Guest

69

“Articulating or illuminating the mission is so important. I found that my people were really starting to understand the mission when I started to sound like a broken record."

In this episode

In episode #69, David Robinson shares why managers must get laser-focused on their standards.

David Robinson is a former Commanding Officer at the United States Marine Corps. Today, he is the CEO of Vertical Performance Enterprise.

In this episode, David explains what a leadership triad consists of and how you can implement each factor to empower your team. 

Tune in to find out if you have a high-performing team and how leaders can define standards of performance.


Like this episode? Be sure to leave a ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ review and share the podcast with your colleagues.


03:30

Talk first, listen last

07:50

David’s leadership triad

10:25

The 3 Cs

11:35

The importance of composure

18:20

Do you have a high-performing team?

22:30

Mission on repeat

28:50

The 3 Ps of the mission

36:00

Setting standards of excellence

39:00

A leader’s intent

47:00

The leadership paradox


Resources


Transcript

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  01:02

David, Welcome to the show.

David Robinson  02:28

Aydin, it’s an honour and a privilege to be here. Thank you.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  02:30

Yeah, we’re super excited to have you on. It’s not often that we get folks from, from the military or from the Marine Corps on the show. So this is a treat for me. I think that you know, a lot of lessons of leadership actually tend to be learned from the armed forces. And so I think there’s a lot that we’re going to go into today, you have been a commanding officer at the Marine Corps trained over 200 Elite aviators as a Top Gun instructor, and you’ve spent three decades leading high performing teams, and now you have this new book called the substance of leadership. And you’re also the founder and CEO of vertical performance enterprises through the course of your career, you were, you were in charge of HP, as many as 2500 people $12 billion of assets, you know, $35 million annual budget. So you basically lead very large groups. But let’s go back to the beginning. Who were some of the early mistakes that you tended to make?

David Robinson  03:32

Well, you mentioned 2500 people I was, you know, as the commanding officer towards the end of my career, you know, started with two and in the Marine Corps, you, you lead on day one, that’s just just the way it works. And so you want to make sure you do it right, made a lot of early mistakes. The one that comes to mind that I try to share with other Junior leaders that I think is really important is as a junior leader, I tended to talk first and listen to last. And when I talked to junior leaders about things that they can do to become better leaders, I think it’s natural for us when we’re Junior, and we’re just starting out in a leadership role to feel like we have to really show our credibility by knowing what we’re talking about. And that’s natural. But what I found over time, you know, from going from two to then 10 and 105 100, and then eventually 2500 people that if I would listen first and speak last, a few things would happen. Number one, people tended to share their honest opinions without feeling like since I spoke first Oh, well, and you know, obviously that’s the answer. That’s what we need to do. Because the boss said, you know, that’s what we need to do. And the other thing that it does is not only promote innovation in that regard, but it starts to instill a sense of ownership in others when you ask questions about how they would solve problems and how they see challenges. And I’ll tell you, you know, when I got up to lead so many people, most of the time when I would ask questions, First and speak last and weigh in with my opinion or experience, individuals on my team came up with ideas that I never would have thought on my own. So I always encourage Junior leaders not to make the same mistake I did, you know, ask questions, that doesn’t show that you are necessarily ignorant about anything, it shows that you’re interested and in the skills and experience of your people, and you’re willing to listen and factor that into your decision making.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  05:26

Yeah, I think that’s great advice. Is there an example scenario or an illustration that we could think about was like, someone might want to jump in. But it’s much better to ask questions, and I guess like these questions like, what are the nature of them? Are you trying to get their opinion on how they would handle a situation? Or is it more to just dive deeper to figure out what the root of the problem is?

David Robinson  05:51

Yeah, I mean, one example would be, you know, if you’re in a typical, maybe a staff meeting, you know, if you’re a VP and SVP or even a CEO, and you’ve got a complex problem, and you need people to weigh in on, you know, how we should solve this problem as a team, and what are some things to think about? Too many times, you know, the leader will lead with their opinions. And you know, what’s common then is for others, just to kind of get on board with that, because they feel like that’s, you know, it’s already been decided, and, you know, it’s natural for us to try to, you know, follow consensus sometimes, and it’s sometimes harder to go against the boss, you know when the boss has an opinion. So, I’ve always been encouraged in that situation, when we’re brainstorming, I found it very effective as a leader, and I did this with my senior direct reports, just by opening up the aperture and saying, okay, here’s the problem statement, would love to hear your thoughts on how we could go about solving the problem? What do you think the risks are? What are the opportunities that we may not have thought about going around the table? And then I would weigh in with my thoughts and perspectives normally, in the form of a question like you know, have we thought about this? You know, has anyone ever seen this before, so it’s less about asserting your opinion, and more about trying to facilitate that and draw it out of your team. And then, of course, at some point, Aydin, we all have to make a decision. And then it’s, I think, incumbent upon the leader to make that decision in a timely fashion, and then explain the why behind that decision was made, and thank the individuals around that table for weighing in with their opinion. So that next time they’ll be encouraged to do the same. 

