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Episode 20:

Debrief: Learn from Each Mission

Taylor Fox


On episode 20 of The Upstream Leader, Heath Alloway discusses the importance of the debrief with U.S. Air Force and commercial pilot, Taylor Fox. Taylor explains the Air Force’s approach to the debrief as a fact-finding exercise, not only to determine who was responsible for things that went wrong, but what the cause was for what went right. Through the debrief process, efficiency and accountability are increased for all involved—and even those who weren’t there. The takeaways are invaluable for future mission planning, a key link to the accounting profession.

About the Guest

Capt Taylor Fox, USAF, is currently an accomplished mission-ready flight lead in the F-22 Raptor, the world’s most advanced fighter jet. He has been a First Officer with Delta Airlines since 2018.

Fox has an MBA from the University of Missouri and is the author of Combat Ready: Lessons Learned in the Journey to Fighter Pilot.

Having worked in a variety of industries including a venture capital fund, global marketing, digital news, corporate aviation and a series of entrepreneurial projects, Fox has an unusual perspective of the relationship between combat preparation and business—a level of experience necessary to relate to a variety of industries.

Highlights / Transcript

Welcome to The Upstream Leader podcast. I’m Heath Alloway, your host for today’s episode. And when we launched The Upstream Leader, our goal was to build a platform for those that want to become better leaders. And as I got into that journey, it’s led me in a couple directions of getting to meet others and hearing their stories and how to take their stories with that idea of helping others.

When I met today’s guest, I met Taylor through an introduction of a previous guest, Rachel Anderson, and she introduced me to Taylor Fox, and when I met Taylor, and we started having some preliminary discussions. And see, he just was a great fit for what we’re trying to accomplish. And Taylor’s background, if I say [it’s] a little different, I think that may be an understatement. Taylor’s background is actually quite a bit different than most of our guests.

Captain Taylor Fox, he is a mission commander and instructor pilot for the F-22 Raptor for the U.S. Air Force, and Taylor also flies for Delta Airlines. And although the stakes could be high in business, some of the things that Taylor went through, some of his experiences—those experiences can be at much higher stakes. And whenever we talk to Taylor, we got into every successful mission, it follows a process. And as we got into that process, the one area that really stuck out to me was just the power and the learning that happens whenever you debrief a mission. So, Taylor, we’re happy to have you on. Welcome to the show.

Thanks, Heath. I’m happy to be here.

So Taylor, one thing we ask all of our guests right out of the gate: In less than two minutes, give us a little insight on what really molded you into who you are today, and the leader that you are today.

Yeah, Heath. I’ve always been interested in leadership. I went to school and got an MBA thinking I was going to go down the business leadership path, and while I was in college, I was a kid obsessed with reading self-development books so much that I started a business in college, essentially writing Cliff Notes for leadership books and selling them to businesses.

But as far as what ended up molding me, really, in the end is after business school, I decided to become a fighter pilot instead—kind of go with the boyhood fantasy. And in the end, you know that I have to give that all the credit to all my experience, at least professionally. You can read a lot of things in a book and they can resonate with you. But when you’re sitting there in a mission, or watching commanders, or when you become a commander and start to have followers—their reactions—that’s really where my methods and opinions really got molded is in this Air Force fighter pilot community, and how we lead and follow and go execute and execute our missions.

So Taylor, in a lot of ways, it sounds like you did a lot of the education, research, reading, self-development early on, but then what really molded you was the real life experiences of getting those type of opportunities. So Taylor, that’s a great background for our discussion.

So Taylor, as I was getting ready for our discussion today, I was just trying to put myself in the shoes of our listeners, and what could be the most powerful for them. But before we get into that, Taylor, give us—you mentioned that childhood dream of being a fighter pilot. Give us a little insight, give us a look in the window of what that looks like—you know, how fast are you going? What does the communication look like? Give us some insight to that.

Yeah, Heath—it’s unlike anything else I’ve experienced on Earth. I even wrote a book to describe what it’s like, because it’s so difficult to eloquently explain, and I won’t do it justice right now, but I’ll do my best.

