F-35: How Culture Tames ComplexityUnknown

Simplicity is the goal of every design, but sometimes complexity is part of the puzzle.

The design and delivery of the F-35 Lightning fighter aircraft is one such example. For starters, in addition to Lockheed, the lead contractor, there were two other prime contractors and scores of subcontractors. Multiple nations were involved, and because the fight was paid for with government funding, Congress and the parliaments of countries like the United Kingdom, Netherlands, and Australia, among others, needed to be involved.

Heading it was Tom Burbage, retired President of Lockheed Aircraft Systems and EVP for developing the F-35 and the F-22. He is the co-author of a new book about the project called, F-35: The Inside Story of the Lightning II

In a recent interview, Burbage told me that partnering with many parties was like dealing with a Rubik’s Cube. “We had many different interests. We had many different perspectives, many different countries, a huge industrial team, and we had to make all that come together into a pattern that actually worked.”

Ongoing technological advances

Because the F-35 is a next-generation aircraft, Burbage, a former Navy aviator, was heading a team developing new technology never tried before. “I think every program that pushes technical barriers along the way is under threat of being canceled. There’s always another group or another interest community that wants to program to go a different direction or wants to take the budget and do something else with it. So you’re constantly in a little bit of trench warfare as you go through these extensive programs.

Getting the pattern correct was getting people to agree to a joint mission, or as Burbage put it, putting on the Joint Strike Fighter t-shirt. “It was a big, huge team of people, a lot of really good leaders, good strong government program managers, good strong industry side, and people that were willing to sort of take off their company badges and put on their J S F T-shirt,” says Burbage. “We’re no longer trying to husband your company interests. You’re now totally committed to making the J S F program what it needs to be.”

Three-in-one aircraft

The F-35 is three different aircraft. One for the Air Force that uses long runway take-offs. One for the Navy using catapult launching short runways. And the third for the Marines, who needed the aircraft to take off and land vertically. “If I put the three airplanes in front of you… and sat in the cockpit, you wouldn’t know the difference. They’re, they’re identical.” 

The goal was to create a fleet where the planes could fly and fight together regardless of their branch of service. “Integrating those technologies those differences into an airplane that’s supersonic and stealthy” required the team to push the boundaries of physics.

When designing leading-edge technology programs, there are two essential types of individuals. Innovators can integrate new technologies in ways that enable new performance capabilities. You then need leaders who are “really good at managing teams.” As the metaphor goes, everyone has a seat on the bus. The challenge is matching innovators with managers who can cooperate and collaborate for the betterment of the mission.

Culture rules

In the Fort Worth facility alone, there were 4000 employees. “And every new employee that came on the program went through an onboarding process. Everyone got some of that ‘pixie dust’ sprinkled on them” to help them realize they were part of a team, not just the company that hired them. “You have to walk a thin line when you do that,” says Burbage, “because there are company interests that you have to respect.”

The team had to create a culture. “We had a common set of guiding principles. We had a common set of objectives.” Burbage employed what he calls “the best athlete concept.” That is selecting team leaders for their skills and abilities, not simply for the company that employed them.

Three top executives were called “The Wizards,” a nod to the Harry Potter series. “I didn’t want the wizards in their office. I wanted them walking around and mentoring the young folks,” says Burbage. The younger tech-savvy employees ended up “mentoring” their older colleagues. 

In turn, the veteran employees shared their experience and expertise. “It built this esprit d’corps among the team during some very challenging days.” Working on such programs is always demanding, so it was imperative that the culture be rooted in respect for one another, explains Burbage. It helped to drive “superior performance.”

Four leadership principles

Burbage told me that he gave his grandson, a recent graduate of the Naval Academy and now in flight training, some advice. His shared four principles are as relevant to aviators as leaders heading large teams. “The first is that enjoy every day, learn something new,” says Burbage. Challenge yourself to do more than you can because you can. 

“The second [principle] is to realize that every person has a unique perspective on the world. And a new sailor turning a wrench on an airplane or, or a new employee just out of college can be a valuable contributor and you can learn from him or her.” Get to know them. Advocate for them and remove barriers that prevent them from doing their best.

“Third, there’s no limit to what your team can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. You know, give the credit where it’s deserved.”

The fourth principle is to understand the difference between management and leadership. “Management is the ability to look at data” to determine the project’s health. Leaders focus on another kind of health. “Leaders inspire ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

Getting the F-35 into service required the efforts of thousands of highly trained people and leaders who understood how to balance innovation, management, and budget with a culture that enabled everyone to do their best.

First posted on Forbes.com 00.00.2023

Leanne Morgan: Hard Laughs

For anyone who thinks – or has been told – they are not good enough to make it in their chosen career, then Leanne Morgan is someone you might want to know more about.

Leanne Morgan is a 57-year-old married mother of three grown children and grandmother of two. She lives in Tennessee and has become one of the most in-demand comedians on the circuit. She tourns nationally and has a new self-produced special on Netflix called I’m Every Woman.

As Tonya Mosely noted in her introduction to her Fresh Air interview, Morgan is not an overnight success. Morgan has been doing comedy for thirty years, starting as a jewelry saleswoman doing three engagements per week in living rooms. After a time, women began booking her for her comedy rather than for jewelry.

Morgan hit the comedy circuit, starting in Austin, Texas, at age 32. She also did four different pilot episodes for television sitcoms. None was picked up that, while disappointing at the time, turned out to be better in the long run. She was able to spend time raising her children and perhaps honed her comedy chops even sharper. 