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  07:25

Yeah, I think that that sums together nicely, the all of the different ways. One is to let everybody else speak first. And then when you are giving your opinions, forming those as questions rather than assertions, I think that’s clever. And, and I like the way that you summarize the decisions. And thank everybody, I think like that is it’s almost like a nice playbook of how to do it. So I think everybody will appreciate that. One thing that I wanted to chat with you about is this concept of a leadership triad, you have spent a lot of time with high-performing teams, and you talk about this in your book as well. So why don’t we start by talking about what is the leadership triad?

David Robinson  08:09

Now, thanks for asking, maybe I’ll provide a little context on how I landed on the leadership triad. 10 years ago, when I was transitioning from the military to the private sector, a friend of mine, in a fortune 100 company asked if I could come out to the west coast in the US and speak to a large group of executives on how to lead a high performing team in a high-pressure environment. And my time slot was an hour. So you know, he requested 45 minutes of talking, and then you know, 15 minutes of q&a, as it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done because I kind of felt like I knew how to lead a high performing team but to try to synthesize that into 45 minutes into some type of a mental framework that people could get their head around, understand it from a number of broad industries was quite a challenge. But it was one of the most rewarding things that I ever did because it forced me to get crystal clear on what I think matters most about leading a high performing team in other words, we all have limited time and energy where do you focus your effort and where I landed after you know thinking back over three decades of leadership from a followers perspective and then a leaders perspective was three focus areas culture, people and mission and so that’s the leadership triad and you know, I unpack this in the book, it’s a simple framework that I’ve come up with that I think distills in some ways the complexity of leadership into those three essential focus areas

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  09:38

 I’d love to dig in a bit more I mean in particular for example, the mission might be a little bit more self-explanatory but when you have but you also have culture and people as separate items there. How would you define them to be separate?

David Robinson  09:54

Yeah, well, I think you know, culture is you know, some people say of your triad is there any area that’s more important In the others in the book, I have a whole chapter on how important it is to balance these three. And to keep them in balance. There are some tensions between those. But I think a high-performing team starts the foundation is your culture. And I think you know, in many ways, that’s the set of shared values and attitudes that your team has that characterizes, you know, the essence of your team, I see it as the lens from through which your people see your mission, you know, those other two areas of the tribe. For me, the center of gravity of a high-performing culture is trust. And so the next question from people is normally what how do you develop a culture of trust and my experience, it comes down to what I call the three C’s, the first is leading with character. And on a day-to-day basis for leaders, I think we can simplify that, that just means that we are committed to doing the right thing. The second C is competence. That means we know our stuff. And on a day-to-day basis, we’re committed to doing things right. And then the third C for me is all about composure. And that’s where our real character shines under adversity. And it’s maintaining, you know, upon setting and setting the right tone and maintaining a positive tone during challenge. And so you know, when you lead with those three C’s, I have found that that generates a culture of trust on your team, where I found that people will do anything for each other to keep from letting their teammates down.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  11:24

Can we talk about an example of maybe what you know sorry, of when you demonstrated one of these and you thought it was a very self-reinforcing, I guess, trust factor for your team?

