When Executive Training Is Like Military Boot Camp
Work is war — or it can feel that way to certain executives. To meet the moment, they’re getting in a cockpit.
By Emma Goldberg
“Your company is about to go on a rescue,” declared Christian Boucousis, who goes by the name Boo at work. “One of your company members went out to do reconnaissance and was shot down. Now you’re going to rescue your teammate and bring them home.”
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Mr. Boucousis, a former fighter pilot, is chief executive of an organization called Afterburner, which promises to teach “the same precision and accuracy as elite military aviators” to corporate clients. His firm has worked with Nike, Pepsi, Bank of America and many other brands. These businesses aren’t struggling to save teammates shot down by enemy squadrons. Their problems? Market competition, shareholder pressures, employee turnover.
Some corporate executives find it thrilling, though, to spend a few hours feeling less like C-suite dwellers and more like Tom Cruise.Even for a significant cost: Afterburner’s “Top Gun Experience” training starts at $10,000 for a small team and can climb to $100,000 for a larger one.
“If you lose sight of the airplane you’re fighting against, you lose the fight,” Mr. Boucousis said. “We use that as a metaphor — if you lose sight of your business objectives, you’re not going to achieve them.”
There are a lot metaphors at work in this growing field: The office as battlefield. Landing the plane in a tough quarter. Rallying the troops for a product launch.
Work is war — or it can feel that way to certain chief executives. To meet the moment, it’s the era of Top Gun-style leadership training.
Many business leaders responded to the last few years of uncertainty — work force churn, return-to-office struggles, economic flux — by bringing softer, more emotional conversations into boardrooms. Some encouraged open discussions of employee mental health in the office. One chief executive, drawing backlash, even posted a selfie on LinkedIn showing tears streaming down his face after he laid off two employees.
Others went in the opposite direction, embracing a new style of corporate machismo. Elon Musk challenged Mark Zuckerberg to a cage match; Mr. Zuckerberg, who has been training in Brazilian jiujitsu over the past 18 months, texted the president of the Ultimate Fighting Championship to see if his rival had been serious about the proposition.
Corporate offices have long been filled with signs of aggression: shouting, cursing, traders pacing the floors with lacrosse sticks. Many of those came under scrutiny amid a push for more diversity and inclusion in the corporate world. But during times of economic pressure, the chest-thumping can sometimes come back in full force, some management experts say.
“Leaders are trying to regain a sense of control they feel they’ve lost over the last few years,” said Cali Williams Yost, a workplace strategist. “They’re searching to reassert control and power in a way that feels familiar.”
Companies have long valued military experience in hiring. Hollywood has for decades valorized military leaders as the ultimate examples of strength. But now corporate executives are actually play acting as military members. Hundreds of companies are turning to unorthodox programs that use fighter pilot simulations, military principles and even NASCAR pit stop techniques to train business executives on responding to uncertainty and flux.
Women can and do participate in these trainings, but many of the companies offering them are run by men — a source of concern for some management experts, who say workers are looking for more empathic leadership styles, not hyperaggressive ones. The share of Fortune 500 companies run by women only just crept over the 10 percent mark this year.
“I don’t think it aligns with what most people say they’re looking for in a leader, which is human-centric, empathetic, collaborative,” Ms. Yost added.
I spent two hours doing my own F35 flight simulation through a company called the Squadron, which has an office in the World Trade Center in Lower Manhattan. I put on a jumpsuit, sat behind a simulator and tried to navigate a fighter plane around Lake Mead, near Las Vegas. The Squadron team told me I should be aiming to crash no more than two times. I crashed five times.
A trainer had explained preflight that crashing isn’t all bad: “If you didn’t crash, what’s the cost? You didn’t take any chances.”
Five crashes also wasn’t ideal. “Plan better and know which targets you want to take,” another Squadron trainer advised me. “Planning is big money for you.”
Walking around the Squadron’s office, I met Tal Kerret, president of Silverstein Properties, which controls the lease on the World Trade Center site, who told me he had completed the F35 simulation and encouraged his employees to do the same.
“I need my team to perform under pressure,” Mr. Kerret said, explaining the stress of owning corporate real estate in New York City right now, as the industry endures its own crash driven by remote work. “We live in a world of risk. When you buy a property, when you develop a property, it’s an impossible thing to do something with zero risk.”
For clients of Afterburner and the Squadron (which came to New York in 2022), the experience of going on a fighter jet mission is not really the point. What’s more important is the debrief that follows the mission, when teammates discuss their weaknesses and identify the causes of their mistakes, so they can avoid those errors going forward.
“We come back after a mission and ask ourselves, ‘Hey, what did we set out to achieve today?’” Mr. Boucousis said.
Military veterans, like Jocko Willink, a former Navy SEAL, are unsurprised that a period of workplace chaos is pushing companies to rethink management, sometimes in extreme ways.
“The pandemic revealed that we need better leadership,” Mr. Willink said. “When people aren’t coming into work and you no longer see them every day, you have to use better decentralized command. That’s a classic law of combat leadership.”
Mr. Willink recalled a frightening operation during his time as a SEAL when he had to send his team to an isolated area where he wouldn’t be able to support them. “A lot was riding on my guys being able to execute their mission,” he said, adding that business leaders also have to constantly weigh risk. “It’s not the same consequences, but you have a lot riding on your shoulders.”
Whether Navy SEALS wisdom translates to a product release, though, isn’t clear. “The question is — is it meant to be fun? Is it meant to be photographed? Or is it meant to be impactful?” Melissa Nightingale, a co-founder of the management training firm Raw Signal Group, said of professional development. “About 75 percent of professional development efforts fall on the floor.”
Still, regardless of how fleeting the benefits, the management machismo keeps spreading, as companies clamor to train their employees in ways that don’t involve a Zoom screen. Like, for example, in a racecar pit.
In Raleigh, N.C., a financial technology company called Constellation Digital Partners brought its employees together — some meeting in person for the first time — to simulate a NASCAR pit stop. The training was facilitated by a company called Over the Wall, which was started by a former NASCAR pit crew coach, Andy Papathanassiou; rates start at $10,000 and vary depending on the size of the group and how much time it spends training.
Constellation’s roughly 30 employees gathered in their office parking lot around a green racecar. The employees took off lug nuts with an air wrench, hoisted off the car’s 50-pound tire, swapped in a new tire and got the lug nuts back on. They were dripping in sweat, sunscreen and grease, looking like the harried pit stop crew members of the Tom Cruise movie “Days of Thunder.”
“It sounds silly for me to say, but the hardest part is actually getting the tire on,” said Kris Kovacs, the company’s chief executive. “What that teaches you is you’ve got to preplan. Hard things, if you practice at them and preplan, become easier and easier.”
In the months after the training, Mr. Kovacs said he saw his staff become more communicative. They understood how to share their weak points with one another.
“You can do all the ‘Kumbaya’ trust fall stuff,” he said. “Or you can get dirty with your team throwing tires onto NASCARs.”
Audio produced by Parin Behrooz.
Emma Goldberg covers the future of work for the Business section. More about Emma Goldberg