February 11

Episode 22: After the Action with Bob Hughes


On the Get Unstuck and On Target show, we speak to leaders for you to uncover tips to help you break down the barriers that may be keeping you or your business stuck.

In this episode, Mike O’Neill interviews Bob Hughes to learn how you can use “after-action reviews” to get past obstacles that might be tripping you up. Bob spent nearly 30 years in the United States Army before retiring and started a new career in Executive Education at The Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University.

Listen to this episode now to see Bob’s perspective as both a former military officer and as an educator.

Guest Bio

Bob Hughes spent nearly 30 years in the United States Army and retired in 2015 at the rank of Colonel. During his time in the Army, he had numerous leadership positions and led organizations at the tactical, regional, and enterprise levels. In his last role, his team was responsible for the enterprise process that planned and integrated organizational change throughout the Army, changes that encompassed nearly 6,000 organizations.

With a desire to help other leaders be successful, in 2015 Bob began his second chapter working in Executive Education at The Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. His work in executive education focused on designing custom leadership programs, teaching on leadership topics, and executive coaching.

While remaining active in executive education, Bob has recently relocated to Chattanooga and is spending more time coaching individual leaders through his company, NL2 Execute Coaching. In his coaching work, Bob helps leaders overcome challenges in four areas: Knowing their Leadership DNA, Navigating Transition Points, Leading Near the Top, and Overcoming Stall Points.

When not coaching, he enjoys the outdoor activities that are abundant here– mountain biking, trail running, paddle boarding, and fishing.

In This Episode, You’ll Learn…

  • Learn how Bob Hughes coaches leaders to overcome challenges in areas such as knowing their leadership DNA, Navigating transition points, leading near the top, and overcoming stall-points
  • How to use “after-action reviews” to be a better leader and what the process looks like
  • How to create an environment where the review process can be the most beneficial
  • The Five Ps: Prioritize, Plan, Psychological Safety, Presence, and Participate


  • “NASA adapted the “after-action review” to their organization and they call it a “pause and learn.” – Bob Hughes
  • We don’t take time to stop, bring the team together, and do some systematic reflection to say okay, what did we do, how can we get better, what can we improve on?” – Bob Hughes
  • “It’s four questions. What Happened? Why Did It Happen? What We Can Do Better, And What Did We Do Well?” – Bob Hughes
  • “The key here from a leadership perspective, you’ll notice there is no who, there’s a what and how can we get better.” — Bob Hughes
  • “The process doesn’t have to be afterward, it can be during, and that was an “ah-ha” for me.” — Mike O’Neill
  • “That’s the magic that happens; the leader helping the team self-discover.” — Bob Hughes
  • “It’s not another meeting, it’s a learning event.” — Bob Hughes
  • “It’s okay to show vulnerability.” — Bob Hughes
  • “We have to as leaders create an environment in which people feel safe.” — Mike O’Neill
  • “The only one who can make [after-action reviews] important to the team is you.” — Bob Hughes
  • “You need to be there. It’s a lead-by-example thing if anything.” — Bob Hughes
  • “Your team learning is a leadership responsibility.” — Bob Hughes

Links & Resources Mentioned…

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Read The Transcript

Mike O'Neill:  

Hello and welcome back to the Get Unstuck & On Target Show. I'm Mike O'Neill with Bench Builders, and we're speaking with thought leaders to uncover tips to help you break down the barriers that may be keeping you or your business stuck. Joining me today is Bob Hughes. Bob spent nearly 30 years in the US Army and retired in 2015 at the rank of Colonel. Soon thereafter, Bob began his second chapter working in executive education at Northwestern university's Kellogg school of management. Welcome Bob.

Bob Hughes: Good morning Mike welcome. Thank you.

Mike O'Neill:  Good morning to you as well.

Let me tell our listeners a little more about you Bob, while remaining active in executive education. Bob recently relocated to Chattanooga and he's spending more time coaching individual leaders through his company NL2 executive coaching.

In this role, Bob helps leaders overcome challenges in four areas, knowing their leadership DNA. Navigating transition points. This one interests me leading near the top and the fourth overcoming stall points. But as, I've gotten to know Bob he's introduced me to something that was new to me. And that was the conversation around the role of after action reviews.

