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Performance and Safety

Increasing performance and safety with a coaching approach

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Navy asked Performance Consultants to train their trainer on a coaching style of leadership to help a team of 16 men win the “the toughest team competition in the world.”

The way we did it before, we had one brain, and sixteen bodies, now we use seventeen brains.
Joe Gough, Trainer, Fleet Air Arm’s competition team

The Client

The Fleet Air Arm (FAA) is the aviation branch of the United Kingdom’s Royal Navy. It provides the Royal Navy with a multi-role airborne combat capability able to operate independently at short notice, in all environments, day and night, over the sea and land.

The Challenge

Every year the Fleet Air Arm enter a team into the Field Gun race, often described as “the toughest team competition in the world”. It is estimated that 15,000 men of the Royal Navy have taken part in the competition which requires immense strength, fitness, precision and teamwork to transport heavy artillery pieces over a series of obstacles. This competition is recognized at all levels of the British Army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force as embodying and championing the physical and mental courage, discipline, leadership and teamwork required as part of the moral component of military operational capability. This is a dangerous activity which usually results in many injuries in the 9-week training period – a very short time to learn complex and dangerous drills.

The trainer was looking to:

  • Maximize individual performance in training and competition
  • Maximize team performance in training and competition
  • Reduce the amount of injuries received during training and competition

The way we did it before, we had one brain, and sixteen bodies, now we use seventeen brains.
Joe Gough, Trainer, Fleet Air Arm’s competition team

Our Approach

Joe Gough, trainer for the Fleet Air Arm’s competition team, came to train in coaching skills with Performance Consultants. On the coaching course, Gough was skeptical of performance coaching. It seemed very soft compared to the military command-and-control leadership style he was used to. Nevertheless, he saw potential in coaching for safety for his team during 9 weeks of getting ready for the competition.

The myth that a modern person-centred coaching style of leadership exposes organizations to more risk than would an instructional approach was dispelled and Gough was provided with the evidence of huge safety benefits derived from coaching in any field.

The primary objective of coaching is to raise the awareness (of self and others) and the responsibility (for self and others) of the recipient. Awareness increases the quality and the quantity of the immediate input received in any activity and thereby delivers greater clarity about the action and the emotional reaction to the situation. These two sources of information enable the person to manage his or her responses more appropriately and effectively.

Responsibility is derived from the capacity to make the most inclusive and appropriate choices based upon the consequences of actions, as opposed to the more common indiscriminate fear reaction. Responsibility is developed because coaches ask questions that provoke thoughts and perceptions which inform decision-making but seldom prescribe actions. People who are unaccustomed to making decisions, and who seek instructions or affirmation, need to practise decision-making, starting, of course, with inconsequential ones and building to life-saving ones in the extreme.

On the course, Gough was provided with the fundamentals of coaching and how to use these in a way that increased individual’s awareness, increased responsibility, and created continuous improvements and a sustainable learning environment for the team during their complex and difficult Field Gun training.

The Results

Gough had the courage and conviction to bring his modern coaching leadership approach to the mix.

For the first time in the 100 years of the competition, Gough’s team of 16 men won all five cups, with almost no injuries during training and the competition – something that had been unheard of before. They repeated this achievement for the next two years! 

The fact that a coaching style of leadership inspires better performance than an instructing, controlling approach was also confirmed by what the team said:

“This was the first time that someone had asked our opinion and listened.”

“Joe was very approachable. He treated us like men”

“Instead of making excuses, there was a lot more honesty all round.”

After this event, Sir John Whitmore accepted an invitation to join the Army Training Advisory Board to help senior advisors in the military explore coaching for greater safety.

Reflections with Sir John Whitmore

Episode 10 | The GROW Model

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