Workplace Conflict Resolution: Lockheed Martin Corporation’s Tom Burbage On How Team Leaders Can Create The Right Environment To Resolve Conflicts

An Interview With Eric Pines

Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine

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If there are elements in the workplace that cannot accept the way forward, provide coaching or reassign them. In severe circumstances, part ways.

An important component of leadership is conflict resolution. Why is conflict resolution so important? How can leaders effectively incorporate conflict resolution into their work culture? In this interview series called “Workplace Conflict Resolution: How Team Leaders Can Create The Right Environment To Resolve Conflicts,” we are talking to business leaders who can share insights and anecdotes from their experience about how to implement Conflict Resolution at work. As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Burbage

Tom Burbage, co-author of F-35: The Inside Story of the Lightning II, retired from the Lockheed Martin Corporation in April 2013. He was the President of the Lockheed Martin Aeronautical Systems Company and the Executive VP/GM for both the USAF F-22 Raptor and the multi-service, allied next generation fighter, the F-35.

Prior to joining Lockheed, Mr. Burbage was a Naval Aviator, completing the U.S. Navy Test Pilot School in 1975. He has accumulated more than 3,000 hours in 38 different types of military aircraft. As a reservist he retired as a Navy Captain in 1994.

Mr. Burbage has received numerous industry awards, including the U.S. Naval Academy/Harvard Business Review Award for Ethical Leadership; the Aerospace Industry Personality of the Year; the Society of Automotive Engineers Leadership in Aerospace Award; the Donald C. Burnham Award from the Society of Manufacturing Engineers; the Silver Knight Award from the National Management Association; three Aviation Week Magazine Laurels Awards and the Society of Experimental Test Pilots James H Doolittle Award for outstanding accomplishment in technical management and engineering achievement in aerospace technology. He was elected an Associate Fellow in the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics in recognition of notable contributions to the arts, sciences and technology of aeronautics and astronautics. He is also an honorary Fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Burbage currently serves as an Outside Director for Aerovironment, Inc. He also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Terma U.S. and the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Chemring. Inc. He is a member of the Board of Directors for GKN Advanced Defense Systems. He also is a member of the Strategic Advisory Board for TCOM, LLP.

Mr. Burbage received a bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering from the U.S. Naval Academy and holds master’s degrees in Aeronautical Systems from the University of West Florida and Business Administration from UCLA. Tom and his wife, Ellen, reside in Alpharetta, Ga., and have three daughters and twelve grandchildren.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I am the son of a Naval Aviator and my major role models in my formative years were from that community. I wanted to be one of them which influenced my decision to attend the U.S. Naval Academy and become a Navy pilot. I had the great fortune to attend the Naval Test Pilot School which grounded me well in the technical and design aspects of aeronautical engineering which I would find most helpful after leaving active duty and joining the Lockheed Corporation. Like most people, looking backward, my career path may look like a well-planned series of steps. In reality, it was mostly a story of working for a great company, being in the right place at the right time with a willingness to take risks when very challenging assignments came up.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

My favorite life lesson is to realize that every person has a unique perspective on the world. You can learn from all of them but you will never know them unless you make the effort to get to know them. There will always be a barrier that comes with your position in life no matter where you stand or what you do and only you can remove it.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Enjoy life’s challenges, it’s infectious.

There is no limit to what you or your team can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. Giving recognition to others will always result in greater good than seeking recognition for yourself.

Be a leader not a manager.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader?

On the F-35 program, we had an incident which involved two very strongly held, technical positions which divided the pilot and engineering teams. It also had a cultural, almost religious element to it. One group tended to be the very experienced pilots who had flown earlier aircraft with similar challenges and the second group were convinced there was a better way of doing things. The decision would have very long lasting effects on the program. The two groups came together for a meeting of the minds but remained split down the middle. My Chief Test Pilot and I had to make the final decision which we did based on the future benefits that could be achieved with the new approach. Although it was considered higher risk, it had a much higher potential reward over the long run. Once the decision was made there was no turning back.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s start with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. What does Conflict Resolution mean?

To me, conflict resolution is a critical element to shaping outcomes. Conflicting perspectives can be very constructive and can converge to a “better solution”. They can be very destructive if the conflict is allowed to promote a gridlock or even worse, loss of productivity, morale and commitment to achieving critical objectives.

