Experience from the Front Line

This article appears in our Q1 2022 issue of Finance Transformation Magazine. To download the issue, click here

Mandy Hickson teaches business leaders how to navigate safely

Mandy Hickson was the second woman to fly the Tornado GR4 on the front-line for the Royal Air Force. Over 17 years of service she completed three tours of duty and flew 45 missions over Iraq in the run up to the second Gulf War. Until recently, she has continued to fly as a member of the Volunteer Reserve, and as a pilot with the Air Cadets' Air Experience Flight.

Like all combat pilots, Mandy was trained to make decisions under circumstances at the very limit of what human beings can cope with. And, uniquely, she has made a successful subsequent career using her experience to advise leaders in the private and public sectors.

Many of you will be thinking 'we are not in the aviation business so what does this have to do with me?' Mandy believes that decades of lessons, learned in a high-risk business such as aviation, can be applied to any organisation that works for or with people.

Human Factors training recognises that we all make mistakes but helps us deal with risk and reduce errors, giving us the tools to be more efficient and effective in our roles.

Her aim is to stimulate her clients to think in a new and subtle way, so that they can effectively and safely navigate through their business demands.

Aerial warfare is probably one of the fastest moving, most unpredictable environments that human beings can be subjected to. "Highly agile and dynamic," is how Mandy describes it, but it is also language common to the world of business, especially over the past 18 months- and that gives a clue as to how business leaders can learn from aviation.

The gravity of failure in business maybe less than in a theatre of war, but leaders must still deal with many rapidly changing variables, under considerable stress and pressure. The challenges they face may be very different, but the techniques used by military pilots in dealing with complex situations are far from irrelevant to the world of business.

Of course, in the most high-pressure scenarios, combat pilots rely on some of the most rigorous training delivered in any field. Mandy emphasises the value of that but, perhaps more interestingly, she speaks of the balance between being conditioned to react effectively in a split second - say, while being targeted by a missile system - and being taught to question your actions and reactions over subsequent hours.

The ability to think independently and in an agile fashion may perhaps be an aspect of military decision-making less obvious to the civilian mind - but it is the one most relevant to the world of business.

Aerial warfare and complex business scenarios may be very different, but both are too multifaceted to allow a conditioned response to every possible outcome. Both require the ability to quickly analyse, understand and respond to a rapidly-changing scenario.

'Situational awareness' is the aviation industry term for this, and one that Mandy speaks about with real enthusiasm. She also describes the DODAR tool (Diagnosis, Option, Decision, Action, Review) as a useful structure to support decision-making in a dynamic environment.

And it's the last of those steps that helps ensure that the quality of decision-making in an organisation increases over time.

Mandy has a slightly different way of thinking about how mistakes can be used as an opportunity for learning. For her, it's not about an absence of blame, but of ensuring responsibility and accountability.

"A blame culture is unsafe, because nobody speaks up about mistakes," she says emphatically, "but a no-blame culture is equally unsafe, because that says that no-one has responsibility for their actions."

"What an effective organisation does," she continues, "is understand that even the world's best professionals are still human beings, and that they will make errors.

"They will look for shortcuts, and fall away from ideal behaviours over time. But so long as we make it part of everyone's responsibility to share and analyse their mistakes, then together we can maintain and improve the systems that prevent catastrophe."

This is a theme that Mandy is passionate about. "For every one major event, you'll have on average 300 mistakes that have no ill effects - that's 300 opportunities to strengthen the systems you have in place, and help everyone perform at their best. Those opportunities are exciting. When I make a mistake like that, I can't wait to tell people about it, because it helps make everyone better at their jobs."

Mandy says this as an experienced pilot - she also talks with some feeling about how the culture has changed in the RAF; how as a young pilot she struggled to speak out about mistakes, and how she was a part of building a culture that has empowered even junior team members to speak up. This empowerment is key to the culture of effective decision making in aviation.

Not only are junior members of staff empowered to ask questions of their superiors' decisions, but they are empowered to make major decisions themselves, even in the most challenging circumstances. That's something that should have resonance for any leader in business, who wishes to build better decision-making skills within their team.

Mandy speaks with feeling on that point. "You have to trust the training and guidance that has been given, and trust that someone will perform - in the end, that's the only way to see if they have what it takes."

In Mandy's world, neither life-or-death situations nor major geopolitical outcomes are too important.

That's a long way from how most businesses operate, but it's clear that the benefits of doing so are huge. Nurturing leadership and decision-making skills throughout the hierarchy is a goal for almost all high-performing businesses.

About the interviewee: Mandy Hickson

Mandy is a highly demanded keynote speaker in the business and education sectors, where she talks with humour and great passion to inspire those around her. Author of 'An Officer, not a Gentleman' her inspirational journey as a pioneering female fighter pilot.