David Robinson  11:38

We’ll talk about the third c composure. You know, that’s something that I think a lot of leaders struggle with, you know, I feel like we’ve probably all worked for or known a leader that shot the messenger. When bad news came to them, right? It only takes two or three times before people stop bringing any news whatsoever because they just don’t have that emotional composure. And many times they overreact to adversity. I think under pressure. You know, that lack of composure, and then sometimes even panic under pressure can spread like wildfire throughout an organization. I’ll give you a personal example where I learned us in many ways the hard way. In 2006, I was serving in Iraq as the director of air operations in the western sector of Iraq and an area about twice the size of my home state of South Carolina, was responsible for air support and medical evacuations for about 30,000 Marines and soldiers on the ground. And that 200 aircraft. And one afternoon, we noticed on the video feed in the command center that there from the drone overhead to the base we were operating out of there was a large mob forming at the front gate. And then in the distance a couple of miles away to white sedans, speeding toward that front gate at a very high rate of speed on dusty roads. Almost immediately, we started taking mortar fire on the north end of the sector there in our base where the helicopter Park. And then, as if things couldn’t have gotten worse, six simultaneous firefights erupted and we started to experience several mass casualties. And I’ll be honest, I started as the one the person responsible for responding to all of these contingencies at the same time with air support. I started assessing the urge to panic, I’ll be honest with you, just physically and emotionally. And then I had a flashback to about three years earlier, I was sitting in a classroom listening to a combat leadership lecture by a retired lieutenant German General in the army. His name was Hal more. And he wrote a book called We Were Soldiers once and young, which was made into a movie in which Mel Gibson played how more so your audience should check out the book or the movie. It’s a fantastic story. The one thing I remember that day said that he said, if you remember nothing else, if you find yourself in a combat leadership situation, it’s inevitable. When the pressure is on and lives are on the line, you will physically and emotionally feel the urge to panic. And when that happens, take a deep breath, speak calmly and clearly because if you don’t, we will only get worse. And so I took that advice on board and you know, get huddled up my air directors and I told them two things. I said, Look, things are bad right now, we don’t have enough resources to respond to all the incoming requests for medical evacuations. What I need you to do is think outside the box, be innovative, keep me informed on what you’re doing. So I can have your back. And so you can trust me to back you up. And then second of all, I need you to take a deep breath before you start directing air traffic on the radio so that they don’t sense that we’re panicking because it will spread like wildfire. Some very, very innovative things happened and we didn’t save everyone that afternoon. But we did make the most of a bad situation. I felt like my team was able to trust me emotionally and they trusted that I had their back. I trusted them and empowered them to come up with some very creative solutions that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. It all went back to you know how Morse you know, recommendation and advice about under pressure, you know, composure is really important because it instills emotional trust in your team. And when your team begins to develop that emotional trust, then that enhances other forms of trust as well.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  15:16

Yeah, that’s such an excellent example. I mean, kudos to you for being able to do that in such a high-pressure situation, it is quite challenging to do that even in, you know, situations where no one’s life is on the line. So that is, that is a skill that is very useful to develop one question I had, which is, along the lines of culture, you kind of talked about your team’s culture as well. You know the Marines have cultural values that are for all Marines. And they’re things that define what a marine is. He is there also subcultures that exist within different teams that you’ve LED. And how does that work?

David Robinson  16:03

Yeah, well, you know, going back to your point, I mean, the Marine Corps values US Marine Corps values, our honor, courage, and commitment. And, you know, those are the three overarching values that define the ethos of the culture of every Marine Corps organization. But I think there are subcultures. And I encourage leaders who are leading teams within a larger organization to, you know, determine what they believe are their most important values for their team, because organized teams within a larger organization, eight, as you well know, sometimes have a different slice of the mission that another team within that organization, and I always encourage them to personalize their culture, but to make sure that that culture is aligned with the overarching culture of the larger organization. And, and it’s in support of those larger organizational values. But I think it’s really important for leaders to be authentic with their values and how they want to create their own culture on their team, as long as it’s not in any way, in opposition, or, you know, contrary to the overarching culture of the larger organization.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  17:12

Yeah, and I think you bring, you brought up a really good point, which is that different teams can have different, slightly different missions because each team will have or each organization will have a different objective. And so it’s not crazy to see that they will have different subcultures like, as you mentioned, because you’re gonna have different ways of doing things, different norms. And so a lot of that starts to make sense. And a leader needs to be able to identify that. And as long as again, you’re not violating sort of like the overarching values, then then I think that’s a worthwhile action for managers to take. One thing that is, is an interesting question, we talk about high performing teams, and a lot of your writing and a lot of the work you do has been around this topic. But one question that I have is how do you know if you have a high-performing team? So for example, if a manager is trying to evaluate and say, well, high performing team sound great, how do I know if I have one? And? And if I don’t, that, then I’ll work on creating one?