You know, when we’re out executing a fight, there could be 50 to 100 different aircraft just on one team, fighting another enemy. We’re listening to two or three different radio frequencies at the same time, all of which could be communicating critical life and death information to myself, my team, or the entire mission and its success. If you’re the commander of this mission, you could be orchestrating almost like chess pieces, those 50 or 100 aircraft, and they’re all moving anywhere from 400 to 1,500 miles an hour, kind of like a quarterback or point guard. And this whole time we’re trying to achieve a mission of putting a bomb on a target, or defending an arbitrary—we could say the White House—some kind of a point in space. People are shooting at you, I’m shooting at them, and vice versa. You got warnings going off that that’s occurring, surface to air missiles are coming at you. It’s a lot, and there’s, because of this chaos and inevitable fog of war that happens in those scenarios, we spend a lot of time briefing, debriefing, and to allow for decentralized execution even when there is one, sole leader.

So Taylor, as you’re describing that one question that came to mind. If you had one word, what would that word be for the first time he stepped foot in the aircraft to go live.

You know, when you hear that, as someone who’s never flown, it sounds like a huge step. And it can be chaos and fog of war—you have no idea what’s going on sometimes. But the Air Force does a phenomenal job, through this process we’ll probably discuss a little bit here, of raising you slowly you know, you didn’t go jump on your bike and do BMX backflips on your first ride, I think, with your mom or dad teaching you how to ride a bicycle. And they do a pretty good job the same way. There’s a nice building, step by step approach to get to that level.

Very good, Taylor. So you’ve been big on process, and I joke around and say that I am somewhat of a process geek—I always love a good process. And when you and I first talked, you mentioned that every mission you have follows the same process. So we’re going to focus the majority of our conversation on the debrief side of that. But you know, the debrief comes later. Help talk us through—give us the foundation for what that process looks like, to how you get to the stage of the debrief.

Yeah, it’s overall a four step process. And I’ll just hit on the first three, and we can get more into the debrief one potentially later. But yeah, we start with a goal, we call it a mission objective. And that might be—it varies every single time—but it could be, like I said, to put a bomb through a specific window in a building 5,000 miles away within a five minute window. And then we work backwards from that. And this is all in the mission planning process, which is step one, so we gather intelligence, assess our resources, put together a game plan—that’s the kind of good idea, “fairy time” as we call it, where people are challenging each other brainstorming, trying to tackle the problem.

And then after that is over, whoever is the commander that day is going to pick the game plan, and the next thing we execute is what’s called the brief. That’s what you think of as maybe with the football team gathered in the locker room to talk over the gameplay before they go execute. But it’s the leader standing up in front of the room, in front of a room of sometimes up to 150 people telling them, “This is what we decided is the game plan and how we’re going to accomplish this mission. Here’s what I want everyone doing today.” Good idea fairy is done, we don’t want too many questions. We don’t want any ideas. At some point, you’ve got to make a decision to move forward, because in this situation, you’re going to war and time is of the essence.

After you do this brief, which, a brief’s usually an hour long—the mission planning lasts maybe a day, it could last a couple hours, whatever it may be, it depends on the size of the mission. And then you go execute. Execute is kind of own phase and how and how we manage that. And then finally, after it’s all over, every mission, we debrief, and we debrief fairly extensively, we can get the most learning and knowledge gained from that experience as we can, to make better decisions next time.

So Taylor, just like several businesses, other industries, different areas. We talk about high performers a lot at Upstream. So every, I think, organization has some that are seen as high performers, some maybe not as much. But I’d love to hear from your experiences. We talked about a lot about will versus skill, and those two traits. And in your, you know, as a fighter pilot, I know will and skill probably come into play. But as a leader, how do you see those two areas really impacting someone’s career development—how they develop in these types of situations?

Yeah, Heath, we harp on this all the time. And I’m sure skill does come into some play. You do have to have some level of coordination and some level of competence to get this mission done in these fast jets. But I think 90% of that battle is will, and we often refer to this as attitude. If you’ve got a good attitude, you’re willing to put in the hard work, you’re willing to smile, be someone people want to be around—that is a huge piece of our culture. And anyone who doesn’t have a bad attitude, very early on, it gets squashed out.

