How to Connect Your Team With the Mission

Posted 08.09.2012

Yesterday I had the opportunity to work with a group of senior executives from the U.S. Department of Defense and a few other Federal agencies to engage in some “applied science” around leading at the next level. It was a great group with a lot of perspective and some fascinating stories to share.

One of the execs was a fellow named Jerry Gandy who is the director of Mission Assessment and Analysis for the United States Strategic Command. Jerry actually goes by the name of Indy which was his call sign when he was piloting F-15 Eagle fighter jets in his first career as an Air Force officer. Indy and I spent a lot of time during breaks talking about books we’ve been reading and sharing ideas on what works in leadership.

We agreed that one of the best ways to get team members excited and engaged about their work is to help them see how what they do matters. Indy had a great example of how he did that when he was the commander of an F-15 operations support squadron.

There were 140 people in Indy’s squadron, only a handful of whom actually flew the jets. The rest of the team were the people who made it possible for the Eagles to get in the air. When you have fighter pilots in the mix, it could be pretty easy for there to be a disconnect between the people who have the exciting job of flying the planes and everybody else who doesn’t. Indy made sure that didn’t happen through a process he called “Petting the Eagle.”

Indy told me that he wanted everyone on his team to have the same sort of spiritual connection with his jet that he felt when he flew it. To get them there, he invited everyone on his team from the lowest ranking person on up to come out on the flight line, walk around the Eagle, feel it and sit in the cockpit. He would talk with each individual about how what they did every day contributed to the squadron’s mission of delivering world class air superiority. He would drive them around the base and the perimeter of the airfield during flight operations to point how what they did made everything possible. He repeated this process every month with the newest members of the team.

Of course, it’s not just U.S. Air Force squadrons that need every member of the team to feel a personal connection to the mission. As I wrote earlier this year in a post on GE Aviation, every organization needs that. One of the great creative challenges of a leader is to figure out a way to help people make that connection.

How do you do it? Start with the purpose of the organization and work your way back. Break it down for people in tangible ways so they can literally see and feel how what they do matters.

If you’re a leader what have you done to help your team feel the connection? What’s the most effective thing you’ve ever seen a leader do to help team members see their contribution to the bigger purpose?