SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Effecting change doesn’t have to come in one fell swoop. It can often happen with small changes, improving upon what’s already in place.
Lt. Col. Mitchell Cok, 88th Fighter Training Squadron commander, used that approach to influence an adjustment within the squadron that places an emphasis on developing its people. He said using different forms of motivation and encouragement, focusing on excellence in fighter training and a leadership guide has aided in the positive transformation.
Those efforts led to Cok being selected as one of 17 individuals recognized as a 2017 PACE Leadership Impact Award recipient. The Profession of Arms Center of Excellence and Air University Leadership Institute award recognizes the efforts of civilian and military Airmen as well as teams that have a positive impact on their organization and strengthens the Air Force’s culture.
“We had a phenomenal organization to begin with, so this was a very healthy organization doing great things before I even showed up,” the commander said. “But as we focused in these areas, yeah, I think we’ve seen incremental changes.”
Cok said the 88th FTS, and the Air Force in general, is mission oriented and focused. But, he said, missions don’t complete themselves. It takes a team of skilled people to make sure the mission is completed in the best and most efficient manner. That’s why encouraging people to lead is one of the first areas of focus for change, he said. By doing so, he said it gets people excited to go out and excel at their specific function.
The squadron faced some of its lowest manning levels it has seen in roughly three years, Cok said, but the demand on training NATO combat pilots didn’t let up to match the shortfall, making it easy for instructor pilot burnout to happen. The commander said keeping a focus on motivation and the culture of the squadron to keep people engaged and excited about going to work.
For instructor pilots, that means getting creative with their development. The commander said that included taking a break and spending time together as a cadre as well as a little friendly competition – a turkey shoot that pits IPs against one another in the training curriculum they teach their students.
“It’s similar in many ways to what they got to do when they were flying grey jets back in the Combat Air Force flying fighters,” he said. “We also recently found opportunities to go TDY (temporary duty assignment) to support dissimilar air combat training.”
The IPs are also mentor junior officers through Wingmen 102, an opportunity for experienced pilots to pass on their knowledge and expectations to those just learning their craft. Cok said it gives IPs the chance to “motivate and teach outside the syllabus.”
Maintaining a commitment to excellence in flying training and a willingness to share mistakes have also improved the 88th FTS. Cok said if someone does make a mistake, they can take it to him, share with the squadron and “debrief without blame” so others don’t make the same error. He said those “lessons learned” sessions happen on a monthly basis.
The result, he said, has been safer operations in the 88th FTS and healthier and better instructor pilots.
“That’s the core that makes us good at what we do,” Cok said. “The mentality that instructor pilots take and their abilities and their willingness to debrief themselves in front of the students as well as debriefing the students is what makes us good. And that’s a tradition the fighter pilot culture has always had, but we try to take that and run with it.”
Communicating with the squadron as also been an integral agent of change in the squadron. Cok said he developed an 88th FTS Lucky Devils Leadership Guide that gets everyone on the same page with him in regards to the squadron’s mission, their focus and goals. The guide also lays out to those in the squadron his leadership philosophy and specific training events that affect flying training that must be reported to him that same day it happens.
Cok, himself a 2002 graduate of the Euro-NATO Joint Jet Pilot Training program, said the changes that he has implemented are not earth shattering. It just takes a renewed focus on the mission and making people feel appreciated for their efforts. It’s the small things, he said, that has led to big results.
While some may say leadership is a top-down enterprise, it’s often the reverse that leads to success.
“The more I empower people to take an initiative and run with it, the more I am amazed at what they’re able to do and how they’re able to think of ways of accomplishing tasks that I haven’t even considered,” he said. “If anything, it’s enabled me to micromanage less and empower people more and leverage the ideas that other people have.”
The 2017 PACE awards focused on people and organizations that developed leadership in learning environments that accelerated growth in decision making. Recipients of the award are invited to attend a three-day industry-sponsored leadership academy in June.