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Leadership Voyage

The head of Lockheed Martin’s JSF program, former test pilot Tom Burbage learned some of his earliest lessons in teamwork on the USS Eisenhower.

Read the Main Story: High Stakes, Big Bets

During the next 18 months, Lockheed Martin’s Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program will grow from 500 to 5,000 managers and engineers, many of whom will be scattered across two countries (the United States and the United Kingdom) and nine time zones. It’s up to Tom Burbage, who directs Lockheed’s JSF effort, to meld this diffuse group of aerospace veterans into a team.

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Burbage has held numerous senior-management posts in his 22 years at Lockheed. But he says that he learned his most valuable team-building lesson on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Eisenhower. A graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, Burbage had recently completed flight school when he got the assignment. He wasn’t happy about it. “I was used to hanging around squadrons — I was used to flying,” he says. “Now all of a sudden I’m going to a nonflying job on a carrier, and I have to manage a group of 150 sailors. I couldn’t understand why.

“I was the V-2 division officer, which means that I was responsible for the daily operation of all of the catapults and arresting gear. I inherited a brand-new crew — the average age was 19 — and the highest incidence of nonjudicial punishment on the ship. In other words, a lot of our people were getting into trouble. And yet we had an awesome responsibility. We were throwing airplanes off the deck and bringing them back. People put their lives in our hands.

“I decided that I couldn’t get people to improve their performance until I started taking care of them. So we organized into teams, and I tried hard to improve the work environment. I also decided to use a big carrot and a little stick. If a guy performed well at sea, I’d give him a big reward. The ship would pull into Naples, for example, and we’d fly the ship’s plane to Athens for the weekend.

“So the exceptional performers went to some pretty nice places. And the guys who didn’t do so well, we’d put them to work cleaning catapult tracks — a really hot, dirty job. By the end of the six-month cruise, we had 25,000 catapult launches, 25,000 arrested landings, no accidents, and no nonjudicial punishments. That level of performance had never been achieved on our ship, and every sailor in the division got a medal from the admiral.

“The lesson in all of this is, You can build a high-performing team in some pretty austere environments. But first, you’ve got to take care of your people. And second, you’ve got to understand the difference between the carrot and the stick — and in my view, the former is a lot more useful than the latter.

“In the end, I stopped trying to motivate people. I learned that if you recognize and reward them, people will motivate themselves.”

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Bill Breen (bbreen@fastcompany.com) is a Fast Company senior editor. Contact Tom Burbage by email (charles.t.burbage@lmco.com).

Read the Main Story: High Stakes, Big Bets

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