The wail of an air raid siren momentarily garrotes the voices of men and women seated around a hotel conference table. “Condition Red! Condition Red!” a military figure yells through a bull horn. “You’re under Scud attack!”
The dozen men and women--sales and marketing managers, civilians all--grab their hard hats, papers and maps, and kneel, squat or dive under the table where they have been plotting strategy. Now the attack planning really begins.
Welcome to another seminar presented by the Afterburners--Desert Storm veterans and motivational speakers who are smart-bombing their way into the American corporate consciousness.
From the military camouflage netting that lines the entry to a darkened conference room, to the fist-pumping greetings from a half-dozen jumpsuited military aviators, there are plenty of signs this is not your typical regional sales meeting.
The fliers welcomed their students-for-a-day with clapping to the pounding beat of the theme from the movie “Top Gun.” The music accompanied a video of a fighter plane landing on an aircraft carrier and bombs falling during the Gulf War.
That was before Jim “Murph” Murphy, leader of this all-American flying team, told the 55 regional sales managers from Teledyne Water Pik how excited he was “to be in front of the best damn company in North America,” how their “business is combat” and how his crew would teach combat-like techniques as used in Desert Storm.
Is selling shower heads anything like going into combat? The Afterburners think so.
Murphy and his group of former Gulf War pilots and air weapons controllers may be the nation’s most unconventional group of motivational speakers.
They helped deliver a strong message as American pilots dominated the skies in the war over Iraq, and now they’re bringing another one to the business world.
They’re showing how companies can better compete with a take-no-prisoners approach to improved organization, mission planning, risk assessment and rankless debriefing--just like in the military.
Wayne Brothers, president of Teledyne Water Pik and a graduate of the Air Force Academy, said he saw a clear link between his employees’ efforts and the Afterburners’ mission.
He made the comparison to his employees before the seminar started.
“Today’s fighter pilots work under enormous pressure. They have to master skills in leadership, teamwork and communications. They face intense competition, information overload and a rapidly changing environment. Does any of that sound familiar to you?
“For both us and them, the ability to prioritize tasks and react appropriately means the difference between victory and defeat,” he said.
Murphy draws from 18 fellow Gulf War veterans--like himself, all retired--to help put on customized corporate seminars that emphasize leadership, teamwork and competitiveness.
The message is always the same.
“More than ever, businesses are realizing that their business is combat,” said Murphy, now an Air National Guard pilot.
Teledyne Water Pik may have created marketplaces for massaging shower heads and oral irrigators.
But “you don’t own those marketplaces any more,” Murphy said, because of increased competition.
So the Afterburners are taking Teledyne to war.
How? By staging a carefully crafted hourlong war game.
A coalition of Teledyne’s competitors, dubbed “Braunsnia,” has declared war and launched an attack. Teledyne’s managers, broken into five smaller mission planning cells, must plot the best way to destroy the coalition’s key distribution center.
Each group has a pilot-facilitator. While the groups meet, Murphy periodically bellows out the number of minutes left for planning, just to add a little stress.
The exercise will be critiqued, followed by a “nameless, faceless, rankless debriefing” so everyone can learn from their mistakes without fear of irritating the boss.
“In the business world, people are afraid to do that because they’re afraid they’ll get fired or chastised,” Murphy said. “In the military, we have to do that, because if we don’t learn from those mistakes.”
With just minutes to go, the sales managers are huddled around maps and flip charts, clutching checklists and marking maps to show which weapons will take out which targets.
The Scud attack destroyed some Teledyne assets, affecting the ability to attack “Braunsnia,” and some groups forget little things--like making sure aircraft can refuel to return.
“When people first walk in, they’re going, ‘What are a bunch of fighter pilots going to teach us about business?’ But when they see all the correlations that we drew, they go, ‘There’s a lot more than I thought to what those guys do to what we do, and there’s a lot of lessons learned,’ ” Murphy said.
The message being taught is that business is combat. Murphy volunteers that the aerial combat scenario is a bit romanticized, but he said none of the business professionals who have attended the Afterburners seminars has been “turned off about the whole combat or military thing. It’s been a real positive, uplifting experience.”
Brothers, Teledyne Water Pik’s president, agrees. While 10 years ago he might have said corporate competition was overplayed, “I don’t believe that any more,” he said.
“Ten years of experience has made me conclude that it is extremely competitive and very aggressive, and not everyone’s going to survive,” he said. “We thought we’d look for something that maybe took people away from their day-to-day challenges and caused them to look at their challenges in a different way.”
Afterburner J.J. McNamara, a Marine reservist, helped Murphy get the program off the ground. They met while going through United Airlines pilot training.
“He’s always thinking, he’s always got something going. And he’s not afraid to go ‘Boom! Let’s do it,”’ McNamara said.
Murphy, 32, began the motivational seminars in late 1995. Over the past year, he has put on seminars for more than 1,000 Home Depot managers and clients including Pepsico Food Services and Mutual of Omaha.
The Afterburners average about two seminars a month, at a cost to clients of $20,000 to $50,000--depending on the group’s size.
“I’ve never been to a meeting where I’ve ever been provided the incentive to want to achieve and to do better than I have here,” said Candy Ross, director of clinical research for Water Pik in Atlanta. “The other thing that these people have instilled in us is a clear need for organization and for focus, because of what they do in their world.”
The Top Gun music and camouflage scenery seem over the top. But the seminars are popular.
“This is like business theater, I guess,” Murphy said. “But when these people go home and they really sit back and reflect on the exercise, they go, ‘That was very similar to our weekly staff meetings, our monthly quota meetings.’ ”