In 2019 she hired a firm comprised of two brothers who distributed clips of her show via social media. One clip went viral and bookings took off. Morgan continued posting throughout the pandemic. “I just really did what I thought… was authentic.” Her clips addressed caring for her elderly parents and family. “And I had no makeup on. I looked like a picked jaybird.”

Heartland humor

Leanne Morgan is funny. “I’m nurturing,” says Morgan. “If I make fun, it’s of myself, it’s not of anybody else. I’m not confrontational. And so I think people find comfort with me.”

Here she is talking about her marriage. When her husband first met her, he “was so enthralled with me and so in love with me and pursued me and bought me presents and vacuumed out my car… And did all kinds of things for me. And we celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary this year. [PAUSE] And now I truly believe he would not pull me out of a burning vehicle.”

“I praise God Weight Watchers doesn’t have a limit on how many times you can join,” jokes Morgan. “I’ve joined WeightWatchers nine times… And lost seven pounds. Turns out you got to do it… I try to beat the system. And I’m signing up, and I’m paying them. And I’m like, I’m going to beat the man. I’m going to go in here, and they’re not going to keep me in those points.”

Lessons to learn

Those who do not make a living telling jokes in front of a live audience can learn a few things from Leanne Morgan.

Believe in your talent. Morgan calls herself the Mrs. Maisel of Appalachia. “Comedy is a hard business. I resonated with that character because she was fearless and she had those babies and her husband was a ding dong.” Like the fictional Midge Maisel, Leanne battled the odds, especially those telling her that women were not good at comedy. “When I saw that series, I thought, that’s what I did: I had three babies. I was in the Appalachian Mountains. I didn’t have a comedy club near me, and I just had to pave out another way than the traditional way that people do stand-up. And I did.” 

Know your audience. “It took me a long time to find my audience … but I always knew they were out there,” Morgan says. “I think Hollywood forgets us, and I think a lot of comedians that are cool and edgy and all of that, just forget about my demographic and I think we’re the best. I think we’re the people that make decisions to go buy tickets and want to get out and have a good time.”

Trust yourself. Morgan’s first husband, to whom she was married for a short time in her early twenties, told Morgan that she needed to take diction lessons to lose her Tennessee drawl. Her refusal reminded me of an entertainment executive advising comedian legend Bob Newhart to lose his stammer. “This stammer,” replied Newhart, “bought me a house in Beverly Hills.”

Leanne Morgan, like Newhart, knows her talent and herself. “I’m authentic. I feel like at my age now, it’s like this is who I am. You either like it or you don’t. It’s OK if you don’t. … I do find humor in hard things, but I think a lot of comedians do. That’s how we cope.”

First posted on Forbes.com 8.08.2023

Tony Bennett: Musical Memories

Music is the universal language. Or, to be more precise, a universal awakener.

On the passing of Tony Bennett, it is good to remember that he was still performing well into his nineties and after a diagnosis of Alzheimer’s. While his short-term memory was limited or nonexistent, his ability to singhis hit songs, whether in his living room or on stage, remained vibrant. In a recollection by CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who did a profile of Bennett for 60 Minutes, interviewing him was challenging, but when he took to the piano to sing, his personality and energy returned as he performed.

Lifelong pursuit 

Bennett’s roots in music ran deeply. In an interview with Jeffrey Brown on NewsHour in 2014, Bennet spoke about performing for his relatives as a ten-year-old. Having lost his father, Bennett’s family helped nurture his talent, enabling him to pursue his passion for music and painting. 

Bennett served in World War II, saw combat in Europe, and later saw the horrors of Dachau. After getting out of what he and men of his generation called “the service,” he attended art school. He also pursued his passion for painting and, in time, started singing in public. His career was respectable, garnering respect from his contemporaries and elders like Frank Sinatra. 

At age 70, his career seemed stalled. His son, Danny, helped him gain wider recognition in part by recording with women and men a generation or two or three younger than himself. These included Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Celine Dion, and, most notably, Lady Gaga. As Bennett said on NewsHour, part of his reasoning for working with younger artists was to keep jazz – America’s homegrown music – alive and resonant. Fans of the younger performers embraced Bennett.

Bennett’s passion for music keeps his spirit alive. As Anderson Cooper recalled on CNN, Bennett brought him to tears when he watched him perform in his own living room. Cooper said that he may not have known who Cooper was, but he knew he was Tony Bennett, an artist with something to say. His example has heightened awareness of dementia.

Music as connection

Bennett is one of many musicians whose talent did not diminish with his memory. A few years ago, I was playing piano as a volunteer in a cardiac care center, and an elderly gentleman approached me to tell me that his wife used to play piano; then, he gestured to his head, indicating that her memory was fading. When his wife returned from her visit, I invited her to sit down at the piano and play. Which she did. Masterfully. No sheet music, just channeling the piece from memory. 

When I glanced at her husband, I could see tears forming. He put his hand over his heart and said, “You don’t know how good this makes me feel.” I urged him to continue having his wife play since they still owned her piano. He nodded, and when the woman finished, she rose from the piano bench smiling. Moments later, after I had begun playing again, she approached me and, with a smile, slapped a crisp two-dollar bill on the piano headboard as “my tip.”

Music can reach those with memory loss by enabling them to return a semblance of themselves when they hear music, especially played live. When I ask for requests, I seldom get a response, but when I play a tune, I can see smiles appear, and after every song, there is a smattering of applause. It indicates not my performance (always sorely lacking) but their appreciation for music.

Music speaks to us and maybe even more as we age and our memories dim. Music reminds us of our humanity and our connectedness to the world.

First posted on Forbes.com 7.25.2023