David Robinson  18:23

Well, that’s a great question, I have to put in a little plug on my website, vertical performance.us, I developed a five-minute survey, it’s 15 questions, where leaders can invest five minutes and it will provide some feedback on are you, you know, leading a team that can perform consistently at a high level? And ain’t it’s tied to those three elements, dimensions of the leadership triad that I just mentioned, it all comes down to? Do you have a culture of trust? And there are some ways to determine, you know, whether or not you know, your people trust you and whether or not they trust each other? You know, do your people feel like they’re respected, that they are valued as an important members of the team? Or do they feel disrespected, and disenfranchised, and in some ways micromanaged, that would be a key indicator of a high-performing team. And then on the mission side, I think it comes down to, you know, does your team feel empowered? And do they feel like that they are part of something larger than themselves? And can they articulate and grasp the overarching vision? And do they understand how their role contributes to that overarching vision? When you put these three elements together in harmony, then that’s the clearest way that I found to determine whether or not your team is high-performing. Many times we get wrapped around metrics, that’s fine, as long as the metrics are an accurate representation of what we’re trying to achieve. And that’s great. And we do need to measure that. But in many ways it comes down to is your team reaching its full potential in terms of how good it can be in the mission that you need to accomplish? Yeah,

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  19:57

I think I think that makes a lot of sense. Now I want to go take that quiz. I didn’t know about it on your website, I will check it out. One thing that is maybe a is an interesting question to ask is one of the mistakes that like we often talked about, or, you know, previous guests have talked about is your leaders not doing the appropriate storytelling, we’re just talking about the mission, and you just mentioned mission and how it’s really important for a team to say they understand the mission, and it’s almost greater than themselves. For some of the things that happen. You know, I would imagine, maybe, that’s obvious. But I wanted to ask, how often do you as leaders, let’s say, in the Marine Corps, do you? Like, repeat what the mission is? Or do storytelling around that and why it’s important is Is that like a, is that still an activity that you do very often?

David Robinson  20:54

Absolutely. Aydin. You know, in the book I talked about, the question is, how do you connect your people to your mission, and I go into a discussion about really revolves around inspiring and empowering your team. And you know, step one of inspiring your team is really to help them to get bought into the leader, but step two is to help them get bought into the mission. So how do you get them to buy into the mission so that they’re emotionally invested in Mission success? You know, to me, it comes down to wealth, Patti Sanchez, and Nancy Duarte wrote a book called illuminate. And I learned a lot from, from their book, about four techniques for illuminating your mission or your vision so that people can get emotionally invested in it. And it revolves around, you know, speeches where, you know, it’s not a long speech, but it’s an anecdotal way to, you know, really take some time to articulate the mission and focus on why it’s important. If you can just get to the way people can start to embrace the purpose behind it. Storytelling is so important for making that emotional connection with people. As a squadron commander, I used to love to tell stories about the students that we trained that were out on the pointy end of the spear, so to speak, in combat, flying off of aircraft carriers, to tell my unit, you know, how successful they had been at training them because they were successful. And that was very effective. Also, the third element is this idea around ceremonies where we get to celebrate people and recognize them in front of their peers, which is so so powerful. And then this idea, of articulating or illuminating the mission is so important. I found that my people were starting to understand the mission when I started to feel like I was sounding like a broken record. And it just took that much repetition because there’s turnover. And then I would ask people what the mission is, and when they could play it back. And I felt like they understood it and felt that conviction, then I knew that the message was getting through, but it takes time to get there.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  23:00

Yeah. And, interestingly, you had to feel like you’re like a broken record player like you said in for you to know that it was you were there? Because I guess the reason I think this is an important question is that you can’t take for granted that, you know, just because someone is a Marine that they were almost like pre-selected, you know, not everybody becomes a marine. And so like, just because they have taken that oath, it doesn’t mean that they necessarily there are many different missions at various times. And just like repeating that makes it makes a lot of sense. But you also ask them, like, how does it work? When do you ask them? What do you think the mission is? Or like, what form does that take? 

David Robinson  23:44

Yeah, I have always, you know, believed that I’ve learned the hard way that a message communicated is not always a message received, right? So I would just be completely vulnerable and humble. And I would say, at the end of, you know, a session or a talk or, you know, if I was trying to explain the mission, I would simply say, I’m not always the best communicator. I would love for you to try to playback for me what you think I said, and then if they played it back great. If they didn’t, then I had a chance to refine that a little bit and say, Well, I probably didn’t explain that very well. Here’s what I meant by that. So I put it on me that the onus was on me as the leader to make sure that my team understood what I was trying to communicate.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  24:23

