Inspiring Trust at All Levels of a Company with James “Chef” Barlow at Blue Air Training

When you have are inspiring trust throughout the company, you know you are creating a place where people get things done. Leaders know that inspiring trust is a huge part of a strong culture. In the absence of trust, you have to deal with silos, blaming others, and a plethora of distractors of success. Today’s guest is “Chef” James Barlow, CEO at Blue Air Training. Inc Magazine ranked Blue Air Training #743 on the 2020 Inc 5000 list. James has lead the company to three consecutive honors on the Inc 5000 list. James and I discuss the fundamentals of inspiring trust at all levels of the company. We look at the enemies of trust. Discover how you can improve your leaders by inspiring trust across the organization.

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James “Chef” Barlow: The Transcript

About: James “Chef” Barlow is the CEO at Blue Air Training’s responsibility is to provide JTAC’s, JFO’s, and Ground Commanders the best possible Close Air Support training available anywhere.

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Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.

James Chef Barlow
I had to be very guarded, when I give instruction to, to give it in the role I’m playing. If I’m if I’m a mech one today, then I give instruction as a mech one. If there’s something that needs to come top down, I will disengage, go talk to that appropriate supervisor, and then come down. I’d like to tell you, I knew that from day one. But but there’s, there’s something that it’s called a chef said, which we have outlawed in this company. But because it was a chef said, we got to go do this. And it’s the whole thing. It’s the whole joke of when the general walks down the hall and says he likes the color blue. And then a lieutenant colonel tells everybody that general wants to have that house painted blue. So it’s I have, I have to be very guarded against doing.

Intro [0:48]
Welcome to Growth Think Tank. This is the one and only place where you will get insight from the founders and the CEOs, the fastest-growing privately held companies. I am the host, my name is Gene Hammett. I hope leaders and their teams navigate the defining moments of their growth. Are you ready to grow?

Gene Hammett [1:06]
But how do you as a leader inspire trust across all levels of the company? You know, it’s important to have those people trust you as a leader. But it’s also important for you to trust them. And so what are the mechanisms you use to make sure that you have a culture of trust? Well, that’s the core of today’s conversation, inspiring trust across all levels of the company. We have a special guest today. His name is Chef, his real name, or given name is James Barlow. He is the founder of Blue Air Training. They are a really unique kind of training organization that prepares people and actually flies airplanes weaponized for the Air Force. It really is an exciting kind of conversation to have about some of the work that they do. But even more important to you is how do you inspire trust? inspiring trust as a leader is something you should be thinking about? Probably more than you do. Because trust is such a critical element to the success of the organization. Do people feel heard to they feel valued appreciated, to they respect you as a leader, all of those things are unpacked inside this episode, we go through some of the details of you know, what is the difference between micromanaging and actually, you know, leading people to the next level?

Gene Hammett [2:26]
Well, we look at that today with Jeff. Now if you haven’t already downloaded the training, that is about you becoming a better leader and leading a group of eight players, make sure you go to Inside that you will see the three mistakes that are most often come up inside of growing companies as it relates to leadership, and you can actually fix them. We give you everything we can inside that short training, just go to Here’s the interview with James.

James Chef Barlow [2:52]
Which weaponized Airforce to fly missions for the actual US Air Force. So when you are scheduling Air Forces, the blue air is the good guys. And the red air is the bad guys. So we’ve all seen a movie where the army gets in a gunfight, there’s a guy on the ground that gets on the radio and talks to airplanes. And then the Air Force comes in drops bombs and saves the day, we train the guy on the ground on how to properly talk to a fighter aircraft to get bombs on the ground in close proximity to friendlies to do close air support,

Gene Hammett [3:25]
That sounds like something that shouldn’t be possible.

James Chef Barlow [3:29]
Illegal, it’s absolutely illegal. It is illegal to arm with live weapons, a civilian-owned airplane, except if you are an ATF arms manufacturer, which we are and then you have to be inspected and actually brought on to a governmental status by the Air Force army or Navy. So so they actually, we report with our airplanes to the Air Force for airworthiness and not the FAA. So the aircraft, although civilian-owned, operate in a governmental status.