After action reviews is a process I've always associated with the military, but Bob's kind of opened my eyes to ways that after action reviews can be used by leaders in a very wide variety of settings. And so I've asked Bob to kind of share with our listeners a bit more about that. So, Bob, let's just jump right in.

Bear in mind. Our listeners are leaders. What do they need to know? What is an after action review?

Bob Hughes: Well, thanks Mike again. And it is a real privilege to be here with you and thanks for what you do to help leaders and organizations get unstuck. But you know, the after action reviews is a topic I often speak with executive leaders about, and it's really important.

I come at it from a leadership perspective because that's where it, that's where you get the most benefit. And, you know, this is an example, the after action review of learning from an org, another organization in this case, learning from what the army has done for a very long time, what is really embedded in the Army's culture, a culture of using after action review.

To continuously improve, but to continuously learn and sustain team and organizational performance at very high levels over time. And, you know, that's the point that I think that transfers over into other organizations. Non-military be it you know, a business, a nonprofit or even other governmental organizations is this idea of continuous learning and always getting better.

And the leader is really the one that establishes the, the environment to make that happen.

Mike O'Neill: We're going to talk more about that here in a few minutes, but when I hear the expression after action reviews, what comes immediately to mind for me is something's gone wrong. And, and I know that's not the, that's not that so help help our, our listeners better understand how after action can be reviews in a wide variety of settings.

Bob Hughes: Right. So I, you know, after action review, seeing does seem like maybe something went wrong or it's after everything's done, but that's not really the case and that's not how we use them in the military. And, they're actually very, very powerful and personal tool when they're used intermittently. In, as I think you and I talked before, when there's windows of opportunities in a process, after an event, after a client engagement, after a major project review, there are logical times to come together, bring a team together and learn.

And from that learning apply it to future situations and environments. And that's really the key. It's a learning event. That helps us make adjustments now immediate, but also apply what we've learned to similar situations that occur in the future. Now, if I could rename the name after action review, I would go with what NASA did.

NASA actually adapted the after action review to their organization and they call it a Pause and Learn. And that's really what I think is most beneficial for leaders. You know, Mike, we can get caught up in this sort of plan, execute plan cycle, where we just keep planning and executing and moving on because we're all busy.

That's the environment that leaders lead in. Uh, and we don't take time to stop, bring the team together, whatever it was we were trying to do. And just do some systematic reflection, which is really what an after action review or a pause and learn is systematic reflection to say, okay, what did we do? You know, how can we get better?

What can we improve on? Even if we did very, very well there's something we can do better. And,  you know, that's, that's what the, how their best use.

Mike O'Neill: This is very, very helpful. Why don't we. Talk about this, maybe in two parts, part one is, can you walk us through what the process is? And then part two is as leaders, how do we create an environment in which this process can be most helpful to the team and to the organization?

So starting through the process, my understanding is that at its core, An after action review is a series of questions. Do I understand that correctly?

Bob Hughes: It's a series of questions, but it's really a process, right? It's a process, but yes, it is built on very four powerful, but very simple questions. What happened?

Why did it happen? What can we do better? And what can we, and, and, what did we do well? Those are the four questions. You don't have to take them all in that order, but it's very important to establish what happened. What were we trying to do as a team? You know, let's just take, you know, for a first quarter, you know, what, what were you trying to do as a business in the first quarter?

What were our goals and our objectives? Get everybody focused on that. This is what we were trying to do. And this is what happened. And we all have metrics or things that we, you know, can gauge that from. Then everybody's focused in that. But the key here from a leadership perspective is just, you notice there's no who in those open-ended questions.

It's what, and how can we get better? And the whole idea of an after-action review that's it's about self discovery. At the team or organization, organizational level, bring your leaders together, bring your team together and say, look, let's just take a minute we can take it. You can do a very, very effective after action review in about 45 minutes to an hour, depending on what you're trying to do.

You don't have to make any more time than that. And just bring them together and say focus on here's what we were trying to do. It's very simple. Here's what happened now, let's all participate here and say, what can we do better next time? What did we learn from this? How can we improve? That's what it's all focused on.

Now you have to, the things you say you're going to do. You have to do right. And one of the things that the, the military is very good at is making those really quick adjustments. When, what did we learn? You know, if it's a procedural change, if it's a, some sort of, operating procedure or something that we need to change or how to interact, or with each other differently, we can do that.