Yeah, I think that’s super valuable. I’ve done the Can you tell me what you heard, I just want to make sure we’re on the same page. But the way that you put it is so much more eloquent, I’m not the best communicator always. And I love framing it in that way. I think that’s such a super valuable tactical tool there. [AD BREAK BEGINS] Hey there. Just a quick note before we move on to the next part, if you’re listening to this podcast, you’re probably already doing one on one meetings. But here’s the thing we all know one on one meetings are the most powerful, but at the same time the most misunderstood concept and practice. In management, that’s why we’ve spent over a year compiling the best information, the best expert advice into this beautifully designed 90 Plus page ebook. Now, don’t worry, it’s not a single-spaced font, you know, lots of tax, there’s a lot of pictures. It’s nice, easily consumable information, we spent so much time building it. And the great news is that it’s completely free. So head on over to fellow dot app slash blog to download the definitive guide on one one, it’s there for you, we hope you enjoy it. And let us know what you think. And with that said, let’s go back to the interview. [AD BREAK ENDS] We have a quote from you, where you say, a leader’s guidance is simply defining what your team needs to accomplish and why and leaving the how up to them. So I think the highlighting of the mission, like you, said, that’s a lot of them, the what and the why, but I guess it comes down to leaving the How to them if you’re leaving the How to them, how does the How do you also make sure that you’re able to impart on them just lessons, and, you know, things that that you’ve learned so that, you know, maybe they can take advantage of a lot of those things. 

David Robinson  26:22

This is a really fine line. I mean, one of the things when I work with leaders and do leadership development in the corporate world, one of the hardest things to thoroughly get across, and that are, when we try to explain how to our people, it’s very disempowering, and it can come across as micromanaging. And research continues to show that micromanagement is one of the main top three reasons consistently over the last decade, why people leave teams, and if they don’t leave, it’s one of the main reasons why, you know, there’s low morale on that team. So micromanagement is a real risk because it’s hard for people to get emotionally invested in something where they don’t feel like they have some control and some ability to shape the outcome. And so for me, you know, when I try to define the what I will then ask, the person that I’m delegating to, for example, and this is what I recommend to leaders, is to ask them to come back and accept the amount of time with, with their recommendation on how to accomplish that. And I recommend that you offer them the opportunity to leverage your experience and expertise and the way that I frame that if I said, Aiden, you know, thank you for, you know, being willing to take this on. This is important for our organization, we’d love for you to come back. You know, in a couple of days, let’s talk about how you think we should solve this problem. I don’t want to, you know, tell you how I would do it because I want to hear your thoughts. But if you are interested in learning some lessons that I may have learned the hard way, in this area, or you want to leverage my expertise, and be happy to share that. I’ve never had one, anyone turn me down. But at the same time, you know, I frame that as, okay, you may want to think about this, you might want to think about this, I made this mistake four or five times, I would never do that, again. It’s always in the form of lessons that I’ve learned. And I might phrase recommendations as questions or things to think about are things to consider.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  28:29

Yeah, I think that’s, I mean, that’s such great tactical advice. I think that is super useful. And I love that you have tried saying that. If you’re if you’d like to hear some of the things that I’ve learned, I’m here to help. And it’s also wonderful to know that nobody’s ever turned you down on that. So I think that we can count as a good way to go about it. One thing I wanted to also talk to you about is you have this framework that you call the three P’s of the mission. So prioritization, preparation, and passion. What is each of those if you could just maybe like in a sentence or two, describe? describe those because I think it’ll help for people that want to go about illuminating a mission, like you said, I think it might help them kind of get their, their minds wrapped around that.

David Robinson  29:23

Well. You know, when people say, what does it take to generate mission focus and to get your team laser focused on the mission? These are the three areas that I think are most important at prioritization. Look, I mean, we live in a world where the velocity and volume of information flow are just, you know, increasing exponentially every year. And it’s pretty soon it’s information saturation, and it feels like everything is a priority. But as the saying goes, when everything’s a priority, nothing is a priority. I think as leaders, it’s incumbent upon us to make sure that we are setting realistic priorities, not 50 because nobody can manage 50 priorities, but you know, maybe, you know, one to five priorities so that your team can keep the main thing, the main thing if you will. So I think that’s the foundation for mission success so that we are properly focusing our, our resources, our time, and our energy on what matters most. That second P is around preparation. And, you know, quick story when I was in college, I had a channel how many sports fans you have in your audience, but I was a big basketball fan growing up, one of my all time heroes was john wooden, who was the coach of the century, according to ESPN, in the 20th century, led the UCLA Bruins to 10 NCAA basketball champions at chips in 12 years in the 1960s and 70s. Unprecedented, I’m not sure that record will ever even be close to touched. I went to one of his basketball clinics just to observe and afterward introduce myself and he invited me into his office couldn’t believe it for an hour, he was in the US Navy and wanted to talk about some of his experiences. And you know, being the impressionable Junior leader that I was, I asked him, I said, coach, wouldn’t you know, you have been so successful as a leader. your team’s players have had such great character, what is your secret? If there’s anything What would you point to, without hesitation, he said, preparation. That’s what it’s all about preparation. And I took that on board Aden, and apply that to everything that I did in my military career. And now in my corporate career, the question I think that we need to ask ourselves as leaders are, what are we doing today, to prepare our team for tomorrow’s opportunity. And that’s what I think forms success. As far as our mission is concerned, it’s founded on prioritization. But I think our mission success is formed through constant preparation. And then the final P is passion, specifical passion for excellence, which I think fuels mission success. And when I say passion for excellence, what I mean there is being dedicated to continuous improvement. And it starts with a leader, to the extent that you’re willing to admit that you don’t know everything, that you have a growth area, and that you’re striving to get better tomorrow than you are today. That tends to, you know, cascade down throughout your entire team. That’s super

