Episode #166: Interview with Chris “Elroy” Stricklin, Colonel (Ret), USAF


Chris “Elroy” Stricklin is a combat-proven Air Force Leader, and executive consultant at Afterburner. His unique range of experience combines service as a USAF Thunderbird, multiple N.A.T.O. assignments, White House and DARPA fellowships, and command-experience in the United States Air Force. He brings rich experience in leading, management, negotiations, continuous improvement and positive change. In addition, Stricklin’s military tenure includes Pentagon-level management of critical Air Force resources valued at $840B, Stricklin is also a Certified Manager with degrees in Economics, Financial Planning, Strategic Studies and Operational Art and Science.

“Elroy” was his call sign in the Air Force, named after his resemblance to Elroy on The Jetsons.


Chris ejected from his Thunderbird plane (F-16) during an air show at Mountain Home, Idaho, with 85,000 people in attendance. He was 40 feet above the ground, one-half second from impact, landing in the fireball on his feet. The entire flight was a total of 25.5 seconds long, and as a result of the ejection, his spine was compressed by 2.5 inches. Because of temporal distortion that 25 seconds felt over three hours long.

Chris credits being alive to his training; especially the Debrief process.

The Debrief and Lessons Learned

Leaders are characterized by focused energy, effective action and benevolent compassion. The true measure of a leader is not just measured by success of their organization, but by the measure of leaders they influence and develop to follow in their footsteps. -Chris R. Stricklin

The Debrief is the most amazing thing we do, ensuring we grow tomorrow from today. Not just lessons experienced, but lessons learned (and shared). It’s a learning device, not a personal blame game.

Only 33% of organizational objectives are achieved, an incredible waste of effort, resources, etc. “We learn from the school of hard knocks,” which results in improvement of less than 5%.

However, if you go through even an unstructured Debrief, you improve performance by 28%. With a structured Debrief, it goes to 38%. With a competent facilitator, performance can increase by 300%!

Jim Murphy wrote Flawless Execution in 1988. Here is the Air Force’s Debrief acronym STEALTH:

  • Set the time of the Debrief
  • Tone—nameless and rankles, start with inside/outside criticism
  • Execution vs. objectives—Did we meet or objectives? Yes or no.
  • Analyze—ask why, why, why?
  • Lessons Learned—Capturing root causes of what went right and wrong
  • Transfer the lessons learned to the organization, and its knowledge bank
  • High note—always finish on a high note

A Debrief after a Thunderbird air show (approximately 28 to 32 minutes long) could be two hours.

For businesses, Chris recommends a Debrief be conducted within one week of an engagement.

It’s all about building a culture of improvement.

Advantages of Debriefs 

  • Closes the loop on the project; draws the line between past and future project; and puts the path behind us
  • Effective learning, improving future performance, and developing people
  • Catalyst for change and innovation
  • Cause vs. root cause
  • Generates specific and actionable lessons learned
  • Develops a culture and learning
  • Leadership development

Chris’s tips for your first few Debriefs

  • Start with why, why, why?
  • You have to have objectives; a brief on who does what, when.
  • Don’t debrief a failure; debrief a win.
  • “It’s not just debriefing, it’s a culture of debriefing”—a way of thinking. It’s not who’s right, it’s what’s right.


Chris’s LinkedIn Blog Posts

The Debrief Secret of a High-Speed Fighter Pilot

An epiphany at 50,000 feet: The secret to success is Lessons Learned!

How does the military take a young college graduate and turn them into a fighter pilot? Using the Debrief and the resulting lessons learned, an experiential learning accelerator

Teams that Debrief outperform those that don’t by 25%.

5 Principles of Success…The Thunderbird Way

There’s been 325 Thunderbirds, serving two-year tours, and 50% of the team is new each year. It takes four months of training to become a skilled Thunderbird. Most companies have teams that have been together for years, and can’t reach the same level of performance.

Thunderbird way:

  1. Skill
  2. Training
  3. Discipline
  4. Focus
  5. Teamwork

The Value of a Consultant

VUCA = Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity

Improving Workplace Morale is Easy With These Two Simple Words

Spoiler alert: Communication + Value

Other Resources

Episode #15: The Best Learning Method Ever Devised: After Action Reviews

Ron and Ed's Free CPAAcademy webcast on AARs

Ed’s interview with Chris on the Sage Advice Podcast




Ed Kless

Ed Kless joined Sage in July of 2003 and is currently the senior director of partner development and strategy. He develops and delivers curriculum for Sage business partners on the art and practice of small business consulting. Courses include: Sage Consulting Academy, Business Strategy and Customer Experience Workshops. Ed is the author of The Soul of Enterprise: Dialogues on Business in the Knowledge Economy, a compendium of a few of the episodes of his VoiceAmerica talk-show The Soul of Enterprise: Business in the Knowledge Economy with Ron Baker, founder of the VeraSage Institute where Ed is also a senior fellow.