I was immediately asked, “What do you want, student filth?”.
“Some milk please; we have run out in our crew room” I asked hopefully. The reply was not unexpected: “Well you know where the NAAFI is don’t you?!”.
It was not uncommon to be summoned by a squadron tannoy with words to the effect of “stude for a job”; often this job was to get milk for the Instructors’ crew room fridge.
This was RAF basic flying training in the early 1990s. Instructors and students split by less than 2 ranks; but they were a world apart in experience. Learning checklists and Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), armchair flying a sortie (‘visualising’ as it is now called by high performing athletes), more checklists, and formation practice on bicycles in the car park (early simulation) were the norm for us studes. We stuck to the checklists, flew the brief, and at times scared ourselves on solo flights.
Me during basic flying training!
Fast forward to Friday night of the same week as my encounter with the flying instructor. “It’s YOU!” the student filth informs the instructor in the bar. The instructor exits stage left to the Mess reception to call home, which was on the married patch on the other side of the airfield. His loved one was informed that their home was about to be invaded by both instructors and students for a night of socialising, telling stories, and trying to avoid spillage on the carpets and furniture. “Knives and boots at the door!” was the clear instruction as we crossed the threshold, armed with various gifts in the form of bottles and cans.
This relationship – and home invasion – will be familiar to many aircrew who cut their teeth in this era, and it was an important relationship to maintain. A clear, respectful, professional divide, with an open channel for mentoring in the form of storytelling and sharing experience. Not just sharing experience in the cockpit, but on the front line, on operations, on life in the service – and we listened to those instructors and what they had to tell us. But the world and way of life was changing.
Fast forward to the early naughties. That student filth had been instructing on an Operational Conversion Unit in the North of Scotland, and was now deployed once more to sunnier climes on the frontline. I’d had my fair share of scares and scrapes in training and on operations. I’d lost too many colleagues to training accidents, and 2 more from the Squadron on operations. Every time there was an accident or near miss, we listened. The RAF had become significantly smaller. The operational commitments had become more demanding – tactically, technically, and pastorally. Time away continued to increase. Demands on time at the home plate, and in the home, continued to increase. And the pattern of life was changing. Happy hours weren’t well attended, more people lived off base, Specialist Aircrew were few and far between, and most ground-crew and students were better academically qualified than me!
Transiting over the desert
Fast forward to the early teenies. The student filth was running a fast jet Operations Wing, providing support to a Squadron deployed on operations in Afghanistan, 16 aircraft and crews deployed to Italy on operations in the Mediterranean, and 10 aircraft and crews on high readiness to fly 8 hour operational missions from the UK. The RAF was smaller still and was more reliant on technology than ever before. The pressures to deliver professionally, and maintain a family life had increased to almost breaking point. People had become our most important and fragile resource. More than ever my fellow commanders and I listened to our teams. Resources were fewer than ever, but people often offered the only solution. The ‘career’ had morphed to become more of a ‘job’ for Millennials, and yet we were demanding more of them. SOPs and training had become more important than ever, but the SOPs needed to change, the training needed to be updated. Practice live weapon loading, programming and testing, develop interoperability SOPs and analyse live missions before a few hours away from work for a short respite.
Fast forward a few years. Civvy street. New challenges, new paradigm, new communities, new people. The student filth was still on a steep learning curve but now one of the oldest in the team, and definitely one of the least academically qualified. Some of the challenges were different: business proposals, engagement risk, profit and loss, margin, billing, taming the grey hair. But other pressures were familiar in some companies. Deadlines, long hours, changing demands, reducing budgets, unwavering quality of output, the need for new processes, fresh training, testing, and people. And I listened. I listened to understand and learn from colleagues. But most importantly I listened to clients to hear what might actually be needed. Listening provides intelligence. Intelligence allows sound decision making. And hopefully my previous experience in civvy street will stand me in good stead in my brand new role with Inzpire.
Our ears are a sensor that can sometimes be too easily under-utilised. Transmitting is sometimes inappropriate, especially on social media. But like our modern weapons systems, listening is key, not just to learn, but to inform decision making in ever-reducing time scales to deliver ever more focused effect. Listening is a human skill, but humans are more frequently becoming the limiting factor for success. The majority of cyber-attacks occur through human failings in either training or processes. The performance envelopes and endurance of our platforms can be limited by human requirements. But even in this age of artificial intelligence, business success and problem solving still has a heavy dependence on relationships, and being listened-to provides reassurance that the transmission has been heard and understood.
As military veterans, we’ve had to adapt to new threat environments and requirements. I don’t drink milk. We’ve had to lead and command, but more importantly we’ve had to listen. This skill is key in business, alongside leading and delivering, especially if the SOPs and checklists are unfamiliar. Providing a quality service on time with limited resources sometimes requires technical skills and specialist knowledge. But most importantly it requires people to be understood. Listening, when combined with a wealth of experience is a powerful combination to assist our clients with their business and operational challenges. This combination is actively sought by Inzpire to ensure we continue to revolutionise our support to defence.