Managing the Turbulence of COVID-19: Advice From a Former Fighter Pilot

Joel “Thor” Neeb

The past few months have seen countless business gurus weigh in with words of wisdom on how companies can navigate the economic and organizational upheaval of the ongoing pandemic. But even with their many decades of experience, few of those experts have ever confronted the kind of high-stakes, life-or-death decision-making that a combat fighter pilot faces every day.

That’s why the perspective that Afterburner Inc. CEO Joel “Thor” Neeb brought to his recent webinar “Secrets to Making the Right Strategic Shifts During the COVID-19 Crisis” was a little bit different from what most leaders are probably used to hearing in a typical Zoom education session. Neeb, a former F-15 pilot and trainer (and a popular past keynote speaker at the PRIME Symposium), spent an hour detailing the first of what he calls the three A’s to responding in a crisis: (1) Assess, (2) Align and (3) Act with Agility.

The insights Neeb passed along came from what he militarily referred to as a SITREP, or situation report, which involves virtual debriefs consisting of hundreds of interviews with company leaders to find out what went right during a crisis, what went wrong and what should be done differently the next time. A crucial component of every mission he flew, Neeb noted that these types of debriefs were critical in helping his pilots understand how to do their jobs more efficiently and effectively, with the feedback being used to shape plans and tactics for future missions.

Among the takeaways from the Afterburner debriefs Neeb thinks leaders should consider as they steer their companies through this pandemic – and whatever comes next – are the following:

Team Morale: Those leaders who rated their team morale as average to above average, even amid the personal and professional chaos of the past several months, tended to be fronting successful organizations. The important thing to keep an eye on going forward, however, is that ongoing team morale is not something that can be taken for granted – leaders need to make sure those good feelings and positive contributions continue as the crisis drags on.

Individual Morale: Here again, leaders of organizations that were doing a good job amid the pandemic reported average to above average morale among individual team members. And, here again, that morale is something that will need to be closely monitored going forward.

Virtual Working: Almost every company has had to pivot – quickly and often with little lead time – to working remotely. And while 87% of leaders felt they had been successful in making that transition within their organizations, Neeb raised an important question to ask: How are clients doing with the same transition? It’s easy, in other words, to think the move to virtual working has been a big success based on what one sees within his or her own company. But if you’re not paying attention to how your clients are doing during this time, you’re probably missing the bigger picture.

Uncovering Threats: While 80% of leaders have noticed new threats to their companies during the pandemic, the flip side of that statistic is that 50% have discovered new opportunities as well. Neeb gave the example of a uniform manufacturer that was facing massive losses as the world shifted to work-from-home staffs, but was able to quickly and deftly reimagine its operations to start cranking out much-in-demand face masks.

The Competition: A majority of leaders (52%) did not believe their competitors were outperforming them during the crisis, but 26% thought they were and 22% simply didn’t know. It’s those latter groups Neeb says need to get moving – and quickly – noting that it’s more important now than ever to pay attention to competitors in order to make sure your organization is keeping pace or staying one step ahead.