Embedding a Culture of Empowerment: A Conversation With Robert Hastings

By Robert Hastings & Owen Daugherty

In the latest installment of McChrystal Group’s Senior Advisor Interview Series, Robert Hastings shares how he challenges his teams and empowers them to operate independently, plus the ways in which failure can help someone grow and reach their full potential.

McChrystal Group Senior Advisor Robert Hastings brings with him a background of more than 40 years in communications spanning the military, government, industry, and non-profit sectors. Hastings is a former Principal Deputy/Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs, appointed by President George W. Bush to lead all Department of Defense communications and public information programs, and was most recently chief marketing & communications officer for Bell Textron Inc. In the following Q&A, Hastings discusses his progression through the various roles and titles he has held and how he leads teams to embrace a culture of innovation and risk-taking.

Q: You've held a wide variety of roles. Can you discuss your career path and development as a leader?

A: There was one key conversation I had early in my professional life that eventually led me to take advantage of the opportunities that have come my way. It was with the gentleman at the time who was the global chairman of British Aerospace. Shortly after I joined that company following my time in the Army, I was enrolled in a high-potential program, and everyone in the program was assigned a mentor. I lucked out and got the chairman as my mentor. I had one private dinner with him one night when he asked me, “what do you want to do in this company?”

Here I am with the chairman, so as you can imagine I didn't want to say anything stupid or worse sign up for a job I didn't want or have him think I had no ambition. I didn't immediately have an answer, he said “I'll answer that for you.”

“Close your eyes and jump,” is what he said. “Just close your eyes and jump. Wherever you land, enjoy the experiences and the opportunities that come to you.” That was his message for me. And I thought at the time that it was the craziest advice ever because I had always learned to take charge of my career, plan my career, and be deliberate about my opportunities. And here was this highly successful gentleman saying to just close my eyes and jump.

What I took from that dinner conversation was to say yes.  When opportunities come your way say yes.   I’ve carried that with me all these years and it has led me to a series of incredible jobs and experiences.  When opportunities come to you, just say yes.

Q: Balancing between being a doer and a leader can be challenging. How did you navigate this balance in your career?

A: As a leader, it's crucial to strike a balance between being hands-on and empowering others. While I had a doer mindset from my military and early career experiences, I realized that as a leader my role was to focus on setting the vision, building trust, empowering teams, and most importantly developing the next generation of leaders. This meant letting go of certain tasks and encouraging my team members to take ownership.

You can't be the only one doing things, because if you are, then the organization eventually is going to fail at some level of execution. As a senior executive if you're putting your brainpower into the tactical work you are not doing the job that the organization needs you to do. The chief executives or senior executives need to be setting the vision.

And if they’re in the weeds working on all the tactical issues, they’re also not focusing on the most important thing that leaders are responsible for and that's growing the next generation of leaders.

Q: You mentioned the importance of empowerment as a leader. How did you ensure that empowerment was embedded in the culture of your teams? 

A: Empowerment starts with being empowered yourself. As a leader, I’ve always endeavored to make sure my teammates felt empowered by giving them ownership of their ideas and projects, and more importantly, the authority and resources to execute their ideas. I encouraged them to think big and take initiative. When I came across the concept of Team of Teams through a TED Talk, I knew that was something our organization could utilize. And I felt completely empowered to pursue it and bring it back to my boss and say, “this is what we’ve been needing.” I made sure my team felt the same way by providing them the freedom to make decisions and supporting their ideas.

Q: Where does allowing some level of failure fit into driving innovation and growth within an organization?

A: In our society today, we revolt at the use of the word failure. Failure can be a good thing. If you're going to fail, at least fail moving forward with some kind of positive movement. Failing forward realy means learning from failure.

I personally have learned a lot from failure, and too often people focus on the wrong word. They focus on failure as opposed to learning. A leader must create a learning environment and one of the important things the military teaches us, and I know that McChrystal Group does this as well, is the after-action review.

There are two after-action reviews that teams should do all the time. The first we used to call the hot wash. That’s where you just finished something, and while it's fresh in your mind, you take five minutes to discuss what worked, what didn’t, and what can be improved upon going forward. It allows teams to capture the big ideas quickly.

Then down the road, you complete a formal and more thorough review. That's where you take off your armor and dig into the learning. It's a space for real growth, and if an after-action review focuses too much on who's responsible for that success or failure, then you're not going to get to the deep learning. It's important to focus on the positive learnings and what can be improved.

To foster a culture of innovation and risk-taking, I always did my best to encourage idea-sharing and experimentation where failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as they could learn from it. By having spaces where team members are encouraged to freely express their thoughts and suggestions, it provides space for creativity where calculated risk-taking is celebrated in real-time and efforts that lead to meaningful outcomes are celebrated.

Robert Hastings

Senior Advisor

Robert Hastings is the Principal of Robert Hastings & Associates, a leadership and communications consultancy focused on the aerospace, defense, and mobility sectors. As a veteran C-Suite advisor, Hastings is a proven leader, business executive, strategic communicator, author, and veterans advocate with a track record of success spanning a forty-year multifaceted career in the military, corporate leadership, and public service.

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Owen Daugherty

Communications Manager

Owen Daugherty is the Communications Manager at McChrystal Group, where he is responsible for crafting and promoting content across various platforms, including web, audio, and video. He also leads McChrystal Group's external media relations initiatives, working with senior leaders to elevate the group's position in the market.

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