Even if you don't believe that "business is combat," a stage full of fighter pilots will convince you that their tools can teach your employees to work better--and, more important, can make them want to. "Every company in America wants to find a way to motivate its people to achieve flawless execution [of their jobs]," says Anthony Bourke, vice president, Afterburner Seminars. "Fighter pilots are experts in achieving flawless execution."
The training programs that Bourke and his fellow Afterburner pilots conduct for corporate groups are designed to get attendees to see parallels between their jobs and the job of flying jets in defense of the country.
The first step is to get their attention. "Right from the beginning they state their credentials," says Erica Stensgaard, CMP, who booked Afterburner Seminars for two groups of State Farm employees in 1999. "When you hear that this pilot has 3,000 hours in the F-16, trains new Marine cadets, received 17 medals, and it just goes on . . . you're sold on it. No matter who you are, when you sit there and look at these people, you are in awe."
Risky Business The challenge for Stensgaard, at the time an event planner at State Farm Insurance Companies in Rohnert Park, Calif., was to find something for back-to-back groups of 600 attendees--claims, operations, and agency field employees, both managers and non- managers. Not only did she want a program that would help them understand each other's jobs and work together more effectively, she wanted one that would engage them mentally and physically. And, because a major meeting goal was to "save policyholder dollars," she had to keep a close eye on the budget.
"I looked at some of the nation's best," she says. The problem with most of them: "They didn't meet the requirement of being high energy."
Then Stensgaard asked Ruth Levine at Speak Inc. in San Diego about Afterburner Seminars. "Once Ruth knew I was looking for something unique and interactive, she and I agreed that Afterburners was the team to help accomplish our mission," Stensgaard says. But it was not without risk. "This was unlike anything we'd done before."
The Real Deal After the 20 flight-suited facilitators on stage go through their credentials, the "briefing" continues with the big picture--what being a fighter pilot might have to do with, say, processing insurance claims.
"Their format usually includes attendees 'going to war,'" Stensgaard explains. "But we chose another format. U.S. involvement in the Kosovo crisis began right as we were signing the. It's a planner's nightmare. We were considerate of the issues a military theme might present, so we elected to focus on the proactive training and of the military. The central message of this exercise is the value of empowerment and teamwork."
Team Efforts Attendees broke into 15-person "squad- rons," each with a mission to plan and each working with one of the Afterburner facilitators. That's where the teambuilding comes into play, and where another of Stensgaard's goals, to break down departmental barriers, was met.
Each squadron member gets a checklist. The person who leads the mission is the one who ends up with the "Ace" checklist. "We made very intentional choices of who would play what role ahead of time," Stensgaard explains. "Each squadron included a mix from all levels and all areas of the company."
Adds Bourke: "One point to get across is that leaders don't always have all the answers." In fact, to be successful, the Ace needs information and contributions from all the Squadron members.
Some 20 minutes into the exercise, sirens sound. It's a SCUD attack. As with all things military, there's a procedure--a checklist--to follow in this situation. "Ace" reads it: don your helmet, secure your classified documents, and sit on the floor. The take-away: "There should be some corporate emergency procedures," Bourke explains. What exact steps do employees go through when they get a customer complaint, for example?
After a lunch break, the squadrons reconvene to find out if their missions were successful, and how many jets or lives they may have lost in the process. In order not to repeat mistakes, Bourke says, everyone must be allowed to learn from them. So they are aired in "a nameless, rankless debrief." In other words, the lowest-ranking member can ask the highest-ranking member to explain a particular misstep. "Corporate America is still learning the value of this policy," Stensgaard says. "State Farm has long supported an open-door policy, which allows each employee to speak to any manager or executive at any time."
And after Afterburners, they might just do that. "People really internalized the Afterburners mentality," Stensgaard says. "Long after the meeting, they were still using the lingo. It brought a sense of camaraderie to the workplace. Instead of saying, 'I'll cover your phones,' we heard, 'I'd never leave my wingman'--said with a smile."
For information about the Afterburner Seminars, call Ruth Levine at Speak Inc., (858) 457-9880, or visit www.afterburnerseminars.com.