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  32:15

interesting. And I now want to dig in. So my questions are like talking about preparation, I get it, prioritization, I agree with you, you need to one to five, you need to be clearly defined. Otherwise, people are going in all sorts of directions. So let’s talk about preparation. Like what does that tactically mean? You know, for say that you have a, you know, just any, any sort of company that you’re working at, say that you have a revenue goal. How do you How does preparation work? In that case?

David Robinson  32:51

Well, let’s take the example. I’m just thinking out loud with you here. And we can problem solve together. I mean, if you have a revenue goal, you know, I think it’d be important, first of all, to look at what are the various components that would enable you to meet that that revenue goal, right? I mean, so you know, there’s a sales and marketing component to that, there’s going to be an operational component to that there’s probably a strategic communications component to that you name it, I’m just you can fill in fill in the blanks. But let’s say that you break that down into what I’d call, you know, maybe three to five, you know, high-value areas of concentration. And then the next question is, you know, for those individuals who are responsible for carrying out those lines of effort that are leading toward that goal, or that mission, that priority of a revenue goal? What are the skills and areas of expertise that they need to have to be successful? And so are there training opportunities? Are there mentoring opportunities? Are there apprenticeship opportunities? Are there research opportunities? Are there other opportunities today, to make sure that we are putting ourselves in a position to capitalize on opportunities that we may or may not be aware of, there might be a when I say, research, you know, kind of a market intelligence component to that as well. And so I think it’s all about reverse engineering, where are we trying to go figuring out what are the avenues that we need to be good at to get there? And then how do we get good, so to speak at those areas that we need to get good at and start preparing now for tomorrow’s opportunity? Time hat back to Coach Wooden You know, one of the things that he mentioned was that he didn’t enjoy the games as much as the practice it’s, you know, his passion was all about preparing his team to perform when the game started, and his ultimate goal was to not have to coach at all during a game.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  34:43

Yeah, that’s, that’s super interesting. And that’s amazing that you got to ask him that question and met him in person that that’s amazing. Yeah. What about passion though? So passion is an interesting one. And I liked the way that you defined it because you said Well, you’ve got it. It comes from the leader and There has to be this desire to continuously get better at something. Would you say that? Like, the question is how do you get people on your team and everybody on your team to be passionate about what you’re pursuing? I guess, as part of this is, you know, is everyone I think everyone can be passionate about something. You know, the trick is like, how do you get them to be passionate about the mission? Is there anything that you’ve learned or any, any interesting strategies that you’ve used to turn people that may have started as, as being not passionate into passionate about the mission or whatever is being tackled,

David Robinson  35:44

I am passionate about talking about the passion that’s talking about it, I think two things, in my experience Aydin and I’d love to share with you and get your thoughts. The first, the first is around the standards that you set. And when I talk about setting standards of excellence, you know, I like to think about, first of all, define the standards so that people can understand you know, what the standards are and what we’re trying to achieve. The second thing is to explain why that standard is important. I can’t emphasize this enough, I found that if people understand the why the purpose behind a standard and how it’s going to help the team achieve excellence, then they very quickly start to embrace a passion for that standard of excellence. But the third piece is probably the hardest. And that is the leader needs to hold themselves to an equal or higher standard. So when you clearly define the standard, explain why it’s important behind it. And then as a leader, hold yourself set the example by holding yourself to an equal or higher standard. that’s step number one. Step number two is all about being committed to self-improvement. And I find that this starts with a leader. You know, at Top Gun, we had a debrief after every flight, I’ve flown 3000 flights in my career. And after every flight, we debrief for at least an hour at Top Gun, our debriefs were six hours long. Now, I’m not recommending that any of your listeners spend six hours debriefing everything that they do, but I am recommending, after you know, every time you invest significant time or effort into something, huddle your team up and ask three simple questions. What happened relative to what we were trying to achieve? Number two, why did it happen? Let’s do some root cause analysis to achieve our goal or not? And if not, why? And then third, how can we not Dave Robinson, not Aiden? You know, not sue, not john, take the hell out of it. How can we as a team, collectively improve the next time that we do the same thing. And if the leader starts that debrief by admitting or explaining what they could have done better, as the leader of the team, I found that it opens up the faucet so to speak for other people to pipe in and say, Oh, you know what, I could have done this better. And now it’s all about learning and team improvement. So you start with setting the standard, and then you talk about a passion for improvement. You put those together, I found that that’s the formula for generating that passion for excellence in your team.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  38:18

