January 06, 2022

Guy Snodgrass — Fmr. TOPGUN Instructor and Communications Director & Chief Speechwriter for Secretary of Defense

Dana Safa

1Huddle Podcast Episode #70

On this Bring It In podcast episode, 1Huddle’s CEO and Founder Sam Caucci sat down with Guy Snodgrass, retired U.S. Navy fighter pilot and former TOPGUN Instructor who went on to become a communications director and speechwriter. Snodgrass is also the author of books Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon with Secretary Mattis and TOPGUN’S TOP 10: Leadership Lessons from the Cockpit, which recounts his time as one of the most skilled fighter pilots in the U.S. Navy.

On this episode of Bring It In season two, Guy sat down with Sam and discussed how to give effective feedback, adjust your leadership strategies, and the key elements to leading your team to success.


Audio available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google Podcasts. 

TOP 3 HIGHLIGHTS

Below are some of the insights Snodgrass shared during our chat, edited for length and clarity. You can find more Bring It In podcast episodes here.

  • “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.”
  • “Don’t wait to make a friend until you need one.”
  • “You better be leading by example.”

FULL TRANSCRIPTION

Sam: Maybe a good place to start off, Guy, that we can tell the audience a little bit about yourself. 

Guy: Yeah, thanks Sam. So it’s great to be with you on the show, and I’ve had a really interesting and diverse career, and I’ve been very thankful for that, quite frankly. It’s been about 24 total years in the US Navy. I was really lucky to have a chance to kind of live my dream if you will. I’ve spent a vast majority of that time as a fighter pilot, and have gone through various levels of seniority. I had a chance to be a TOPGUN instructor at the real TOPGUN school in Fallon, Nevada for a few years, had two tours of duty overseas with Japan, ran my own fighter squadron, and then also had two tours of duty in Washington, D.C. as a communications director and speechwriter. First time for the head of the United States Navy, and then the second time for the head of the department of defense secretary, Jim Mattis

And so, you know, not only was it the roles that I was very lucky to find my way into, and of course the senior leaders and mentors that you cross paths with in those roles, but it was also, especially in that last job with defense secretary Mattis, we traveled the world. We’re seeing so many leaders from so many different countries. You’re really on an accelerated path to learn what works well when it comes to leadership and guiding very large enterprises all the way down to much smaller enterprises.

And then also some areas that you can learn from those who may be doing things that were not used to here in the United States. So I thought it was great to have that kind of breadth of exposure to leadership, organizational dynamics change. And that has helped me when I did my transition from uniform service in 2018 and joined the private sector, they really helped accelerate not only my personal pathway, but also to help others as they were finding their way along that leadership path as well.

And I think two items of note for your listeners, I’d had a chance shortly after I retired to write a book about my experience in the Pentagon with Secretary Mattis, and then I followed that up a year later with another book, my second book about leadership and the skills that leaders who tend to succeed well over time will routinely follow, right? Because of that depth of experience, that breadth of experience say, okay, well being exposed to so many different leaders who are very successful, what are those key traits and characteristics that we can all learn to help us improve in our own walk and in our performance, especially as leaders, when you have men and women, depending on you and your performance.

Sam: I guess, without giving away a lot of the second book, because that’s on my shelf and if I were to show it to you, it’s all ripped up cause I buy massacre books when I go through them with highlights and notes. So, but the TOPGUN Top 10, any of the leadership qualities or traits that you talked about in that book that you feel are more important than ever right now? Or is there like one or two that you would pinpoint given the moment?

Guy: Sure. Well, you know, it’s interesting when you say given the moment, because we’re really in a period of transition, right? We had the very unexpected transition to remote and hybrid workforce in about mid say, 2020 and extended into mid 2021 with coronavirus. And so everyone had to really shift.

In fact, if you’re a large organization or even if you’re a smaller one, I mean your IT director or your CIO were kind of the rock stars, if they did it well, because they helped get all their employees able to work virtually and remotely from their homes, which was critical. Now we’re in this period of transition where companies need to be able to survey the landscape, determine what kind of model works best for their employees as they move forward, where are they going to get the best levels of creativity, where are they going to get the best levels of productivity from them? And many companies are finding that it’s not all in person. There can be a mix of hybrid and remote work that can be permitted. And in some cases they find that there’s a lot of savings attached to that because you don’t have to maintain the costly infrastructure of as much office space as you had before. But there’s also those productivity gains because people are spending more time actually considering the challenges that they need to pursue rather than, say commuting to and from a car or in public transit.

So when I think about my book TOPGUNs Top 10, some of the lessons that really come to mind from my background and experience, I mean the very first chapter kind of says it all, nothing worthwhile is ever easy. Anytime you’re faced with a challenge, of course, we all know that’s also an opportunity, but man, it takes hard work. It takes dedication. It takes that relentless pursuit of excellence in order to get to a good result. And so you’ve got to put in those hours, you’ve got to put in the time. And I think that leads to another lesson from a book that really stands out, especially during this period of time. And that is don’t wait to make a friend until you need one.

And I think so many of us have found this to be true in the last year that the more diverse your personal and professional network is the more resources you have to draw upon, really helps to position you to catapult forward during this period of opportunity as the economy is reopening, as everything’s getting back to full tilt, there’s so many best practices out there. There are so many people who’ve had unique experiences and the more you’re having these conversations, the more you can draw together a very diverse network of individuals, predominantly ones you don’t share your same background or experience, is fantastic because it’s a great way to accelerate your knowledge base. And then you can take better care, if you are in a leadership position, you can take better care of those you lead and also help propel your organization to greater outcomes in the future. 

Sam: One of the stories in the book that caught my attention was the one about, you had just come out of a training exercise, one of the dog fights, and you’re up against your evaluator, and you had talked about how hard it was, because again, you were in this exercise against someone who was more experienced than you and I think you said thousands, maybe thousands of more hours of flight time than you.

I’m interested to know what it’s like in a debrief after an exercise like that. What goes through your head or what went through your head in that type of situation? And I ask it from the frame of mind of how many managers and leaders today, to your point, have to be comfortable having difficult conversations with team members as they’re trying to level up.

Guy: Yeah. I agree. One of the best techniques I learned when I was still in uniform came from a chaplain who was working with me to help provide advice and support, not only to the leaders on board the aircraft carrier, but all the thousands of sailors and the men and women who were serving, and the lesson he kind of gave me, which I think has served me very well, both in and out of uniform was, approach people with that love sandwich.

Start off with something positive. Draw them into the conversation. You spend the middle part discussing maybe the areas of concern or areas for some additional professional growth. And then of course you end with, again, that positive aspect. And I found that that tends to work really well. One thing that I have been surprised by, and it took me quite a bit of time to adjust to when I left uniform and entered the private sector was frankly, the sheer hesitancy or fear for a lot of managers and leaders to have those types of tough conversations. 

And that’s unfortunate because it’s not good for you as a leader, it’s not good for your organization because you’re certainly not getting positive outcomes, and it’s terrible for the person in question, because a lot of times people will kind of tip toe around any perceived shortfalls and performance rather than tackling the problem respectfully, but tackling it head-on.

And that’s something, to your question about debriefs coming out of the cockpit, it’s an incredibly dynamic situation. There are plenty of egos and the aviation career path, as you might expect, a bunch of fighter pilots running around and everyone wants to be number one, everyone wants to be the best, and of course not everyone can be. And so that’s what I thought was very beneficial from the way we debrief was that we made it as a kind of apolitical, if you will. I mean, we always took people’s personal names out of it. 

We just used call signs that you were assigned, and that helped take some of the sting off. And you knew that regardless of how tough that debrief was, it was because the overall mission was to a) get closer to success the next time you go fly, and b) to personally improve, to meet your fullest potential. And so, again, I’ve seen this time and time again. And in fact, when I do a lot of executive coaching today, I will work with those leaders to help them become more comfortable and more confident during times of perceived conflict, because it doesn’t have to be a very difficult conversation, but sometimes I think nobody wants to be the bearer of what may be perceived as bad news. And frankly, what you find is that when you are willing to have a very positive, open conversation about ways that an individual, you bring them solutions for how they can improve, 99 times out of a hundred, they really want that. They’re seeking that kind of fulfilling feedback and then they’ll take positive steps to improve. So that’s something I think that I really learned from debriefs that has carried over very well into the private sector. 

Sam: I believe you went on to be an instructor, correct?

Guy: That’s right. Yeah. So not only when I was relatively junior in my career path, as a fighter pilot, I had a chance not only to go through as a student to TOPGUN and go through their training course, but then subsequently was invited to remain on board for the next couple of years as an instructor.

And so now you’re kind of part of that elite team, considered the best of the best. And you’re given the opportunity to teach all the other students coming through. And, yeah, it was a great experience because not only did you have to become very good as a student, but then you have to maintain that level and that edge to be able to teach everyone else who’s coming in behind you.

Sam: It was interesting because I guess the reason they do that and correct me if I’m wrong, is that essentially the instructors, they have a major advantage over everybody else given the amount of times they’ve been through the same exercise over and over, and I can’t help but think, in all of the conversations I’ve had with certain HR leaders who we talk about how difficult training should be, and there’s a perspective that training should not be too difficult because it might de-motivate someone. There’s gotta be the right balance of making things easy enough in order to keep people interested. What have you learned there, or even on the private sector side, or what is your perspective on how difficult maybe training should be when you’re skilling or coaching someone up?

Guy: I’m actually gonna use a response that TOPGUN instructors are well-known for. And that is, it depends. I mean, it really does depend on one, what type of leader are you, what are you naturally comfortable with as far as the leadership style? I think more importantly, it really depends on what kind of organization you have or do you want it to be, and that’s going to define your approach.

Because you do see a lot of companies, commercial companies, Amazon always comes to mind, Tesla, of course, Apple, you know, those are technology-centric companies, but they’ve been known to have senior leaders or CEOs that have a strong reputation for being a pretty tough boss to please. Probably high standards and they don’t suffer fools.

And so on the one hand you could say, well, gosh, that’s such a tough place to be, it’s a dog-eat-dog world. But then of course, that’s the type of, if you will, the elite environment that they’ve created, they’re attracting like-minded individuals who are seeking that challenge and who want to find their own personal level of performance. And so they feel like that’s the place to be. And, even if they don’t last for more than a few years, they’ve gained valuable skills and then they spin-off to something else that’s even more perhaps fulfilling or enriching. And so, it all depends. I mean, sometimes you might find yourself in an industry that doesn’t need to innovate as quickly or move as fast.

So you really have to take, I think, a hard look as a leader. You really need to accurately define what your core strengths are as an organization, what you strive to be, and dial up or dial back that kind of thermostat, according to what you’re trying to achieve. If you’re getting mediocre results and you stick with the status quo, that there’s no reason in the world you shouldn’t expect to continue to get mediocre results. On the other hand you could say, well, we’ve identified some areas where we could really improve and let’s go ahead and start to dial that thermostat up and start to challenge our people. And I think you can get really positive results. 

And that kind of leads me, regardless, think about your ship. There’s three key elements that I think about there. The first one is that I’ve already mentioned the strategy. The second one I deem inclusion and the third one is execution, because the strategy needs to be there. If you don’t have a strategy, if you don’t have a plan for why you’re actually carrying out these different things and the decisions you’re making, then you’re fairly rudderless and your organization will suffer.

The second step, I mean, you could be the strongest leader in the world who has a very clear vision and strategy for what you want to achieve, but I would always recommend that you value inclusion because you want to bring in people who have more knowledge than you. They’re incredibly talented, they’re very good at their specific jobs and they can advise you. They can say, this is the strategy you want to achieve, but the way you had initially planned to get there is actually going to cause more friction, it’s going to cost you more money, more time. Here are ways you can accelerate that path or perhaps bring people along for the ride a little bit easier than what you’d planned.

And of course that last step for every organization is execution, the ability to actually carry out the tasks that are required, taking maybe a long multi-year strategy and turning it into very small bite sized chunks that everyone can get behind and you can show those accomplishments.

So I think sometimes leaders may be surprised, but they can actually really raise the bar. They can challenge their workforce based on status quo and what may be perceived as an extreme and significant change from where they had been. But when you break it into those bite-sized chunks and you can start showing how you are arriving at success and you can show those quick wins, and I think it’s easy to start to build that buy-in from your team. 

Sam: I’m a big Alabama football fan. I don’t know if that offends you or not. 

Guy: Not at all, man. I actually use Nick Saban as a training aid when I was the TOPGUN instructor.

Sam: Very cool. That’s a good example. I want to ask you about changes in the generation of workers, because I think about a guy like coach Saban, who, it seems like as time changes, he continues to adapt and be able to connect and adjust the way he coaches. I don’t know. He has, without violating his own core values or standards. From your seat, like where do you think the opportunities are? Because it’s so often organizations complain about millennials or now we have gen Z workers coming into the workforce. Where do you think the opportunities are for leaders with the next wave of young people that are going to be the majority of the workforce in the next few years?

Guy: I think there are a few things at play there. You talked about Coach Saban. Now you have to remember, he’s got assistant coaches, he’s got others who probably in a more direct fashion are interacting with the student players on a much more routine basis. So I think part of your element as a senior leader is to empower those that are reporting directly to you and ensuring that they’re managing those relationships. 

I think the other element too, and I think we can all agree that whether it’s Coach Saban or anybody else who has a reputation for finding continual success, it’s not because they changed their standards based upon the difference in personalities or differences in generations. I think the standards are always the standard, and that’s the beauty of our system of government, it’s the beauty of America, if you will, and other free countries is that look, you’ve obviously performed at a level that’s going to get you into our program, whether that’s a company, that’s a school, that’s a team. But you have to demonstrate continued excellence and continued performance to stay here. And that the choice is yours. You know, you can either do those reps and sets and really rise to the challenge, or you can complain and you can find ways to not do that, and then, well, maybe this isn’t the best fit for you.

But I think that goes back to my earlier comment that a lot of these organizations that make it clear they want to be excellent at what they do, not only do they attract excellent players, but they also have a system in place that’s going to coach them up and help get them the resources they need to achieve success.

And so I think, regardless of what type of organization you have, the opportunity I’d say is twofold. The first is for leaders. It’s always lead by example. If you are asking something from those you lead, like Hey, I need you to work a few extra hours, I need you to change the process by what you’re doing, well, you better be leading by example. And I think when you do, you’re going to find a lot more buy-in, especially when you do so in a very vocal and visible way. 

The other element too is to not necessarily push back against a change in perspective, but embrace it. And a lot of times when I do executive coaching, I share some of the stories from my time as a senior leader in the U.S. military.

And how I would have very young, when you think about the average age of those who serve in the military, it’s probably somewhere between 18 and 23. And so they’re coming in with a very different perspective, but it’s a valuable perspective because they may see an approach that you hadn’t even thought of.

So in a lot of ways you can embrace that change and look for ways to cultivate an environment where people are willing to challenge the status quo respectfully, but not necessarily say, Hey, I’m just going to do the same thing I’ve always done because that’s how we’ve always done it here.

And I think as a leader, you should want to embrace that opportunity to constantly be refreshing, constantly be looking at the organization and finding out if there are ways to optimize, to lessen the burden on your people, to save money or to save time as you’re moving forward.

Sam: I got one last question for you, and thank you for your service. Your story and the rooms you’ve been in with leaders ]globally is something that I’m sure the organizations you work with get some awesome experiences and learnings from. I want to ask about the future of work. It’s not just something we’re thinking about domestically, but globally work shifting and changing is real. And I just want to ask what your hope is for the future of work. 

Guy: Yeah. That’s an interesting question because I think it’s probably purposefully broad and somewhat vague. Right? So it’s kind of, where do I want to take this? I think that something we’ve seen over the course of the last decade or two is the increasing rise of automation. You see a lot of computated, I mean the data is being collected at a massive rate. We’ve got significant amounts of computing power. Everyone’s starting to read more and more about the advent of artificial intelligence and the role that can play for any type of organization.

And I think that’s a very exciting time because there’s always going to be a little bit of a latent concern that wow, if this computer or this algorithm in this case is coming in and is going to potentially perform the same role that I was doing in my job, what does that mean for me? And I think what’s exciting about that is that you can start to outsource some of the very menial tasks that people frankly don’t like about their job to an algorithm, to a computer. And then you can elevate those individuals and to roles that require critical human thought, because there’s really two paths that artificial intelligence has gone down. There’s general purpose artificial intelligence, which frankly, we don’t really have today, that’s kind of that mindset of a robot or a computer that can basically do everything like a person can.

What we’re really good at though is specific use artificial intelligence. That’s an algorithm that can, say for example, take in, we call it ingest, but it can take in a lot of data about insurance claims, for example, and then run calculations against it and give the companies a much better way of determining risk or determining who should get a policy, et cetera.

You know, that’s something that would take people, thousands and thousands and thousands of hours to accomplish. So there are ways I think to offload some of the most menial, most mundane tasks to automate those so that you can really put people to work where humans perform best, and that’s with critical thinking skills and really thinking a little bit more about automating, how do we actually move our organization forward? What are the strategic steps we can take? They’re going to enable us to really make a difference. And I think that’s the exciting thing that we’re going to see, continue to play out. It’s not going to be a one-year, two-year thing, you know, over the next 5, 10, 20 years, but you will see that continue to make its way into organizations and into the workforce.

I think that’s incredibly exciting, and what that’s really going to require in I think areas, where employers need to continue to invest, is developing that agile workforce, a workforce that’s adaptive that has access to training that has access to continue to get that recurring educational training so that they are prepared to make that kind of transformation and leap into the future.

Sam: Guy, thanks for taking some time. 

Guy: Yeah, absolutely. Sam. It’s great to be with you. Thanks for your time.

Topics Discussed: Leadership, Automation, Competition, Coaching, Feedback, Practice

Dana Safa, Manager of Digital Marketing at 1Huddle

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