For three years, I had a great sheet written about every single one of my missions. And the top line always referenced my attitude in that day overall. And we would always assess it. And if any of our instructors early on when we were students saw bad attitudes, and it was the quickest way—you could be God’s gift to aviation, but if you wanted to get yourself out of the Air Force quickly, just have a bad attitude. And there’s no tolerance for that.

It’s a culture killer. I mean, I really, I’ve seen it, it can be a cancer within a team. And you mentioned attitude, I think not only attitude, but emotion—it’s contagious. And whenever you go in a certain way, it’s very contagious, other people will follow suit.

Taylor, one of the things that we talk about at Upstream a lot is around effective change in reaching that goal or that mission objective. And for a lot of organizations, it’s challenging to change. And many times that mission or the end goal, it makes sense, makes good business sense, it’s good in concept, the process is there, but for some reason they struggle with that. And sometimes we start to peel back the layers—it’s more about a person or people problem.

One of the concepts we’ve talked about are the rowers, throwers, and sitters. The rowers are typically the ones that are kind of leading the initiative or leading the mission and the objective. The throwers—they’re the anchors in the back, the ones that maybe are not bought in, they’re the ones that maybe are doing things behind the scenes to cause issues. Then the sitters are somewhat in the middle.

So in any situation whenever you’re preparing for that mission, and you know, I don’t know if it’s that exact terminology, but disagreements or maybe different viewpoints. How did you address that on the front end to make sure that everyone was bought into that mission objective?

Yeah. Yeah. It’s a great—it’s a difficult, challenging thing for a leader to implement. We run a very fact-based, evidence-based approach. And what you got to answer why, right, If you’re a leader, or you’re not going to get buy in typically. I typically see it’s a failure to understand potentially the concern of the problem that it sounds like you said, it’s the throwers that are generally bringing up, but empathetically listening to the concern, asking the questions to understand their concern, is pivotal to our loop to try and really get to the root cause of it. War and business are imperfect. They’re messy. And at some point in the Air Force will rely on seniority and say someone’s got to make the decision. But that is the last case scenario, we avoid the authoritarian decision making to the max extent possible.

It sounds to me you know, either you’re not fully as the leader fully engaging and understanding what their concern or perception is, or you’re not potentially bringing the right amount of evidence or fact-based reasoning to why this is the right thing—your messaging is wrong. And it could be one of those two things.

Taylor in the debrief portion of this, you’ve talked about the importance of that. So help us help us talk through, we’re in a time crunch, society time crunch world, I am not a big fan of saying I’m busy whenever someone asked me how things are going, but talk us through how important it was for your future success. And then we’ll get into how much time you actually spent there. But I want to hear a little bit about how the debrief portion played such a big part in future success.

Yeah. In the fighter pilot community, we stick our entire reputation essentially on this debrief. It’s the tool that compounds and perpetually increases performance within our organization. If you go through and analyze finding the true root causes of failures, or even successes, in meetings, or whatever goal you have set for yourself, it’s a constant reassessment and realignment to improve and stop failures quickly.

And, you know, you can go through and high five that you made the sales pitch and you think you know the reason why, but even if you haven’t gone through and really assessed that’s, you know, maybe you thought it was your charming jokes that made the whole meeting go smoothly—nope, they were really desperate to get a client and they were willing to give you any money because they’re going bankrupt, and you’ve missed the whole boat, and you’re gonna miss future clients, whatever it may be. So going through and fully assessing the truth to what really occurred out there is the only way you can really move forward in our opinion.

Well, Taylor, I guarantee in those situations, it’s not my humorous jokes that gets me through!

So just give us, from your seat, just an example, maybe on average—because we are in a society that is so focused on getting stuff done, and resources, and all that. But give us an idea of how much time you invested—and I know we’re not saying everyone needs to go spend this much time, but give us an insight on how much time you spent on actually debriefing a mission.

Yeah, I’ll give you the extreme case. And then I’ll give you a more practical, reasonable example. And you know, sometimes when we do a dogfighting mission, where it’s one versus one, fighter jets, you know, it’s what you see in the movies, where we’re close together, trying to shoot each other with guns, even with these high performance, stealth airplanes. You know, we might fight actually for only like three minutes of that mission, but being good stewards of your taxpayer money, we will spend up to six, seven hours debriefing those three minutes to extract every information out we can to be the best fighter pilot, we can be for America and for ourselves.

