Episode #214: Interview with Chris “Elroy” Stricklin, Colonel (Ret), USAF

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Biography

Chris “Elroy” Stricklin is a combat-proven Air Force Leader who successfully bridged the gap between military leadership and civilian desire to learn about leadership. An acclaimed leadership writer with almost 100 publications and a corporate leadership speaker, he has been recognized as the #1 writer for Switch & Shift, General Leadership and many other online blogs. In addition to leading professionally for the US Air Force and writing online, he also is a leadership advisor at multiple non-profits where he helps ensure future employment for the many transitioning US military officers. He was recently featured in the Military Times article: Leaders Who Tweet, recognized with awards as “Top 10 Business Innovation Posts,” and served the role of Chief Growth Officer driving the fasting growing leadership blog on the web and earning “Top 100 Most Socially-Shared Leadership Blogs of 2014.”

As one of our dynamic team members, his unique experience as a U.S.A.F. Thunderbird coupled with Pentagon-level management of critical Air Force resources valued at $840B, multiple N.A.T.O. assignments, White House and DARPA fellowships, and command-experience in the United States Air Force allow his unique synthesis of speaking, following, leading, management, negotiations, continuous improvement and positive change. Chris is also a Certified Manager with degrees in Economics, Financial Planning, Strategic Studies and Operational Art and Science. He authored a negotiation primer subsequently published and adopted as required Air Force Pentagon new action officer orientation.

Throughout his Air Force career, he has flown combat sorties over both Iraq and Afghanistan and logged more than 50 Ground-Combat convoys throughout Afghanistan. During his time working for NATO, he lead the effort to defend against terrorism and served as lead American negotiator for a hijacked Turkish Airliner (Flight 1476) which ended safely with the hijacker apologizing to the passengers as he deplaned.

Elroy’s inspiration for writing began with the publication of his first work: Stories Around the Table: Laughter, Wisdom, and Strength in Military Life.

Ed’s Questions

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Segment One

What’s been going on at Afterburner since our last show (from November 3, 2017, Episode #166).

Why do you think the focus of Afterburner shifted to more coaching, as opposed to keynote/motivation?

One of my favorite quotes is “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less,” from General Eric Shinseki. He did some amazing work with the US military while he was Chief of Staff of the US Army, but he struggled as Secretary of the Veterans Administration. His leadership talents didn’t change, or is there just something about government bureaucracy that’s not like the military?

You wrote a Forbes article that was published today “Seven Lessons On Building Elite Teams For Disruptive Innovation,” Forbes, October 19, 2018. What was the inspiration for writing this article?

The seven lessons are:

  1. Demand Diversity of Thought

  2. Remember That Attention Equals Retention

  3. Establish The Value Of Each Employee

  4. Maintain A Situational Focus

  5. Empower Your Team

  6. Trust The Team You’ve Assembled

  7. Ensure They Work With You, Not for You

I liked the first point, Demand Diversity of Thought, explain that, because it’s different than what we hear today about diversity.

Regarding #5 and #6 above, I’ve combined them in my mind, so what’s the difference between those two?

We talk about trust, but our systems seem to undermine it, such as expense reporting systems. Ricardo Semler tells his employees if they need something to do their job better, buy it with the corporate AMEX card. They won’t question it, they just pay it.

Segment Three

When you were talking about communication, I thought of George Bernard Shaw who said, “The trouble with communication is the illusion it has taken place.” I did a workshop with you on mission planning, and when it comes to a go vs. no-go decision, I think a lot of companies struggle with the courage to say we need to stop here.

I’m reminded of Captain Chesley Sullenberger, who landed the plane in the Hudson, and in an interview he said, “My job was to successfully crash the aircraft.” So many companies also need to successfully crash some projects—what are we going to say no to?

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If an AI system was in charge of that aircraft, I don’t think it would have come up with landing in the Hudson River.

On your article, “36 Leadership Experts Reveal What Truly Exceptional Leadership Is All About,” I wanted to get your reaction to my favorite definition of leadership, from Peter Block, “Leadership is about confronting people with their freedom.”

First rule of leadership, train your replacement.

Who are some of your favorites from a military leadership perspective, such as MacArthur or Patton?

Ron’s Questions

Segment Two

On your Forbes article (above), #1, I’ve started to use the word “variety” instead of diversity, because diversity is such a loaded word these days. I just wanted to get your thoughts on that?

Speaking of words, I wanted to ask you about four: Volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity, or VUCA, from the military. I’m hear this acronym more and more in the private sector. Tell me about VUCA from a military, or fighter pilot, perspective (see Chris’s LinkedIn post, “The Value of a Consultant.”

Yes, organizations make plans, but they rarely explore the uncertainty or ambiguity in those plans.

Another post your wrote that I really like is “Improving Workplace Morale is Easy With These Two Simple Words” what are those two words?

Communication + Value

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I find an appalling lack of communication in most organizations. Do you find that as well?

Your work with Afterburner fascinates me, since I know you’re trying to introduce the Debrief and Lessons Learned process in organizations. I get a lot of resistance, especially from professional firms, and I’m just wondering how that’s going for you. Is it being embraced?

I think about some of the After Action Reviews (AAR) I’ve conducted after jobs have gone bad, and it does show the worth of the process, but it’s still a real challenge to embed the process into the culture.

I sat through an AAR in an ICU ward, and the team was admitting mistakes, in a no fear environment. It was amazing.

Segment Four

Chris, you wrote another post, “36 Questions Which Lead Leaders,” and it made me think about something the physicist Richard Feynman said: “I would rather have questions that can't be answered than answers that can't be questioned.” You start the post by writing, “Leadership is not about having the right answers, it is the ability to ask the correct questions.” That is brilliant.

That’s a fine tradeoff isn’t it, between being an expert and playing ignorant, not showing off your expertise?

In your companion post, “36 Leadership Experts Reveal What Truly Exceptional Leadership Is All About,” you say you had an “Aha moment”: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” I love that, who said it?

Another post of yours I read this morning was “A Celebration of Survival!”, published on September 14, 2018. I can’t do this post justice in words, so I’m going to ask you to explain it. Explain to us what happened on September 14 [15 years ago].

You teamed up with Joel “Thor” Need, a fellow pilot and cancer survivor, to tell your story, accepted for publication by Elva, titled Survivor’s Obligation, I love that phrase, it’s beautiful [due out in the Fall of 2019. We will have Chris back on to discuss the book].

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Struggle is a big part of life, it makes us stronger and more vibrant.

We’ve talked about planning, VUCA, Debrief, Lessons Learned, what other strategies, principles, and practices, have you brought from the  military that apply to the business world?

One of the things I’ve incorporated into my presentations on After Action Reviews since our first interview with you, is you cite a statistic that there have been 325+ Thunderbirds, and the teams turnover 50% every two years, then after four months they are able to do an air show. Some teams in companies have been together years or decades, and can’t perform at anywhere near that level. That’s a real powerful message.

Ed tells the story of doing AARs with his kids over dinner, do you do the same with yours?

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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.