Justin Hughes is the Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy that helps clients build high-performance cultures. He built the business from a zero base; it now delivers consulting and training services around the world to organizations across the spectrum of commercial, public sector, not-for-profit and professional sport. Justin is also a renowned speaker on high performance, decision-making, risk and safety culture, and leadership. In addition to private client engagements, he has presented at a number of high-profile national and international events including the UK Institute of Directors’ Annual Convention and ‘Leaders in Dubai’.
Prior to founding Mission Excellence, Justin was a military fighter pilot with the UK Royal Air Force, becoming the Executive Officer of the Red Arrows, with whom he flew over 250 displays worldwide.
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We don’t get many authors with such an exciting background as yours – can you tell us what motivated your move from being a Red Arrows pilot to founding your own consultancy?
It wasn’t part of any grand design. It was always my intention to leave the RAF young enough to have a second career and the end of my time on the Red Arrows offered the perfect opportunity to leave on ‘a high’ (no pun intended!). However, I had no idea what I wanted to do. The most obvious route would have been to become a commercial pilot, and I did get my licence but my heart wasn’t in it, and I looked for other ways to leverage my skills and experience. I put some feelers out and was asked to deliver a couple of speaking engagements on high-performance teams. From there, one thing led to another and now we have a team of consultants delivering client programmes internationally.
From your work as a pilot, what would you say are the 3 key lessons you learned that can be applied to teams in more traditional work environments?
In my work as a pilot, I was part of a functional team, working within a wider a matrix organisation, where we had to deliver results in an environment characterised by ambiguity, pace of change, imperfect information and high consequences of bad decisions. If you ignore the pure flying bit and think of the job in those terms, you can see lots of common ground with other work environments. I learned a lot about ‘what works’. To highlight three key lessons:
1. Clarity in common purpose is critical to performance. Specifically, what are you trying to achieve AND WHY?
2. You get what you reward. Watch out for hoping for outcome A, while actually rewarding behaviour B.
3. High-performance organisations are ‘fast learning’ organisations. Without exception. If you don’t take time to review, learn and apply, prepare to make the same mistakes next time.
What do you think are the greatest challenges to high performance that organizations face in the future?
Technology and globalisation have offered the opportunity to build some very large organisations. Scaling up high performance is challenging. Processes and procedures, implemented with the best of intentions to maintain and improve efficiency, can take a toll on effectiveness through the victory of compliance over outcome. The means become the ends and people lose sight of what they are actually trying to achieve beyond compliance with internal process.
The same two factors produce another related challenge. The accessibility and utility of technology combined with deregulation and lowering of barriers to entry mean that ‘products’ are overtaken ever faster. Agility is key. The liberal and deferential use of terms like VUCA would make people think that this is a new challenge. However, the most successful organisations have employed empowerment and decentralised execution, at least as far back as the Roman Army. The problem may feel new, but only in business. The solutions have already been tested in the most demanding of environments.
There’s a lot of great insight and advice in The Business of Excellence, but what would you say is the one vital take-away that you think readers should gain from your book?
I think that different readers may focus on very different lessons and that is simply a function of what is most relevant to them individually. My own key take-away may be less obvious to the reader but underpins many of the other themes in the book and it is the value of objectivity and critical thinking. We live in a fast-moving world in which assumptions are not identified or tested, urgent is routinely prioritised over important, and short-term over long-term. High-performance requires us to deal in reality, understand the true consequences of our actions and to have the courage to do the right thing. There are 2 quotes within the book which I think are highly relevant to this theme:
“If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution” – Albert Einstein
“Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail” – Barack Obama
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