Having said that, most of our missions, they’re not that asymmetric. We might go fight for 30 minutes or an hour, and then we can discuss it for, you know, an hour to two hours afterward, trying to hit the high points, which is you know, what I what I subscribe to most people in the business community. It’s like, “What was the overall goal of this mission?” We don’t need to go through every single and or of that speech and why you could have done that better. But we can go through, you know, kind of the bigger higher level learning of what was really important today, and what do we get right? And what do we get wrong?

Absolutely. And Taylor, in these situations in your world, I can only imagine that they would be somewhat emotionally charged, especially on various missions, and depending on how the mission went. And I think one thing that would be super valuable for our listeners is just learning more on how to structure a powerful debrief-type meeting. So what are the components? What rules? What helped you be successful in those settings? Especially when they can be emotionally charged?

Definitely. Well, you know, someone’s usually running the debrief, and usually, at least in our room, there’s one person standing up and they’re kind of in charge—they’re the judge of the day, if you will. And it can be the not senior ranking person there. But he’s kind of got the pens or he or she’s got the pens and the whiteboard, and they’ll write on the whiteboard, “Hey, this is overall, this is our mission objective—we failed. And this is the moment that we failed. Let’s figure out how we could have done that better,” or whatever that may be.

But one of the first rules we have is, let’s get this thing started quickly. You’re going to be asking people in the room questions, what they remembered what they saw, what they felt what they heard. And you want those, you almost want some of those emotions to still be fresh, in a way, so you can kind of dig down into what was going on there, necessarily. So first rule is, begin it relatively quickly.

The second one is implementing. And this starts with the leader or the higher ranking person, but we like to say we like to take our rank off of our shoulders when we enter the debrief room. So in the Air Force, we have rank—Major, Captain, Lieutenant Colonel, whatever it may be, on our shoulder. But in the debrief room, when that door shuts it’s kind of a sterile environment, and there’s this culture led by the leader where you’re not going to get penalized for talking back, or you’re not going to—obviously, we’ve all got our good attitude that we previously mentioned—there’s some decorum and etiquette that still exists. But in that debrief for that specific thing, it is a rankless society.

And then, you know, I think the most important thing that we do, and that people can take from, is establishing this, what I call a “culture of honesty.” And it starts with the leader of the debrief, which sets this tone. And you know, we’ve all been there. As soon as a meeting goes poorly, or anything goes poorly, people are pointing fingers, saying “That was your fault. It was his fault. It was her fault.” And then people start hiding their facts. They get defensive, they don’t want to really tell what they thought, they just want to preserve their own face.

But what I found is if you’re the leader that debrief and you walk in, you’re like, “Well, guys, that didn’t go great. Let’s start with some things we did wrong. Like, I think these four things,” and you’re listing them on the white board, “went wrong, and I’m responsible for all four of those, I could have done all those better.” As soon as you start pointing the finger at yourself, you can just see everyone in the room kind of exhale, and they don’t think it’s their fault anymore, necessarily. And they’re willing to be honest, they’re willing to talk more, they’re willing to tell what they could have done better. And all of a sudden, it’s just this like, turns into like room of confessions of all these things that people think they could have done better, and everyone’s learning from it, and it’s such a better environment. Everyone’s more relaxed. As long as the leader doesn’t start pointing fingers except at themselves, it gets a lot better.

Yeah, Taylor, I love the way you describe that—the room of confessions. One of the things that I’ve seen, especially in our profession with public accounting, CPA Advisory Firms, it’s full of people that for the most part, they truly care about their people development—they truly care.

But we struggle with candid conversations, sometimes. The honest feedback. Especially when it comes to deficiencies, there’s a wall built up. You know, one of the things I’ve always said if you’re on a career path, if you’re coachable that, can be such a, you know, a great thing to say—it’s a gift if you are coachable.

I’d like to hear, with what you’ve experienced over the past several years, both sides of how critical is it for someone to receive candid feedback? And then how, on the back end of that, how important is it for coaches or those that you’re mentoring—how important is it to give that kind of feedback?

