Connecting With Your Wingmen

August 6, 2007
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It is extremely rare for the squadron commander to meet you at your jet after a training mission, so when I saw Lt. Col. Dodson approaching my jet with a stern look on his face, I knew something was up.

“Waldo, we need to talk,” he said as he headed for the aircraft hangar. “Yes, sir!” I replied, and waited, a little uneasy, for what was coming next. Had I messed up? Was I in trouble? I gulped. Was something wrong at home?

“Waldo, Sgt. Tyler told me what happened before you took off this afternoon, and I am not impressed.” In an instant I knew what he was referring to.

Just three hours before, during my after-engine-start checklist, I had noticed that my jet was shorted 500 pounds of fuel. Not a huge amount, but enough to cut my air-to-air training mission short by at least 10 minutes. Although it’s rare, sometimes the wing tanks just won’t fill up completely, and there’s nothing the crew chief responsible for fueling the jet can do about it. I was irritated because my training was going to be cut short, and instead of sucking it up, I blamed the crew chief for being inattentive. I had acted as if he were complacent and didn’t care.

“Do you realize how hard our crew chiefs work, Waldo?” It was pretty clear that Lt. Col. Dodson wasn’t pleased with me.

I was speechless. I had messed up, and there was no excuse.

The commander continued, “Waldo, I’m taking you off the flight schedule tomorrow, and I want you to dig out your oldest flight suit. Tomorrow you’re spending the day on the flight line, with the crew chiefs.”

REPORT AT SIX A.M.!

Let’s just say the next day was one of the longest in my 11 years of active duty in the Air Force. I was up at the crack of dawn and didn’t stop for 12 hours - fueling jets, inspecting engines, moving 55-gallon drums full of used oil, and inventorying aircraft parts. By the end of the day I was exhausted. I smelled as if I had been dipped in gasoline, and my flight suit was utterly trashed, a huge grease spot down the length of each pant leg.

But while the physical labor was grueling, it actually turned out to be a rewarding experience. You see, it gave me the opportunity to get to know the young crew chiefs of the 79th Fighter Squadron on a personal level. Most were only 18-25 years old. I listened to their complaints, empathized about their frustrations, and realized all the things they did behind the scenes to make the mission happen. The experience painted a much more realistic picture of what went into giving me a jet that was “MR” - mission ready.

Before this experience, I was blind to the behind-the-scenes wingmen of my squadron. I had never really understood or appreciated what they put into each mission to make it a success. After I walked the flight line, I got it!

Are you getting out there with your troops and walking the flight line? Do you know their issues, gripes, and personal concerns? Do you know what gets in the way of their giving their best? Do you walk the factory floor and talk to the quality assurance inspector about the challenges she may be facing? Do you accompany your sales reps on sales calls? Do you ride along with a tech on a service call? Every day you have opportunities to get to know your wingmen better. Are you taking advantage of them?

One of our most fundamental desires at work - yeah, that’s above money, position, or vacation time - is to be appreciated. Knowing that our contribution is valued gives us fuel to crank our engines to afterburner when the heat is on and the challenging missiles of business and life come zinging our way. And remember, you don’t have to be a supervisor or C-level corporate officer to walk the flight line. Anyone can do it. Just make it happen.

Take one person out to lunch each week from a department other than your own.

Schedule an (unannounced) “squadron tour.” Visit the various “shops,” of your hospital, factory, office complex, or manufacturing facility and casually, in a way that doesn’t put anyone on the spot, randomly interview your wingmen.

Sit in on a strategy session with your marketing team, or a weekly budget update with a project manager.

Spend half an hour with your kids, doing their homework with them.

Walking the flight line builds your credibility and effectiveness as a leader. When you know the job details and understand the challenges your wingmen face, you’ll be far better prepared to deal with human resource issues such as hiring, firing, and job moves. You’ll be able to anticipate (and alleviate) problems before they occur; see the potential missile launches long before they ever leave the ground.

What will result, almost as if by magic, is a more trusting environment. Your co-workers and employees will be more likely to approach you with their problems, because you know what it’s like to walk the flight line in their shoes. They’ll view you as a wingman, a trusted partner, and will see that you care - not by your philosophy but by your action.

In essence, they will think to themselves, “Wow! This person really gets me!”

Publication date: 08/06/2007

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