U.S. Air Force photo/Airman Connor J. Marth
Ehstoday 2124 Fighterpilot

Safety and Leadership Lessons for the Crane Industry from a Top Gun

June 4, 2015
Retired Air Force General Charles V. Ickes offered leadership lessons from his experience as an F-15 fighter pilot and two-star general at the annual meeting of Crane Institute Certification.

What do leaders in the Air Force and the crane industry have in common? As it turns out, quite a lot, according to retired two-star Air Force General Charles “Chuck” Ickes. Recently, Ickes spoke to nearly 40 crane industry leaders at the annual meeting of Crane Institute Certification (CIC) about his experiences as an F-15 fighter pilot in the Air Force and Air National Guard and later as a two-star General at the Pentagon.

Jim Headley, CEO and founder of CIC, invited Ickes to share some valuable leadership lessons learned through his many years of military service. CIC is an independent certifying organization providing OSHA recognized, NCCA accredited certifications for mobile crane operators according to type and capacity, as well as rigger and signalperson certifications.

During his remarks, Ickes described lessons learned in the key areas of training/education, safety, planning and change management. 

Training and Education, Part of the Military Culture

No other organization is better at training than the military, according to Ickes. Training is totally inbred in the military culture and it is integral in the crane industry. In the Air Force, training is ongoing, it is intense and it is endless.

The earlier training and education begins in a person’s life, the better-equipped professional you get, and ongoing evaluation and testing of skills and knowledge is necessary to keep everyone up to speed, said Ickes. Training and education continues on an ongoing basis throughout an Air Force career, regardless of rank or position. Continuing education develops well-rounded, adaptable individuals who learn and understand how all the pieces come together. Training and education are vital to ongoing individual and corporate growth and success.

Safety Is Paramount

Safety in the Air Force, as in the crane industry, is a foundational value. The Air Force focus on flight safety has three objectives, said Ickes: to protect the people who are flying, to protect the people on the ground and to protect the investment.

Each time a pilot flies, a safety briefing occurs an hour and a half prior to flight, and the first slide shown at every briefing reads, “Safety is Paramount!” After a 50-minute safety briefing, the pilot spends another 45 minutes getting his or her aircraft ready to fly. Everything always begins and ends with safety.  

Safety must be characteristic of the corporate culture, supported by clear policies and procedures. Assess risks in advance. Inspect equipment and practices for safety regularly. Investigate any safety incidents immediately and be actively involved in continuous process improvement. And perhaps most importantly, lead with and encourage honesty and integrity. General Ickes shared the following story illustrating the importance of integrity when it comes to safety:

“I was the commander of the flight unit and had just finished my initial F-15 training and was taking off to fly my first sortie from home base. My crew chief was a great guy I’d known for years. A few minutes into the flight a sheepish voice came on the radio and said, ‘Boss you need to return home.’ So we dumped some fuel and returned.”

“My crew chief was almost in tears as I came down the ladder and I asked him what had happened. The chief replied, ‘I realized after you left that I was missing a very important wrench.’ I asked, ‘So what’d you do then?’ He proceeded to tell me everything he had done and it was all by the book.

“I told him that it was all I needed to hear. The crew chief apologized profusely and I told him that he had done absolutely the right thing and then we figured out why it happened. He already knew and readily admitted it.

“At a meeting that night I made an example of the chief for how he did his job. Anybody that has that kind of integrity that has the wing commander flying his airplane and realizes he just launched him with a safety issue and then readily fesses up? That’s integrity.” 

Plan, Plan and Plan Again

Nothing happens without planning. It’s a truism in the military that all plans are good until war starts and then you throw them out the window. But in a military context or any other, the exercise of planning is inherently valuable, as it demands that you consider all aspects of what you are doing, from training to safety and more. It forces you into a routine, a system that makes you constantly reevaluate what you are doing and why you are doing it.

Another important consideration in the early stages of planning is to involve leadership early in the process to determine what the Air Force calls “commander’s intent.” In other words, know the boss’s intent from the get-go. Being clear about that will help clearly inform and guide planning and operational decisions. 

Lead Through Difficult Change

One of the biggest change processes in which Ickes was involved was BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure) beginning in 2005. He served on the Air Force BRAC Committee and faced some extremely difficult decisions that would affect 100,000 Air Force personnel.

Many people – including members of Congress – were shocked by the committee’s final recommendations. Their decisions changed nearly 30 percent of the entire Air Force in a 3-year period. The end result was quite successful, though the process was anything but easy.

What was the key to BRAC success? It was effective leadership at all levels, according to Ickes, who described the BRAC change process that took place at one base in Fargo, North Dakota drawing out some important leadership principles:  

“The base in Fargo had some of the finest fighter pilots in the USAF, with a perfect, incident-free safety record for 28 years straight. And we took their planes away from them and told them they were going to go into drones.”

“Now, if you tell a bunch of arrogant fighter pilots that they are now going to be drone pilots, you are not going to be their favorite person, but the decision had to be made because of the lack of airplanes for the future, lack of money and changes in technology. 

“After the shock wore off, we sat down collaboratively with base leadership and they did the best thing that could have happened. They stood up and said, ‘Listen, we didn’t want this change, but we’re going to deal with it and we’re going to become the best drone predator unit in the United States Air Force.’

“They then went to their staff and said, ‘Look, we can complain and say it isn’t fair and whatever else we want, but we don’t get that vote… We need to embrace change and figure this thing out.’

“We then asked them to come back to us with their ideas, and they came back with some surprising ideas about how they wanted to train, who they wanted to train and who they wanted to cross-train in various areas. For example, they took some young kids that were mechanics on the flight line and turned them into drone operators. 

“One of the senior officers in the Pentagon pushed back when he heard their plan, but we said, ‘Well boss, let us show you what this unit thinks they can do.’ Six months later, I joined him on a visit to that unit and he was impressed. He said, ‘They were smarter than we ever were. We sit up here in a glass house and think we know how to train, who to train, what to train. We’re not the experts!’

“To this day this unit is one of the best in the world and they fly drones 24 hours a day, seven days a week all around the world.  I give 100 percent of the credit for that success to the leadership of that unit.” 

Leading through times of significant and difficult change in any industry is challenging.  A few key leadership principles for success from Ickes include:

Lead with courage and determination – Change isn’t easy. Realize that you probably won’t have all the information, training or money you think you need to make needed changes. This was certainly true with BRAC. Hard decisions will have to be made that affect people’s lives. Don’t avoid difficult problems but attack them head on. Lead through change with courage. 

Communicate the vision – When you can give people at least a peek at the future, they don’t have to deal with so many daily unknowns during the change process and they will come along amazingly. Far fewer people quit during BRAC than originally estimated, in part because leadership at every level communicated the vision. 

Collaborate – Sit down face to face with those affected by the change and collaborate with them to develop an effective change plan. Give them opportunity to be actively involved in the change process. Listen to the input of those who are on the front lines. They are your experts. 

Get on board – Leadership takes place at every level, from the top executive to the front line staff. Those who choose to get on board with the new vision – whether they want the change or not – will be the ones who make the change successfully for themselves and the organization.

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