Gene Hammett [4:02]
Now, I will go ahead and say this, I’ve never had to do this, but your your callsign with a chef, your real name is James Barlow. Just give us a brief reason why I’m going to be calling you chef throughout this episode.

James Chef Barlow [4:14]
So one because normally only my mom and my wife call me James anymore. But so when you’re, you know, on the eve of Top Gun to coming out, you know, everyone throws the maverick and The Iceman around, but but really, fighter pilots do go by callsign. So you spend three years becoming combat mission ready in a fighter squadron. And then when you’re ready, they kick you out of the squadron bar. And everyone tells all the funny stories that you’ve accumulated over the last three years and then they come up with a name that suits you. And that’s your name, period. You don’t go by James my fact we used to have first name Fridays and no one could remember anyone’s first name. So we went back to call signs. So rather than being a cook, I supposedly always had something cooking so chef stuff.

Gene Hammett [4:58]
Well now you know why I’m calling Chef and what that means. So I want to dive into our episode today, you know, I study fast-growth companies. Blue Air Training has not made the list once, but three times by my count, and continuing to get some good numbers. It’s hard to keep keep the pace of 106 in 2017. What do you learn about growing and leading a fast-growth company?

James Chef Barlow [5:27]
So in 2017, we were 106, then 504, that, and 743. And not yet released. But we’ve made the list again this year. But even in 2017, I said, my goal, I would like to be 4999. Because the faster you’re having to run, it’s often at the expense of efficiency, it’s often at the expense of, of being able to have the time and the patience to, you know, methodically set up your structure and be able to structure for a past business. And a lot of times, you’re just running to try to keep up. So, so fast, is often applauded, but is not always the most comfortable as a business owner.

Gene Hammett [6:09]
So I think a lot of people tune in today, because one of the reasons that make this podcast different unique from others, is we’re not just talking about business, we’re not just talking about, you know, you know, what can we do to grow but I’m, I’m talking with founders, just like yourself, co founder CEOs, that are, you know, grown fast growth companies, but also doing it from a perspective, that is, what I’ve learned from it is really different. It’s not just a hard driving numbers game, it’s really about the people around you tell us a little bit more about why it’s so much about the people growing a fast growth company.

James Chef Barlow [6:45]
It’s absolutely about the people, it’s it’s more than we’re in a very equipment heavy. You know, we’re in a very equipment heavy industry. If we were a country, we would rank number 19 amongst the 138 Air Forces of the world per global firepower in the attack aircraft category. So we’ve got tactical Data Link machine guns, we buy bombs from the same factories that make them for the Air Force, but all that runs on people because I can put the best airplane in the field that money can buy. But if I don’t have the right voice, on the radio, and if he’s not doing the correct tactics or, or the coordination isn’t right, or the logistics isn’t right, or the maintenance, for some reason, something is wired wrong, none of it happens. So it’s completely about the people.

Gene Hammett [7:33]
Now, it’s really easy to say it’s all about the people. But I think what’s hard is to define what are the core elements that that help you, as a leader, align this and I know my team has worked with you to figure out the importance of trust and respect inside of the company. Tell us why those are so important to employees and, and your business?

James Chef Barlow [7:56]
Well, especially for our business, three to five, one week long training exercises across the country in a different place every week, 48 weeks out of the year. So so we’ve got these aircraft loaded up with live weapons, million dollar sensors on the wings, and I don’t see them there. They’re out at Fort Benning, they’re, they’re in North Carolina, they’re in, you know, New Mexico where and so we we have something that we borrowed from the Air Force called the detachment commander, and that persons in charge, so I give my strategic vision on how things are supposed to go. The next the vice president level is the next level down. And each one in their area defines what the guidelines, you know, between 10, you know, stay between 10 and two o’clock, and then that person is empowered with their own maintenance team, their own bomb loaders, their own aircraft. And they coordinate directly with the client to set up the exercise. And they go, I don’t know when they’re flying, who they’re talking to what they’re doing until already back. And a lot of times based on those levels. I don’t hear about it until it’s a quarterly summary. So you have to be able to trust them.

Commentary [9:11]
Let me break in here for a second. If you happen to be listening to this on YouTube, make sure you go ahead and hit the thumbs up if you like this content, we want to create more just for you so that you can be a stronger, more effective leader. If you want to subscribe to make sure you don’t miss an episode. That’d be fantastic. And if you haven’t hit the bell notification button to be notified the next time we post content, then do that as well. I look forward to helping you be a stronger leader, be more visionary, and be more effective in leading growth across your company.

