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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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“Operational excellence cannot be one of fifteen initiatives you have running.”


This is an interview with Justin Hughes, a former Red Arrows pilot and the Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy that partners with organisations committed to high performance. His new book, The Business of Excellence: Building high-performance teams and organizations, is out now, published by Bloomsbury.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What did your time in the Red Arrows teach you about excellence and high performance?

Justin Hughes, MD, Mission Excellence: Unsurprisingly, on the Red Arrows I learnt a lot about delivering excellence in a demanding environment.

There are many lessons but probably just a few really big-ticket items:

  • People. If you want high performance, you can’t afford to compromise on either skills or attitude. Core skills are an essential pre-requisite, but ultimately a binary issue – a person reaches the minimum standard (which itself might be high) or they don’t. When you’re engaged in team-type activities though, the point of difference is likely to be attitude – finding people who will choose a set of behaviours which align with the team’s needs – choosing to be a team player.
  • Delivery. No plan survives first contact with the enemy (customer / competitor / real world). Think Plan B. Make the high-pressure decisions in low-pressure environments.
  • Learning. There is probably no bigger driver of high performance than a culture of learning:  fail fast and fix.  It almost doesn’t matter what performance level you start at, if you have the ability to continuously improve and apply learning fast.  More than anything else, the key driver is a culture of learning.  This can only be led from the front.  The leader sets the tone for everyone else and builds the environment where people are comfortable having the open honest objective conversations than high performance requires.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What misconceptions do you think organisations have around high performance and excellence?

Justin Hughes, MD, Mission Excellence:  I think that the single biggest misconception is that they can be achieved with anything other than total commitment.

Operational excellence, for example, cannot be one of fifteen initiatives you have running.

Make the high-pressure decisions in low-pressure environments.

It has to be the single overriding theme of how you do business.

Other performance metrics become a natural by-product of the pursuit of excellence. 

Like any major initiative in an organisation, operational excellence cannot be delivered through posters, offsite meetings and sets of values alone.  All of those things might contribute, but the anchor point has to be leadership (again!):

  • Role modelling by senior managers
  • Consequence management – non-compliance with a set of standards or values must have consequences
  • Reward and recognition – in the final reckoning, you will always get what you reward

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You say excellence is a habit. What's the easiest way to get this message across to people?

Justin Hughes, MD, Mission Excellence: Making excellence a habit is a perfect example of the impact which senior managers can have in role modelling.

You won’t suddenly turn on higher standards and raise the performance bar under enormous pressure when it really matters.

If everyone was doing it, it wouldn’t be high performance.

In that situation, you’re simply not going to have any spare mental capacity to deploy different behaviours to usual. You will revert to wired-in default norms.

A simple example is punctuality. As a fighter pilot, every briefing started on time, to the second. This might seem a bit weird and over the top (it did to me!).

However, you start to realise over time is that is the way that we do business around here. That professional standard and attention to detail becomes your norm – a habit.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Is there a 'maintenance' phase of high-performing teams? How do you ensure the culture continues to strengthen?

Justin Hughes, MD, Mission Excellence: Yes, of course.

High performance is hard enough but the real tests are sustainability and succession – a high performance culture which is not just dependent on a few individuals for a finite period of time.

The Red Arrows actually offer a good example of this – three of the nine pilots are replaced every year, but the team continues to deliver a consistent standard.

Also, the New Zealand All Blackss rugby team; they have a win rate unmatched by any other team stretching back decades.

In Good to Great, Jim Collins examined some examples from the corporate world, although true long-term (cultural) examples tend to be rather rarer in that world.

High performance is hard enough but the real tests are sustainability and succession.

From my own experience, some key drivers of ongoing success are to eliminate complacency and focus on the team over any one individual:

  • Focus on values, in particular humility. There is an organisational element to this – defining clear simple values and making them real. Plus, there is an individual element, which I touch on above – recruiting people with the right attitude.  You need people with a rare combination (actually also identified by Collins above) of intense drive and intense humility.
  • Benchmark. Never accept where you are at.  Constantly benchmark against how good could you be – this is a much higher bar than any external reference. Never accept second best. On the Red Arrows, the team debriefs every show, even in the middle of summer when the room for improvement can appear non-existent to a viewer from the ground.
  • Build strength in depth. An excessively high churn rate of people is just inefficient. However, some churn is very healthy in bringing in fresh energy and ideas and eliminating complacency in the incumbents. Churn does require strength in depth though…

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You say excellence starts with the individual. Do you need excellent individuals, therefore, or can average people function in a high-performing team?

Justin Hughes, MD, Mission Excellence: I saw a nice quote a while ago from a former Commandant General of the US Marine Corps.

He was asked how the Corps produced such outstanding people. His answer was ‘we’re good at recruitment’. He wasn’t talking about recruiting ‘excellent’ individuals, but people with the potential.

Joining the Marine Corps is not a free lunch. They will take people from every walk of society, not necessarily with much in the way of qualifications, but you still have to pass selection. There is a place for everyone, if you demonstrate the right attitude. 

Can ‘average people’ function in a high-performing team?

Clearly large organisations have diverse needs for a wide cross-section of people.

But in the critical high-performance parts of the organisation, it will be difficult to carry someone who, when given the opportunity, chooses not to develop one or both of strong skills and a good attitude.

High performance is an option for almost everybody, but, unpalatable though such words might be in 2016, it is both discriminatory and elitist. If everyone was doing it, it wouldn’t be high performance.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence

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