Colonel JV Venable (USAF, Ret.) has more than a story to relate. JV has the experience of leading in challenging situations and working through life tests. No path is easy, and it was no different for JV. Graduating from USAF’s Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) and leading a combat group of 1,100 airmen in the Persian Gulf produces meaningful experiences to embrace and engage.
Through his experiences, we gain a perspective on how to build and sustain trust. As important is we learn how to close gaps to create better teams, better results, and better culture.
Taking trust seriously is very important. In the 2016 Edelman Trust Barometer, the results reveal “the largest ever trust gap (12 points) between the informed public and mass population, driven by income inequality and divergent expectations of the future.” We need to close the trust gaps now.
With Colonel JV Venable’s new book, Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance, we have an activating trust path to use. JV answered some questions in the interview below, covering trust, passion, mentoring, and more. Whether a leader for the past thirty years or three years, we learn from JV’s insights and approach.
Closing Trust Gaps the JV Way: An Interview
Jon: You define gaps as “Physical or emotional distance caused by a lack of competence, a lack of confidence or an unmet social need that degrades performance.” What is the difference between the physical and emotional elements? What steps do leaders need to take to prevent gaps?
JV: The difference is emotional gaps almost always drive the physical distance within teams and organizations. There are times when you can actually see physical gaps, but the emotions behind the separation are often hard to figure out. The Thunderbirds’ training season offered a unique opportunity to bring a bit of perspective on both.
The pilots we hired to fly the demonstration were very experienced, but none of them had ever flown formation aerobatics before. We introduced them to that world slowly in formations of two aircraft executing one maneuver over and over again with the same wingtip clearance they had flown operationally. That distance, coupled with our training altitudes gave them the reaction time they needed to ease out of the formation if their confidence in their own ability, or their lack of trust in the leader’s, turned south.
As we developed each pilot’s technical competence, their confidence grew to the point where they would readily close some of that distance but closing into airshow spreads and flying at airshow altitudes required something more. There our proximity and low altitude reduced safe separation to the point where they couldn’t preserve their own well-being if I made a catastrophic mistake in the lead jet. Only when the emotions of confidence and trust were met could they close the last few inches within our formation to maximize the potential within our team.
Closing the emotional gaps will have the same effect on the physical distance within your team. When you pull your folks in close enough to take the drag, the weight from your efforts, your organization will accelerate to a speed and a level of performance you could never have achieved any other way.
Once you’ve got them snuggled up close, it’s up to you as the leader to sustain the trust that will keep them there. There is nothing more powerful or electrifying, nothing that will accelerate your team faster or make them want to stay with you longer, than building closure through trust.
Jon: You state that closing the gaps takes the “whole you.” Describe what you mean by the whole you and why this is essential.
JV: Making a living inches away from five other jets moving in all three dimensions, flying 300 feet off the ground at 500 miles per hour takes much more than faith or concentration; it requires the deepest levels of trust. The word may as well have been written on the insides of our visors because we looked for it everywhere.
We spent hundreds of hours together over the practice range methodically developing and reinforcing trust. The whole time we were in the air there were five sets of eyes watching my every move—but they also took in every other insight they could glean through interactions with my boss, family, and friends. They were watching to see how I added up.
While the physical risk may not be the same on your team, the emotional and financial risks are absolutely real to your followers, which makes their trust in you critical. Just like with the Thunderbirds, they will use every interaction and insight you give them to build a case for trust. Over time, aspects of your whole life will come into view and your people will assess how your engagements with faith, family, friends, health, and work measure up to the values you espouse. When the whole you lines up with the values you convey, they’ll close the gaps on trust and deliver a surge in momentum you’ll never want to lose.
Jon: You talk about passion as “emotional drivers.” Finding these drivers is vital to closing gaps. What are the challenges in determining these emotional drivers? When found, how can you balance diverse passions among team members with achieving the organizational mission?
JV: Passions are the behind-the-scenes drivers that make individual motors run. It’s easy to see how revealing a goal of working in another industry or for another company might put a follower’s opportunity for a pay raise or promotion at risk. Even prioritizing another facet of their lives above work might give some employers pause, which is why many people choose to protect their real interests.
Cracking that protective barrier relies on you developing the relationships and getting to know the folks on your team – and you can’t do that sitting behind a desk.
Every person behind you has at least one area of their lives that means more than the others. By taking the time to genuinely listen, you’ll begin to break down the barriers and hear their passions. What they value is important and helping them capture their passions is one of the most gratifying aspects of leading people.
If you take time to engage your direct reports at least once a week, the epiphanies on how to further their performance and their interests will come. It is not the big things like a bonus or a pay raise that will pull them toward you – it’s the small things that count the most. Once you figure out what they are, reach back into their chests and pull them forward on their passions. The ensuing surge in energy won’t just impact them; it will accelerate your whole team.
The really interesting aspect of balancing your team’s passions with organizational goals is the idea that one somehow detracts from the other. You certainly need to make sure your people know you value success over popularity, but once that’s established, they need to know you also value them. What better way is there than to help them further their own trajectories? You’ll find one or two vivid and very personal stories of just how effective that can be in “Breaking the Trust Barrier.”
Jon: What do you find most encouraging about the next generation of leaders?
JV: You can build technical competence and positively shape the soft skills of just about any individual entering your profession, but it is very hard to give someone the level of certainty inherent to this generation. Many may see that as a challenge but of all the fundamental traits I want to work with, perhaps the biggest is self-confidence. Millennials have that in spades.
Jon: How can older generations best foster their growth and create great future leaders?
JV: Leading people is hard and, unfortunately, most organizations force rising leaders to learn the art by watching those above them lead, enduring the school of hard knocks and, self-study. Those three tools will always be in the quiver, but they won’t give your best and brightest the leg-up they deserve by themselves. They need mentors.
Mentorship only works when senior leaders willingly adopt those in their wake and walk them through the lessons they’ve learned through their years on point. To be effective in that endeavor you’ll need to discuss the details of your successes – and failures, which involves more than a little emotional risk.
The best leaders have a process they use when they step into a new organization to gain traction and align their new team behind them. For most, that process is unwritten, but they know it like the back of their hands. Conveying the big steps, insights and nuances associated with making people want to follow you is the greatest gift you can give them.
Whether you are a rising leader looking for a mentor, a seasoned leader looking for some new tools, or a mentor in search of a framework for the conversation ahead, you’ll find it in Breaking the Trust Barrier. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it.
Jon: Thank you, JV, for your time, service, and adding so much value to the trust and leadership conversation.
About JV Venable
JV Venable, author of Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance, is a graduate of the USAF’s Fighter Weapons School (Top Gun) and has flown fighter aircraft all over the world. He has led individuals, teams, and organizations as large as 1,100 people at the highest ends of performance and risk in both peacetime and combat. Most notable was his time as the commander and demonstration leader of the USAF jet demonstration team, the Thunderbirds.