Joel “Thor” Neeb is a former F-15 pilot and now CEO of Afterburner management consulting firm.
Lessons from elite military teams to stay focused during periods of uncertainty.
How are you handling the coronavirus pandemic so far? The stock market has seen massive swings, gyms and restaurants are closed, everybody’s working from home. The new normal is surreal. Feels like we’re living through history.
But how do you really feel about it? Be honest.
Does it feel a little bit like a “snow day?”
Remember those days when we were kids? The unexpected announcement that school was canceled, a time to play outside, watch all the daytime cartoons we didn’t get to see when school was in session.
Sure, parents and teachers were a bit frustrated because they knew we had to make up that lost day, but we got caught in the moment of a surprise break. No school!
Statistics say we’re treating this pandemic like a snow day. Online video game source Steam has smashed all its records for game downloads in the last few days. Netflix and Disney+ are racing to provide early releases of their smash hits to satisfy the surging demand of people turning to their streaming video services.
Is your team becoming part of this statistic, or are they realizing it’s not a snow day? Our economy, our businesses, our livelihood – we’ll have to make up time for each moment that’s lost right now.
And we’re falling further and further behind.
The Road Ahead
I’m convinced that we haven’t fully acknowledged what we’re up against yet. We have a notion that things have become more complicated, but what are we facing, and what will the consequences look like for our teams if we stay in this denial phase for too long?
As fighter pilots, one of the first things we learned to do in preparation for a Mission is to have an honest assessment of the “Threats” that we faced. This was typically not a comfortable conversation, but it was a necessary one to take stock of what we were up against.
We also knew the actual power of acknowledging our Threats: If we could name a Threat, we could mitigate its effects or counter it completely.
What are our most significant Threats right now? What is going to stop us not only from meeting the business goals we started the year with, but possibly derail entire businesses altogether?
Give Your Threats a Name
Leaders – tell your teams to put down the snowballs, the video game controllers, the remote controls. Here’s what we’re all up against:
- Lack of Focus and Direction.
We’ve shifted, en masse, to working from home as a society. But it’s not just our corporate teams working remotely. It’s hard enough to maintain alignment with our teams working from home – teleconferencing each meeting all day, never getting face to face connection. “So?” you say, “We’re working from home. Some companies have been doing that for years.” That’s true, but right now our partners and vendors are also at home. Our customers are dispersed and at home.
As individual companies, we may have been able to pull off remotely dispersed operations, but can an entire society? What about enterprise purchases, which are primarily emotional decisions? Can we afford to rely on our “email relationships” to build alignment towards the strategic plans and investments that we’ll need to prevent our businesses from caving in?
- Personal Concerns.
We’re watching our retirement funds slip away as the stock market takes massive hits each day. What may have been a sanctified home workspace in the past is now a bustling house full of people. We’re all stockpiling goods to make it through a quarantine of undetermined duration. Worst of all, each of us is deeply concerned about contracting the virus ourselves or worried about the many medically fragile members of our friends and family. “Do I have enough supplies? What about my elderly parents? How are my stocks doing? Do I have enough money to get through this? Will I even have a job in a month? What if I get the virus?” Let’s face it – every one of us has a lot more on our minds right now than the quarterly business goals.
- Unprecedented Levels of Change.
Today’s reality looks very different from yesterday’s prognosis. Just weeks ago, few of us could have imagined entire major metropolises in full quarantine mode. Yet here we are. Every day we receive new and shocking information about the threats our organizations are facing. With this level of change, it’s very tempting to say, “We don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so what’s the use in planning today?”
Uncertainty, change, and volatility are all at record highs. We’ve almost become numb to it. It’s easy to sit back, throw our hands in the air and take the “passenger mentality” and relinquish control in this period of uncertainty. It’s especially easy to have this mentality when we can’t yet feel any of the actual repercussions or direct consequences of this crisis. Everything is a little surreal. But it’s going to feel real to each of us very soon. I think this is the most dangerous and underrated Threat of all. We have an entire society that is collectively hoping that somewhere, someone else is planning for our salvation.
The Way Out
Faced alone, any one of these threats would be overwhelming for our businesses, families, and communities. But we’re facing all three, and those are just the Threats that have emerged at this point. There will be more as this crisis develops.
Knowing this, do you think your team is still excited about the “snow day?”
Here’s the good news. Now that you can see the burning platform under our feet and better understand the consequences we will soon face, there is a way out.
At Afterburner, we lead through chaos and complexity. Our cadre of former fighter pilots, Navy SEALs, Army Rangers, and other leaders of elite military teams have depended on battle-proven principles to navigate the most dynamic, complex and high-stake environments on earth. These principles were born on the battlefield and translated to the boardroom.
First, your teams need to know that we’ve exited peacetime operations and entered wartime operations. Wartime leadership looks different than peacetime leadership. It’s still inclusive and collaborative – but it’s conducted with a greater sense of urgency and higher expectation for precise execution.
Here are the steps to take now to set your teams up to navigate chaos:
- Assess the Current Environment.
With brutal honesty, discuss the current state of your business. Don’t hold back or sugarcoat anything here! Your team is already thinking about these challenges, we need to validate their concerns as a group. Don’t stop at the negative aspects – identify where the market is presenting opportunities. Can we shift our selling model to tap into OPEX vs. CAPEX? Can we meet emerging pain points that our customer segment is facing today because of COVID-19?
- Align the Teams with a Plan.
Build a complete plan for the next 30 days with a clear course of action. Get specific here – who does what, by when. What does success look like at the end of the year? Instead of just looking for ways to survive this crisis, how can we emerge better positioned to serve the market long-term?
- Agile Execution.
Create a cadence to update the team’s progress during execution and quickly assess the environment to highlight new threats and opportunities. Your teams will appreciate the added accountability towards a focused strategy as well as an ability to share how the plan will adapt to the changing environment.
This too shall pass. It won’t be long before we are beyond this calamity. We have an opportunity TODAY to define where we will be on the other side of this.
Most of our businesses will survive the chaos. A few will thrive. Those few will dominate when this is over.
Because this isn’t a snow day, this is war.
Joel “Thor” Neeb is the CEO of Afterburner business consulting firm. As an F-15 pilot, Thor escorted the U.S. President through the sky and flew missions to ensure the safety of the country after the attacks of 9/11. He was the tactical leader of 300 of the most senior combat pilots in the Air Force and he oversaw the execution of a $150M/year flight program. He received his Bachelor’s Degree at the United States Air Force Academy and is a summa cum laude graduate of the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas.