10 top business tips from former Red Arrows pilot, Justin Hughes

PUBLISHED: 21:49 21 February 2017 | UPDATED: 21:49 21 February 2017

Justin Hughes is an expert in organising businesses effectively

Justin Hughes is an expert in organising businesses effectively


Former UK Royal Air Force military fighter and executive officer of the Red Arrows, Richmond-based Justin Hughes knows a thing or two about building a formidable team. Here he reveals his top tips

A shot from Justin's days with the Red ArrowsA shot from Justin's days with the Red Arrows

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2017


1. Focus on skills AND attitude. High-performance teams do not prioritise skills OR attitude. Both are non-negotiable. Best-in-class skills are a binary entry requirement but also, to quote a rather unusual HR policy: ‘no brilliant jerks!’ In the Red Arrows selection process, passing the flying test is mandatory, but the point of difference is people who put the team first.

2. Transform values into action. Enron had values. All the banks who got the multi-million pound fines have values. The point of team or corporate values is not the words, but what they look like as observable behaviours. Senior people must consistently role model them and non-compliance must have consequences.

3. Set clear direction. It is a common feature of most, if not all, high performance environments that everybody understands, in clear simple terms, what success looks like. In large organisations, in particular, make sure people really know WHAT they are trying to achieve and WHY. You want efficiency and effectiveness, but they are sometimes very different. Efficiency is an internal measure of ‘how’. It is irrelevant if it precludes delivering the external effect, the ‘what’.

4. Make outcomes more important than compliance or activity. That is not to dismiss compliance. However, you will inevitably get what you reward. If the ‘measure’ is activity, effort or a key performance indicator, then that is what you will get, irrespective of the final outcome. Don’t confuse means with ends.

5. Set people free. High-performance is a choice, not something you can mandate. For complex tasks, it is impossible to micro-manage them. Agree what, why and when by, and delegate ownership of how.

6. Plan for success. And then understand that no plan survives first contact with the customer/environment/competitor. To quote Eisenhower: ‘…plans are useless but planning is indispensable.’ It’s the thought and effort that you put into planning which is the important thing. It will never work out like you planned. What’s plan B?

7. Communicate the plan clearly (and the contingencies!). Planning is a team game. Briefing the plan back is a leader game. At some point, the discussion, brainstorming and constructive challenge have to stop and the team needs to align behind a single course of action.

8. Set clear priorities for execution. Keep it simple! The more complex your environment is, the simpler the priorities need to be. Things become confusing in the fog, which occurs when plans collide with the real world. What’s the ball you can’t afford to drop?

9. Fail fast and fix. The ability to learn fast, and apply that learning equally quickly, is the single biggest driver of performance in the most successful teams and organisations. The key is a no-blame culture of learning, but do not confuse no-blame with no-accountability. Someone needs to be responsible for fixing.

10. Give up the illusion of control. The long-term solution to most performance issues is cultural. Build it and they will come. Success breeds success.


Justin Hughes is the founder and managing director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy that specialises in accelerating organisational effectiveness. He is the author of The Business of Excellence, published by Bloomsbury.

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