Gene Hammett [9:40]
I know that you have about 60 plus employees Is that about right?

James Chef [9:44]

Gene Hammett [9:47]
So it doesn’t happen like that overnight. Let’s go back in the journey of this like Were you always able to empower the people when you first started hiring the first set of people Are when you you you bring on new people into the team? Or is it something you’ve learned in this journey of leadership?

James Chef [10:07]
Well, I will share with you so we were. So we we kick this off with two men in a truck. Basically, I did my I actually did my aircraft mechanic training. So I was the director of maintenance, I was the lead bomb loader, I was, you know, to Hanes was, was, you know, several, several things, we had another guy who was not here, I was still not with the company, who was the chief pilot at the time. And we actually, we’re at the 30 personnel neighborhood, and that for years, and we grew very fast, and we were up over 100. And now we’re back down to 67.

James Chef [10:47]
To get to the point of why the why the number because the flying workload, we’ve had 100% market share for the Air Force for five years now. Which the flying load has been about even. But when when you’re growing so fast, hey, I need somebody for this, I need somebody for this, I need some. And that fast growth is often at the expense of efficiency. And another aspect of that is is it’s often or sometimes Mr. Right now versus Mr. Right? So, hey, I need somebody to do this job, you’re available, you’ll do it. Go. And, and so you’ll have some personnel turnover as that’s all going because you need somebody in that seat. And then as time goes by, sometimes quickly, sometimes not quickly, people will self identify that they’re either above their head or just not able to continue at that pace. When you think about engaging your next level of leaders that are emerging inside your company. How do you teach them the importance of trust and respect across the organization, for me and for blue air and for my experience, is counter to the airforce. Because you go to Squadron officer school Air Command and Staff College and you have that very structured leadership training. But so what was different because we’re at 7%. Military and everyone’s used to that previous model, is it’s important to engage at all levels. And everyone can say, I walked the floor, and I say hello, well, guess what anybody can stand on their head while the CEO walks across the floor. But I actually you know, will go and engage and, and I like to, I strive to be a servant leader.

James Chef [12:39]
So if the floor needs mopping, I go mop the floor. And if the bathroom needs cleaning, my wife, Dr. Gretchen Barlow will go clean the bathroom sometimes or if I’m not doing it. And I’ll go work on airplanes and I’ll you know, I’m certified as a mech level mechanic level one. And I will go and cut out a day to actually work with the people on the line. And that doesn’t mean you’re stepping over there. leadership’s but it’s but it’s actual engagement at all levels. versus just, Hey, how you doing? You got everything you need. Great. And then you walk out.

Commentary [13:11]
Hold on for a second chef just said, it’s important to engage at all levels. Well, what does that mean? To me, it means you want to be in the trenches, sometimes you want to be on the frontlines with your people. I had an interview with Frank Blake, one of the CEOs or former CEO of Home Depot. And he talked about the importance for him to put on an orange apron, if you’ve ever been there, you know what that means. And for him just to walk the floor, and he would see things and be able to engage with people in such a unique way. In fact, none of the customers knew who he was because the CEOs of some of these big corporations are not famous, if you will. But Frank Blake understood the importance of being in the trenches. And I think that’s exactly what chef is talking about today is engaging at all levels. It’s not going and just saying, Hey, how are you, and moving on with your day, it’s really taking the time to connect with those people. Now, it gets harder as your team grows. So it’s important to do it as your team is where it is today. Because tomorrow, as you add one person or 10 people next year, or whatever it may be, it gets harder and harder. Do it now to keep your finger on the pulse of the team. Back to the interview show.

Gene Hammett [14:23]
Now that is very different than what a lot of people do. And and what you’re describing there is it’s not micromanagement, but I think some people can confuse that. Tell us a little bit about your perspective on macro-management. As your company has evolved, right?

