As a former fighter pilot and Executive Officer of the Red Arrows, Justin Hughes is no stranger to high-performance teamwork in the most demanding of environments. Justin is now the Managing Director of Mission Excellence, a consultancy that partners with organizations committed to high performance.

We spoke with Justin to elaborate on our favourite quotes in his new book – The Business of Excellence (Bloomsbury) – which includes a significant focus on incentive and motivation:

“People tend to think what the Red Arrows do is very technical or skills based. But the selection process is 90% people based.”

This is great advice for anyone interested in motivation. Even on the Red Arrows, attitude is given equal weighting to skill in the pilot recruitment process; the ability and willingness to be a team player is key.

Justin says: “Skills can be taught.  Therefore, recruitment and retention efforts should focus on those who choose the team agenda and have the motivation to do the job to the best of their abilities.”


“In a hospital operating team there is no financial incentive to adopt a team working model.”

The premise is that teamwork happens when it is required rather than when it is designed, and that there is a motivation born simply from an understanding what the common goal is.  Justin says “When people have genuine ownership of an issue and care about the outcome, they are far more likely to adopt the behaviour required.”

“The most important (thing) is team clarity, without which we are in a near certain path to mediocrity.”

Whatever the scenario, Justin considers three key questions to ensure optimum results: What do we want to achieve, why do we want to achieve it and what is the most effective approach?  If motivation is lacking in your business it might be due to the lack of role clarity and understanding of the common goal.

Justin says: “When people have a clear understanding of these three factors, the allocation of resources can be optimized.  Make sure you have task and role clarity so everyone knows what’s expected of them.  The manager or team leader’s job should be context and goal-setting, not micro-managing.”

“You cannot make people into great teams simply because you legislate it so.”

Every business leader wants a high-performance team, but there’s more to it than just setting up desks and joint projects. Justin refers to four key attributes that all high-performance teams possess: clarity, performance goals, a common approach and mutual accountability.

Justin says: “If the four factors that Katzenburg and Smith (The Wisdom of Teams, 2015) outline are present, you then get a ‘real team’ which functions effectively.  Katzenburg and Smith also identify a fifth factor for high performance: team members committed to one another’s personal growth and success.”

“Doing an individual great job is irrelevant if we don’t achieve the mission.”

Today, many incentives are focused on an individual’s performance.  But every business has a set of over-arching objectives and hitting these should be the measure of success.

Justin says: “My view is that mutual accountability is a prerequisite for any high-performance team.  I like simple models which pass the common sense and real world applicability tests, where I can clearly see the relevance from my own experiences e.g. on the Red Arrows.  Doing an individual great job is irrelevant if we don’t achieve the mission.  Flying your jet perfectly is irrelevant if the show is not perfect.  This premise works equally well in the commercial world.”

Everyone is an aviator”

Like saying ‘everyone is in sales’, Justin again raises the common goal theme with this quirky phrase that makes managers think – is everyone aware of the organisation’s objectives?  Are we all setting out on the same journey?

Justin says: “The most famous (apocryphal?) example of this issue is the cleaner at NASA who was asked what their job was: ‘Putting a man on the moon.’  This is a great example of focusing on the ends, not just the means, and alignment throughout an organisation.  But everybody needs to understand the same goal.”

 “Nobody will put their head above the parapet if they think there is a good chance of the messenger being shot.”

This great quote highlights the all-too-common scenario where staff do not feel empowered to speak up, even if they have strong feelings about a particular issue. To empower your staff, Justin recommends introducing a no-blame culture and rewarding people who exhibit the honesty to contribute to that.

Justin says: “Never underestimate the importance of the debrief, a key factor in continuous improvement. It’s an objective and honest assessment of team performance against a plan, with equal input from all team members and no seniority.  Everybody is equal and everybody is there to learn.  It’s not about giving anyone a hard time.”