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Home > EMPOWER Press/Media > Afterburner: SOAR TO NEW HEIGHTS

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Former USAF fighter pilot Jim Murphy applies a Top Gun mentality to business strategy with his fast-rising corporate training company Afterburner Seminars.

Imagine yourself in the cockpit of an F-15 fighter plane, zipping through the air at 1,200mph. You have no idea how to operate the controls, no sense of the mission you're about to tackle, no understanding of the risks involved and no insight into how your efforts will impact the future. Ready to hit the eject button yet? Former fighter pilot Jim Murphy wouldn't be surprised if you were. Murphy, founder of the Atlanta-based corporate training company Afterburner Seminars, says workers aren't motivated unless they have a clear sense of how they fit into an organization's future plan.

"Motivation is about clear expectations," Murphy says. "When people clearly understand where an organization is going and feel they were involved in the planning to get to that future picture, then they will feel empowered and motivated. People aren't motivated when there are a lot of questions and unknowns."

In 1990, it took only 18 months for the Air Force to teach Murphy, a self-described Kentucky farm boy, how to master a sophisticated, $30 million aircraft. At the time, Murphy, a former photocopier salesman, remembers wondering how the US Government taught recruits like him how to execute flawlessly-and on their own-in rapidly-changing and occasionally hostile environments in such a short amount of time. "I thought that if Corporate America could learn 1/100th of this and do what the Air Force did with me in a short period of time, just think how effective corporations and business people could be," Murphy says.

The thought served as the foundation for the company he'd start in the mid-'90s. After testing his flawless execution principles at Southern California paint company Smiland Paint-where sales went from $5 million to $52 million during his two-year tenure- Murphy launched Afterburner in 1996. Since then, Afterburner, which has made Inc. 500's list of fastest growing companies twice, has taught the likes of Home Depot and Wal-Mart how to take a Top Gun approach to business growth.

"The Air Force understands that fighter pilots must execute flawlessly or they die," Murphy says. "So we have some credibility when it comes to fulfilling a mission. Corporate America, meanwhile, is good at developing strategies but is poor at communicating them to the people who are accountable for executing them in the field. Salespeople, service clerks and the like are the fighter pilots of an organization; the destiny of a company lies with them. Companies that execute well figure out how to communicate their strategies down to that fighter pilot level. Those that can't, ultimately fail."

Companies that execute well figure out how to distill or communicate their strategies down to fighter pilot level. Those that can't ultimately fail.

Nevada-based gold mining company Meridian Gold knows just how crucial it is to communicate its corporate vision throughout its ranks; if its country managers and geologists don't understand why they're tramping through the dense jungles and mountains of South and Central America, then they're going to be less effective in doing their jobs.

"Having a clearer understanding of where we're taking the organization from a strategic perspective motivates them to perform well," says Darrin L. Rohr, Meridian Gold's Vice President. Rohr says Meridian Gold hired Afterburner twice this year to help them with the development and execution of a new strategic plan.

The key to successful corporate missions, Murphy says, sometimes involves shaking up the status quo. "Everything around us operates as a system, so you have to understand that and be able to change those systems in order to meet your organization's future picture," Murphy says. "One big problem with that is that all systems resist change. So sometimes you have to shock that system all at once so that you can put it into a new energy state."

Murphy's corporate Shock and Awe campaign begins by mapping all the internal and external elements that impact a company- anything from employees to the competition-so they can determine which factors have the most leverage over a company's performance. Once those elements are identified, they should be changed so that a company can meet its ultimate goals, Murphy says.

"Instead of us guessing how these elements will affect the strategy of our business, we've got a strategy that gives us ownership of these elements so we can change them to meet our future picture," Murphy says.

Companies like Atlanta-based contact lens manufacturer CIBA Vision have warmed to Afterburner's approach. CIBA Vision hired Afterburner twice in 2004-once to train the top 10% of its salespeople and once to help them devise a product launch-and has been pleased with the results so far.

"I think our sales team is better prepared to manage multiple priorities," says Larry MacGirr, CIBA Vision's Vice President of North American lens sales. "There's not a lot of time between sales calls, so the situation can be very stressful. Now, our sales team knows how to anticipate their environment and develop a plan for dealing with certain situations so they can think things through and make better choices. They feel like they're in better control of their day now"

Afterburner used military models to help CIBA Vision plan a product launch that would allow them to have maximum impact on the market they served. A launch binder full of tasks, deadlines and contingencies was the result of those sessions, giving the company a "far superior plan than we had gone to market with in the past," MacGirr says.

Because the sales team played a role in that planning, MacGirr says they feel like they have ownership of a plan they believe will get results.

"Their mindset is that they now have a process to deal with what has been a challenging job with multiple priorities," MacGirr says. "So they're confident in their ability to execute and excited to have a process to help them manage their selling day, week and month."

But no mission is complete without a comprehensive debriefing session where workers rehash what went right and what went wrong so they can be more effective the next time they execute.

Most companies fail to debrief. They plan, brief and execute but then they'll repeat the same mistakes again and again.

"Most companies fail to do this," Murphy says. "They plan, brief and execute, but then they'll repeat the same mistakes again and again. We get everyone to admit their errors and successes in front of their peers, supervisors and subordinates. If they've forgotten something, we'll point it out to them. The reason we do this is that when you repeat mistakes, sometimes people don't come back from a mission. So it's critical to walk away with a lesson learned, so you can take that to the plan and make it tighter."

For more information on Jim Murphy and Afterburner, visit His first book, Business is Combat, is available now from Regan Books; the follow-up, A Fighter Pilot's Guide to Flawless Execution, is due out this spring.


Jim Murphy has built a career based on teaching companies how to apply fighter pilot tactics to the way they do business. His five-point plan is a roadmap for getting employees motivated to execute flawless missions.

  1. Determine a mission objective that is clear, measurable, achievable and supports a desired outcome.
  2. Identify all threat"?internal and external-to the mission's objective.
  3. Identify the resources available to combat those threats.
  4. Review the lessons learned from similar missions, develop courses of action and plan for contingencies.
  5. Brief the plan to those held accountable for executing it.