We can apply that very quickly, but there may be some longer term things that you need to get into as well, but you need to follow up as well. So that's sort of the, the process is just built around those questions.

Mike O'Neill: But what you've also made clearer to us is that that process doesn't necessarily have to be afterwards.

It could be during, and that's a kind of an aha for me. And that is if a leader is leading a process, leading an organization, leading a change, whatever you want to say. Fill in the blank with. Is that if you took the time out to pause and reflect, you're encouraging us as leaders is the questions that we're going to be asking ourselves.

And the team is all right, where are we? And how do we get to kind of where we are? What did we do well? And what can we improve on? And it's really interesting. You made some specific reference to, kind of setting the right tone. If that's the process, let's talk about how can leaders lead organizations through this after action review or pause and reflect, what do leaders need to do

to improve the likelihood that this is a pause and learn and act on what we learned experience?

Bob Hughes: Yeah. And so I think that's, you know, that's what,  as I like to call it, sometimes when I'm talking, that's the magic that happens is the leader helping that team self-discover, you know. We learned a long time ago that, you know, if we move to this idea and after action reviews, which is self discovery, because if, if you're, if the leader's doing all the talking, it's often a critique.

Or it's their perception. That's not what we want in an after action, where we, we want open candid, professional discussion. And so what the leader can do to set that is there's a term called psychological safety. And Amy Edmondson out of Harvard is, you know, she's the expert on this. But I, as I started thinking about how that applies to after action reviews, it's exactly what's going on in one.

And what that is is low leaders in an after action review to help set those conditions, for the team to learn and for everybody to feel safe, to contribute, right. Non attributional, just this all let's get better.  You know, she says there's a, there's three things that she talks about when she talks about building psychological safety.

And first is, you know, it's a learning event. It's not another meeting. It's not another, you know, just let's get together. It's a learning event. So bill it as that talk about it in that way. We're coming here to learn. That's one thing. The second thing you can do is be curious in as a leader in those, in that setting.

And that's kind of goes to those open-ended questions, those four questions, what happened, you know, be curious, but leave it open-ended so that people have room to talk about what they need to talk about. And then the other one is as a leader. It's okay. To show some vulnerability and say, you know, I could have done this better, or I could have helped you do this better as in your function or whatever if so, you know, model some vulnerability in this as well.

In that forum, you don't always have to go first, but, you know, depending on it, a leader can go first and say, okay, let me start this off. I could have done this better. But the point is leaders can do things better as well. And they need to be open and candid with their team about how they can get better and what they can improve on as well.

So those are the three, those are the three things Mike, that really helps set that environment.

Mike O'Neill: You know, I, I, I'm hearing through our webinars series through our podcasts, this concept of psychological safety keeps coming up. So I'm having to embrace  alright. We have to, as leaders, create an environment in which people feel safe.

And this case we're talking about safe to actively participate, safe, to speak freely,  and safe to learn and grow.  And what you have really said so well, but it starts at the top. It starts with the leader willing to go into this conversation. If we could call it. Yeah.  Saying this is different than what we normally do.

We're going to learn and we're going to learn together. And I'm going to not look for a quick solutions. I'm looking to kind of dig if need be. And I want you the team to be curious, let's really be kind of curious what happened and kind of get to, maybe more than the surface issues. And that third thing you mentioned, I think is very, very powerful, and that is as a leader, if you really want your team to be forthright, it starts with you.

And if there is something that you could have done, to improve it in the future. And you say that that isa phenomenal way to convey to the team that you value them. You trust them and you're willing to be vulnerable. That's very, very good, good, good point.

Bob Hughes: And that the

rule of the rule of thumb, Mike, if I could, is that I often say to the leaders, when I talk to the executive leaders is, and there's five things you should really remember if you want to make these, make these well.

And here they are, first of all. If it's important, To stop your team and think about it. That's important to what you do to get better than an after action review, a pause and learn a stop, you know, whatever you want to call it.  You have to prioritize it. And the only one that can prioritize it and make it, you know, important to your team or organization, is you.