This might be intuitive to you, but it will be helpful to clearly express this. Can you please explain why it is so important for leaders to learn and deploy conflict resolution techniques?

Thoughtful differences of opinion and introducing creative ideas are healthy characteristics of a vibrant workplace. Conflict may result when those opinions or ideas become personal or threatening. A leader’s responsibility is to be aware of the health of the workplace and recognize the warning signs early before they begin to reflect tension or hostility. Morale and productivity impacts will normally surface in short order if the situation is ignored.

Can you provide examples of how effective conflict resolution has led to increased team performance, collaboration, or innovation within your organization?

Often it is a matter of making a decision instead of allowing discontent to fester between opposing viewpoints. Once a decision is made, if it is in the best interest of the team, the team should be able to accept it and move on, restoring a sense of harmony.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Ways Every Team Leader Can Create The Right Environment To Resolve Conflicts”? If you can, please share specific examples of a workplace conflict you’ve encountered, and how you applied conflict resolution techniques to address it.

1 . Don’t be the smartest guy in the room- listen to all sides of any argument.

2 . Don’t rush to judgement but be committed to a timely resolution.

3 . Once the decision is made, make it a visible part of the plan going forward.

4 . If there are elements in the workplace that cannot accept the way forward, provide coaching or reassign them. In severe circumstances, part ways.

5 . Make conflict resolution a learning experience and part of the leadership training process.

In your experience, what are the most common sources of conflict within a team, and how do you proactively address these potential issues before they escalate?

There are two great quotes that really define conflict in the workspace for me. The first is from a guy named Layne Longfellow who said, “We all know the world through the world that we’ve known.” The second is from the great philosopher Mark Twain who said, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you do know that just ain’t so.” The strength of opinions can cause contentious fractures in the harmony of a coherent workplace. The stronger the opinions, the more destructive the potential is. Recognizing the fractures before they become critical is the job of a leader. Leaders must have the pulse of their organization to promote healthy debate and resolution based on fact, not opinion, to be successful. This will not happen if the leader is insulated from his workforce or is intolerant of differing opinions.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Make leadership a skill set with some defined qualities. To repeat myself from an earlier question, it is a complex subject but its three core elements are: 1. Enjoy life’s challenges, it’s infectious 2. There is no limit to what you or your team can accomplish if you don’t care who gets the credit. Giving recognition to others will always result in greater good than seeking recognition for yourself and 3. Be a leader not a manager.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach. He represents federal employees and acts as in-house counsel for over fifty thousand federal employees through his work as a federal employee labor union representative. A formal federal employee himself, Mr. Pines began his federal employment law career as in-house counsel for AFGE Local 1923 which is in Social Security Administration’s headquarters and is the largest federal union local in the world. He presently serves as AFGE 1923’s Chief Counsel as well as in-house counsel for all FEMA bargaining unit employees and numerous Department of Defense and Veteran Affairs unions.

While he and his firm specialize in representing federal employees from all federal agencies and in reference to virtually all federal employee matters, his firm has placed special attention on representing Veteran Affairs doctors and nurses hired under the authority of Title. He and his firm have a particular passion in representing disabled federal employees with their requests for medical and religious reasonable accommodations when those accommodations are warranted under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (ADA). He also represents them with their requests for Federal Employee Disability Retirement (OPM) when an accommodation would not be possible.

Mr. Pines has also served as a mediator for numerous federal agencies including serving a year as the Library of Congress’ in-house EEO Mediator. He has also served as an expert witness in federal court for federal employee matters. He has also worked as an EEO technical writer drafting hundreds of Final Agency Decisions for the federal sector.

Mr. Pines’ firm is headquartered in Houston, Texas and has offices in Baltimore, Maryland and Atlanta, Georgia. His first passion is his wife and five children. He plays classical and rock guitar and enjoys playing ice hockey, running, and biking. Please visit his websites at www.pinesfederal.com and www.toughinjurylawyers.com. He can also be reached at eric@pinesfederal.com.

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Eric L. Pines
Authority Magazine

Eric L. Pines is a nationally recognized federal employment lawyer, mediator, and attorney business coach