James Chef Barlow [14:36]
I like to be micro informed, because part of the whole chef ism. And my wife jokes about this all the time is like I like to work on three things at the same time. Like I’ve got, I’ve got different windows up on different browser types and I will have three different things that I’m working on at the same time. Because it for me, it keeps it fresh, fresh, fresh, fresh stuff. So I like to engage At all levels, and I’d like to be micro informed, I want to know that the forward hoist bolt on the PC, nine wing is a 716 with a 20 thread, I like to know those things. I’m not going to be the guy that goes out and does that. But I like to feed my brain information. So that way when I’m, you know, when I’m working with the guys, I’m like, I need a, you know, a seven sixteenths on that and away you go. I have to be very guarded. When I give instruction to, to give it in the role I’m playing, if I’m a mech one today, that I give instruction as a Mac one. If there’s something that needs to come top-down, I will disengage, go talk to that appropriate supervisor, and then come down. I’d like to tell you, I knew that from day one. But but there’s, there’s something that it’s called a chef said, which we have outlawed in this company. But because it was well, Chef said we got to go do this. And it’s the whole thing. It’s all a joke of when the general walks down the hall and says he likes the color blue. And then a lieutenant colonel tells everybody the general wants to have the house painted blue. So it’s I have, I have to be very guarded against doing that.

Gene Hammett [16:13]
Now, I got to put a spotlight on that you outlawed this the saying and I think it’s because

James Chef [16:18]
We’re not allowed to. And you’re not allowed to say chefs that

Gene Hammett [16:22]
Say that again. Because maybe I was talking over you.

James Chef [16:25]
Sorry, you’re not allowed to say executive because that that to me. And then in our culture has a connotation of Oh, my God, I’m an executive that’s beneath me. And we don’t play that. And the chef said to do this, if it didn’t come through a formal channel that you don’t say, well, Chef said, and then go outside your normal chain.

Gene Hammett [16:46]
I really appreciate you going through that, because I think a lot of leaders, they still love the control. And it’s it’s really interesting coming from a military background, because military is built on life or death. Like there’s, you know, people follow orders or people die. And and that’s not that’s more than just a movie quote, right? It’s leadership inside of a corporate engagement is a little bit different. There’s a lot more empowerment, I think, inside of your business. And is that correct? fair to say?

James Chef [17:15]
Yes. And it has to be so. So you know, we’ve got 67 employees right now, but but we’ve got three bases. So I’ve got full-time operations in Pensacola, Florida, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Yuma, Arizona, plus all of that hub, hub, and spoke operations. So at any given time, I could be at eight different bases simultaneously. So so it would be different if I could just walk out here and talk to 67 people, but that is not the case. So you have to you have to be regularly engaged. But with a vision and guidance, specific enough to be executed, but not so specific, that it doesn’t give the employees enough latitude to make decisions.

Gene Hammett [17:55]
When you think about your the mistakes that you’ve made as a leader, walk us through something that has really defined your own version of leadership that you have today.

James Chef [18:06]
I wish I could say that, I wish I could come up with some, like, oh, I’m too trusting, or I’m too whatever that. But that’s not the case, I’ve made several mistakes. Some were my own and some were at the fault of my fault, because as a co CEO, it doesn’t have to be your fault to be your fault. So so it’s your fault, regardless. But to answer your question, then the mistakes have been sometimes to be too trusting too early, or to maybe, you know, piggybacking on the statement, I just said, you know, you have to give specific enough guidance. So maybe guidance was not too specific. And then, and then the third part of that is no one knows your business better than you as as the founder, as the guy who’s on the line working at every minute of every day, if your eyes are open, you’re thinking about your business, no one knows that as well as you.

James Chef [19:02]
So I’ve had to be guarded and making sure that I don’t get frustrated when someone didn’t see that second step before it happened, or someone didn’t know that this other thing is going on over here, when they’re over there. Like how could you not know that? Well, that’s because they don’t have the visibility. So communication laterally is just as important as communication up and down.

Gene Hammett [19:26]
When you think about, you know, the routines and the strategy used to to bind everybody together and to provide the connection necessary for company to grow at the pace you have. What are some of the uncommon or counterintuitive strategies that you look to that make that possible?