That is, that is super, super helpful. I think there’s a couple of points there that I want to break down. So one was around the set of the standard. You kind of implied that, you know, standards are contagious. And I do agree. My question is, how do you define a standard of excellence? Like how do you go about defining what the standard is, I would imagine that some of this happens, maybe in debriefing sessions, where you have an opportunity for feedback on whatever, like, you know, the flight or whatever else just occurred? What is the modality that you use to define the standard?

David Robinson  39:03

I recommend leaders have what I call a leaders intent. And this is a way to, you know, in many ways, connect your culture to your mission. And I encourage leaders to think about the five things, first of all, you know, what is your mission? Can you articulate that? What is your vision? What is what is good? What does success look like? What are your values? That’s, that’s the heart of your culture? What are your goals and priorities? We just talked about that. And then this fifth bucket Aiden, is what I think you’re talking about. That is what are our expectations? What are our behavioral expectations? What can you expect from me as a leader? What do I expect from my team members as members of the team in terms of expectations? Many times those are performance expectations. Sometimes you can put very unquantifiable you know metrics around those other times they’re a little bit more subjective. And I know that you know, you love them, you know, one on one feedback and the way managers can you know, you know, develop those opportunities to help your team grow. This is an opportunity to enforce those standards. But you know, they need to be measurable, they need to be clear, they need to be understood. And then once you set those standards, we try to achieve them. Now I’m going to go out on a limb here and tell you that I’m an advocate that as leaders, we ought to be setting standards of perfection. For example, in aviation, my safety standard was we will have zero aviation accidents, right? I mean, I couldn’t say, Oh, we will accept one aviation accident this year, right? I mean, you just can’t, you can’t do that. We did have some accidents, though. And I realized that perfection is not possible when you are leading human beings. And so the question is, how do you reconcile that delta between a very high standard of stretch goal and a standard of excellence? Because there’s some Delta in there, I think the debrief is how you do that. And it’s about why did we not achieve that? That’s that high standard? And what can we do to close that gap and get close closer to that very, very high standard? We’re aspiring to

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  40:59

Yeah, no, I think that’s super helpful. And just what you were saying, which is to start as a leader by first saying, what you could have done better? I think that that is such a great way to start it. Now I have to ask you six hours, what do you what were you? What were you all talking about for six hours,

David Robinson  41:17

You know, whenever we flew a flight, the average flight was about an hour to an hour and a half, depending on the type of mission anywhere from two to 50 aircraft airborne at any given time. And you know, we had very specific mission objectives and very specific training objectives. And this kind of goes back to one of your earlier questions, those training objectives were skills that we needed to be able to perfect and improve upon to accomplish the mission. And everyonethat was in that flight had sometimes a different role and responsibility. And so, you know, Dave Robinson had a certain responsibility within that flight for certain tasks that we needed to perform. And, of course, these decisions are being made at, you know, the speed of sound, sometimes twice the speed of sound with, you know, things happening in three dimensions, and you know, very, very quickly, and we have recordings of our radar scope, we have recordings of aircraft positioning, we have recordings of the target, you can record everything, it’s like, everything you did have every second in that flight is recorded. And we would literally go through those recordings, you know, person by person to pick out, you know, what, you could have done better at this particular point in time to achieve the training objectives in order to make sure that we accomplish the mission, and never flew a flight where there was something that I couldn’t improve upon. And it was always powerful as a leader, to be the first to note, I didn’t do that, that radar search very well, I could have done this better by doing a, b, and c to accomplish X, Y, and Z. And then everyone else was like, Oh, well, it’s the flight lead can say that then certainly, there are many things that I could admit that I could have done better also.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  42:55

Yeah, no, that’s amazing. Like, as you were, you were talking about what you were doing, and all the way all the things that could have been recorded and all the different variations, I understood much more deeply preparation as, as one of the P’s of the three P’s of the mission relatedly. I think the you know, as we’re talking about the mission and trying to achieve it, you also talk a lot about adaptability, and decentralized decision making. I think the idea of decentralized decision-making sounds very appealing and almost romantic in some ways. My question is, how do you make sure that it doesn’t just lead to chaos, where everybody just does everything? like in practice? What does it look like?

