to drive continuous improvement in any organization.

To bring leadership and team building speaker Anthony Bourke to your organization, please contact Michael Frick at: Mike@Speaking.com

© SPEAKING.com, published on June 17, 2018

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