Yeah, I mean, it’s obviously critical. And I think what you hit there on where the coaches, the leaders are giving the feedback, it’s not necessarily that you’re giving it, but how you give it is just so important. And I’m sure you know, you may have this, and I’m sure some of your listeners, and I know I did have this image of the military being this like emotionless environment where you just get told what to do, and we’re all robots. And it’s completely opposite. We want to empathetically influence and teach and help, and deliver it in a way that doesn’t make people defensive and makes them more at ease is critical. And a debrief is that environment where we’re giving each other that feedback that you’re talking about, in a relatively rankless situation. There could be even a young guy that had an experience that I can learn from as a more experienced guy.
You said, like the rankless idea, which I love that concept of being in a room where you remove titles, you remove rank, you maybe remove the hierarchy—I can only imagine how that impacts a culture. In some of our conversations, you’ve talked about the culture. How big of an impact you feel that removing rank in those conversations—how big is that on developing a strong culture?

It’s huge. And we can even see it as soon as we leave the debriefing, where this rule doesn’t necessarily apply, where there is a commander and he signs our travel vouchers, and our orders to go to whatever trip we need to go on. All of a sudden, no, it’s still, it’s all of a sudden “Yes, sir.” You know, you maybe have one, we call it, one “yes, but,” if you object to something, you get one “but,” but then after that, you just say “yes” and move forward.

So yeah, I mean, it changes the dynamic and again, it is to create and foster this environment of maximal improvement and learning in that room for everyone, because we’re about to go to war together, and whether you’re going to war for America or war for your business, they all kind of relatively apply.

So Taylor, on the accountability side, you talked about the power of the debrief meeting, you learn, you come out with maybe some action steps. One of, you know, I want to say it’s lost if you don’t have some accountability or steps to get better, but I’d be curious on any recommendations for firms or businesses—if they go through this process, they invest the time to learn from what they’ve done, what can you do to build some accountability, maybe self-accountability, or business accountability, to drive those next steps with a focus on continuing to get better?

Yeah. Typically, what we will do is, I mean, so much good learning is happening in these, that someone is assigned to kind of be the secretary or note taker to drive these home. And then we’ll usually send out, at least on the unclassified level, the notes, so that people don’t make the same mistake we’re doing again. So we’ll send these, we call it this “lesson learned” emails, like, “Hey, there I was,” that’s how they always start, and then whatever scenario that they find themselves in, whatever happened in that meeting that day    . Whether you create a culture where it’s obligatory to read these kinds of emails, or whatever it may be, that’s the way that we disseminate information to kind of hold everyone accountable.

Like you can all have access to all of this good learning that we’re getting, and maybe you make a rule that that can only be a one paragraph, so let’s sharpen down what we learned today, this hour long debrief, into one paragraph that everyone can walk away, that wasn’t even in the room, knowing what our organization can do better, what we learned that day.

So Taylor, we have a few minutes left here with our time together, we’re going to wrap up with a couple of final questions. And much of what you and I have talked about has, it’s really been geared towards your experiences as a pilot. But what advice could you give our listeners, whether that’s a, you know, a CPA firm, or their staff, or possibly even helping their clients? What’s maybe one piece of advice that you could give them on how to focus on the debrief and continuous improvement?

Yeah, I mean, it’s just like anything. It seems like in life these days, if you can turn something into a good habit, it really will make things a lot easier. And like with most habits, you start them small, you know. Whether the debrief is just a 10 minutes, “Let’s huddle real quick and talk about what happens from that meeting, or that campaign” that could have lasted six months, whatever it may be.

But in all these these stories, you know, I think I’ve used the word “mission objective.” If you just replace mission objective, or instead replace it with business objective or goal, it usually fits pretty well. And if you fit that mold of every time we set an objective or a goal, we’re going to go through the mission planning phase, gather intelligence, assess resources, before we go execute it, let’s brief real quick and make sure we’re all on the same page, so we understand this game plan, we’ll go execute.

And then we’ll spend however long you can. And if it’s short, because this is a new habit, and you know, you don’t want to overdo it on habits early on, but if you just always have a quick huddle afterwards, that’s a good place to get started, and you can elaborate from there.