James Chef [19:43]
So I used to use the term still actually do this but I just don’t use the term about you know, I was a you know, a single dad with with two very young boys early in my 20s and With 100% custody, so I did, I raised them, they used to call me mapa. So when, when you’re when you’re raising young kids, you know, one of the things you have the honor of doing is teach them how to ride a bike. And when you bring people into your company, it’s like teaching them how to ride a bike, they’ve written bikes, but they haven’t ridden this bike. So so what I used to always say was, what I’m going to do is I’m going to let you ride the bike, and I’m going to hold on to the seat post. And just like with my sons, who are now both in the Air Force, you know, you start letting go with that seat post a little bit. And then before you know it, they turn around, and they’re doing it all by themselves. And I had a marine Lieutenant Colonel, who I had said that that phrase, too, and he said he was offended. Well, you know, I’m sorry about your feelings. But guess what, this is not your company, it’s, you’re going to be become a part of it, and we call it the blue air family. But at the end of the day, it’s my ass.

James Chef [21:00]
So sure enough, that person was was hard to work with, they wanted to do their own way, they they actually, you know, Drew, you know, created a wedge in the company. So, to bring it all around, you know, as, as the founder, you’ve got to, you’ve got to come up with your vision, and you got to be able to package that and, and impart that on all your employees top down. And you have to keep you have to trust, but also verify that they’re executing that vision until you don’t have to verify it anymore. Two hands, for example, I don’t know what two hands is doing today. But I guarantee, it’s in line with my vision, the company’s mission, and he’s probably think fixing problems that I don’t even know exist yet. Because he’s been here long enough. And we just we even fly the airplane, the same techniques, because we’ve worked so closely together for a long time. So as a founder and as as the, the creative and as the visionary for a concept, whatever that might be. Being able to keep that fresh, and vision alive with new people and have it cascade down to the lower levels is absolutely.

Commentary [22:10]
Chef just said something really interesting in there. I don’t know if you caught it. But it doesn’t have to be your fault to be your fault. Well, that’s a very complex way for people to understand that, as a CEO, it’s always your fault. There’s no excuses for anyone else. If someone in your team isn’t communicating effectively enough, it’s your fault. Because you have not made that a priority, you have tolerated something else, something less than what what you expect. And you can’t blame others for them not showing up on time. Because all of the details behind where you are as a culture is because of you the CEO. Now, the hard part behind this is how do you take ownership for the problems, but also give others a chance to take ownership for too. That’s, you know, the dichotomy of leadership that really is difficult to explain. But the most simple way I can do this is you want to make sure that you are giving them ownership. But at the end of the day, you still own it. Period. Back to the interview with Chef.

Gene Hammett [23:13]
Now, I want to put one final question in here wasn’t planned. So I’m not trying to throw your curveball chef. But it’s really about vision. A lot of companies will say, you know, we had a vision at once. But we’re just so busy, and we’re trying to grow. And we’re just, we’re just trying to focus on the work. And I have to always have the conversations about you know, what vision is why it’s important. But you’ve mentioned it a number of times inside this interview, what is the final words on why vision is so important for an organization of people growing fast.

James Chef [23:47]
So you have to, you have to trust since today’s topic was trust and respect and you have to respect earns respect, up and down. So that’s, that’s the foundation that you build that trust on to be able to execute your vision. So you have to be able to explain why not just what they’re doing, but why they’re doing it. And then you’ve got to trust that they’re going to execute all those technical competencies, but to further the vision and mission of the actual company.

Gene Hammett [24:16]
Love it. Jeff, thanks for being here on the podcast.

James Chef [24:18]
Thank you so much, great honor.

Gene Hammett [24:20]
I just love having conversations with leaders that are evolving and strong and clear, and the vision that they have for the organization. They’re leading people the right way. Today, we had a chance to talk with Jeff about what his vision for leadership is, how it’s really impacted the growth of his company, and how you can do it too. If you’re wondering about what your next steps are, or what your next defining moment is as a leader, then make sure you think of me. I’d love to connect you with some of the frameworks and tools that I’ve used over the years to help leaders grow as leaders to create a more aligned team. I’ve got many specific tools that will help you be the leader that your people create. When you think Leadership you think of growth. Think of Growth Think Tank as always lead with courage. We’ll see you next time.

Disclaimer: This transcript was created using YouTube’s translator tool and that may mean that some of the words, grammar, and typos come from a misinterpretation of the video.


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