David Robinson  43:44

No, I mean, I think, you know, it does sound romantic. And you know, it’s a little ambiguous, and there’s kind of squishy, what does it mean? I’m glad you asked. I mean, I think it comes down to empowerment, right? I mean, in reality, we live in a very fast-paced world, and decision making, if it’severy one that if it’s concentrated at the highest levels of an organization that can be a constraint for speed and agility for any organization. So it’s incumbent upon leaders, I think, to push that decision authority down to the lowest practical level within the organization. And practically, this is what I think it looks like. I think it starts with that leader intent that I just mentioned earlier, right? If a leader can clearly articulate the what at a very high level, cast that vision, and then empower leaders at lower levels to make decisions. But one way to do that is to start to clarify Aiden, what I call decision thresholds, right. So if I’m working for you, you and I might have a conversation about what kinds of decisions Dave Robinson is authorized to make, categorically, and what types of decisions you want me to make sure I share with you to get your input before that decision is made. You might also tell me some things that you want to be made aware of if they meet certain thresholds. You know, So that I can, I can provide a feedback loop there. But one way to make sure that this is a learning process without turning it into chaos is to use weekly one on ones and feedback sessions for junior decision makers to share with their boss, the decisions that they are planning on making. And to get that feedback like Hey, boss, Aiden, here’s, here’s the decision I need to make you gave me the authority to make it unless directed otherwise, this is where I’m leaning. Have you seen this movie before? Is there any experience that might, you know, I might not be thinking about, you have a chance to weigh in, but I still feel like I own that decision. And you have a chance to train me and train my judgment. And that generates trust in that decision-making relationship as well. And then I can also debrief you on decisions that I made this week, and we can talk about how those panned out. And so I found that to be a very effective way of delegating decisions, but not completely letting go of the wheel, so to speak, and staying in that kind of supervisory role as a mentor. 

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  46:01

I think that makes a lot of sense and is a good way to put it. And I agree. And for those I guess that were wondering, one on ones do happen in the Marines as well. So that’s good to hear. So, David, this has been super, super helpful, there are so many different things that we covered. And one of the things we like to leave all of our guests with is just for all the managers and leaders out there who are constantly looking to get better at their craft, what words of wisdom tips, or advice would you leave them with? What I will say like, before you answer that question, though, is the substance of leadership. I’m so excited to read the book myself. By the time this interview is live, everybody should be able to get it. And I assume it’s on, they’ll be able to find it on Amazon and all the typical bookstores. And so, so very excited for that. But besides reading the book, what else would you leave everybody with?

David Robinson  47:01

Yeah, it’s a great question and a tough question. Because this is kind of that, you know, if you remember nothing else, you know, moments, right? But I would just leave your audience and your team and your listeners with the following. And what I call this the leadership paradox, right? I mean, the more you let go and give to your team, I found that the more you will get as a leader in terms of high performance. And so it’s so hard sometimes to empower to give away control, you know, to give away decision-making authority because we all naturally want to concentrate that. But I found that the more you give away, and the more that you’re willing to let go, the more you’ll get in terms of performance. And so the two, you know, recommendations or tips that I would leave is, number one, focus on empowering your team, define the one, leave the hell up to your people, ask them how they would do it. And then you know, have a conversation when they come back and explain the how, and then ask questions have you thought about X, Y, and Z that might help fill in some of the gaps. And the second piece is to take care of your people, by putting their interests ahead of your own. What I found is when we take care of our people and put their interests ahead of our agenda, they will do whatever it takes to take care of you as the leader to accomplish your team’s mission. So that would be my my my final comments, the leadership paradox. empower your team and take care of your people.

Aydin Mirzaee (Fellow.app)  48:24

And that’s great advice and a great place to end it. David, thank you so much for doing this.

David Robinson  48:29

Thank you, Aydin. It was my honor and great privilege, I enjoyed our conversation.

Latest episodes

We interview leaders from all walks of life to tease out the habits, thought patterns, learnings and experiences that help them be who they are.