Well Taylor, I love the idea of small steps, because I think whether it’s your physical health or in business or your own career development, it’s easy to focus on a year down the road or three years down the road, and it can start to get a little overwhelming. But if you think about, if you start there with that vision, you work backwards, think of those small steps that you have to make along the way, I think that can be a pretty powerful mindset.

There was another podcast I listened to not that long ago—it was the concept about “win the day.” So what do you do when you first wake up to be intentional about getting started on the right path that day? And win the day, win the next day, then you have a winning streak. And I just keep going back to that concept and trying to apply it to my own life as well.

So Taylor, we’re going to take a minute or so here. We’re going to call it the speed round and get to know Taylor a little bit better. What’s your favorite Netflix series?

Ooh, Netflix series. I’m always a sucker for The Office. But Squid [Game] was a Dixon.

Yeah, The Office—it’s a classic. What about any sports you played growing up?

I was always a big golfer growing up.

Yeah. Awesome. We have a lot in common, Taylor, I keep learning more and more about you. I was as well. What about favorite restaurant?

Oh, favorite restaurant? That’s a tough one. I just moved to New York City and I’m just overwhelmed with, around every street corner is “the next five star something amazing with an amazing ambience.” Can I just say New York City?

There you go. That narrows it down for our listeners.

Yeah, yeah, right!

Taylor, one last unique thing. So you know, I think that’s pretty cool that you wrote a book, authored a book. That’s a pretty big achievement. Not a lot of people do that. What’s maybe one thing you learned along that journey as well?

Oh, man. I think that one is the same kind of lesson that I picked—that I just advocated for, you know, start 10 minutes with this debrief, if you can after these meetings or get togethers. But you know, if you look at a book on the whole, it’s impossible to finish. If you look, you’re like “Man, there’s no way I can write 270 pages.” But if you can write 10 minutes a day or whatever, take 10 minutes a day to handle that, all the stuff, and a few months later, it’s done. And you’re like, “Oh, that wasn’t really that difficult in the end.”

So I’m a huge proponent of these small, small habits, whether it’s doing 20 push-ups a day, or whatever it is. But I think long term, if you can do the little, little things, it makes the big things look pretty easy.

So how long did the book take?

Well, it kind of is a narrative of what it’s like to go from a civilian on the street in college to ready to go to war. So it took me the three and a half years to do that whole process, to write it all. And then I spent another year to kind of slowly edit it while I was still being a fighter pilot on the side—or my full time job. So I’d kind of do it in the evening sometimes. So you could say, overall, five years, but it took three and a half years to tell the whole story, if you will, week by week.

Very cool. Very cool. Well, Taylor, as we wrap up here with our final thoughts, just one resource that has been very helpful for you throughout your career throughout your development? We always like to leave our listeners with something that they can take and impact their lives as well. So curious if you have any thoughts there.

Yeah, one of the things I was thinking about as you say that, is as a part of the debrief, one of the one of the hardest things to get to the truth of anything, is not asking leading questions. So people love to be agreeable, they like to say, like—”and you and you said this because you thought X?” And it’s this leading question where it makes it very easy for the listener to say “Yes, yeah, that’s why I did that.” And that’s often it leads you to not find the truth of what’s going on.

And one of the podcasts related to leadership is Freakanomics. And Freakonomics I love, because they have, in my opinion, do a great job of mastering the skill of asking questions to get to the true root cause that’s often a different reason than we often think, to whatever problem that we’re trying to address. And the way they frame and dig into problems is the same way—or it’s similar way that we do in the fighter pilot world, in these debriefs—of trying to understand why is the world the way they like, why are there roundabouts, is when I was listening just the other day. And they’ll get to answers that you weren’t expecting. And I think that’s a very important skill for a leader to have, when trying to grow through these debrief processes.

Yeah, I love that Taylor. As you’re saying that, it’s just the continuous learning and absorbing and learning from others. So I love that.

Well, Taylor, I really enjoyed our time today and the time you’ve invested in sharing some of your background, your experiences, to help others. So Taylor, we enjoyed having you on the show. Hopefully our paths will cross again at some point. So thank you again.

Definitely. Thanks, Heath. I enjoyed it as well.



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