So it has to be prioritized. You can plan these things in too many of your processes or into your quarterly schedule or your annual schedule. So prioritized, planned, psychological safety. We just talked about that, right?  Presence, your presence is required. You know, that's the other thing. This is the time not to delegate you know to somebody else.

Don't tell somebody else to go handle the after action review. You need to be there. It's a lead by example.  It's as much as anything there. And then the last one is participate. You need to encourage everybody to participate. And you need to participate as a leader, but you don't need to dominate the conversation.

And I think that's where it sometimes happens is we, the leader starts to dominate the conversation. Guide the conversation, to draw out the lessons learned and help that idea of self discovery come out amongst the team.

Mike O'Neill: Those five P's out. That's a great way for us to remember that. I probably will ask you to.

Restate those here in a minute. You know, the name of our podcast is Getting Unstuck & On Target. And therefore I would like if you would, for a moment just to kind of reflect on, maybe I should say pause and reflect on a situation where perhaps,  you are part of an organization that you sense was stuck.

What is it that you might have done to help that organization get unstuck?

Bob Hughes: You know, I, you know, in the military I had the opportunity and privilege to lead many different organizations, but one that comes to mind when you ask me that question is, you know, I once transitioned into, deleting a team. And as I, as I took the team, I could tell that, they were sorta tired.

They had been in a lot of execution mode and it had been ridden pretty hard. And, and along the way, I think some of the direction and purpose of the things they were, that they were, being asked to do was not exactly focused on their core, their core functions or the core mission that they were supposed to do.

So to help them get on stock was one recognize that had been ridden hard and try to take some things off of the, off of their plate. That really weren't of the most importance, but to provide them direction, make sure everybody knew the purpose. Right. And make sure that they knew that I cared about them and that I knew they'd been ridden hard.

So I had to make sure that I was making sure that, that they were, you know, getting some time off and things like that in order to, in order to keep everybody motivated and focused on the mission.

Mike O'Neill: Excellent. You know, we've spent most of our time discussing, after action reviews. And we were talking about how leaders can use that in the setting that they're in fact leading, but just for the

clarification of, in what ways are these after action reviews being used? We, we know that they've been used widespread in the military. And you've described how it could be used internally. But how about in other ways, what type of industries are using this as a leadership technique?

Bob Hughes: You know, if you, you can go on Google and you can look at some of this, but certainly manufacturing is using it.

You know, when they have a new product build there's logical points in the product build to say, Hey, is this working stop? Is it working? Take a look at everything, make sure everything makes some adjustments. Apply it to the next to the next phase. So that's manufacturing. Certainly construction companies think of large project building, you know, project reviews. Where they have a long ongoing project, very large there's logical milestones, where they can stop in that, in that, in that process.

And just take a minute and say, do that pause and learn. Pharmaceutical companies. You know, there's a high failure rate, right? We need to understand what we've done.  So that other, when we go forward with other tests or other things like that, that's another one. And then, you know, there's one that I really liked that intrigued me is that, you know, there was a, wine distributor and they use it when, you know, during the holiday period, when they get a hot high demand,

for, you know, holiday,  beverages, et cetera. That they use it to do the after action review to see how their systems did. Their distribution systems, their ordering systems, how did they do when they were really under pressure? And so there's a lot of ways that you can, that you can find that you can use these things.

They're very, very versatile. And that's what I think is, is one of the key things for it. I didn't mention, you know, that, you know, yes, the military uses these, but I think. When you, when you do one of these for your team and you take that time to set it up, what you'll find is there's very common, problems or things, or challenges that, that are uncovered, you know, information management.

Communication or just, you know, cross team collaboration. These are things that happen, you know, that we often uncover in the military when we do this. But you can see that they, those are the same kinds of things that would happen in any organization. And that's what you're after. How do we, how do we figure this out?

How do we get better? If there's something that we've in our planning process, how do we get better? What do we do next time? What can we apply immediately now and fix.

Mike O'Neill: You know, Bob I'm very remindful that for a number of years, you have been in executive education with a very impressive university Northwestern and the Kellogg school of business.

And therefore you've been working with executives.  Probably all over the world in a wide variety of industries.  And so we're fortunate to kind of tap into your expertise. If you were to attempt to kind of summarize the things. Do you do want our listeners to remember what might those things be?

Bob Hughes: Yeah,

I think, you know, it's important first of all, is to, you know, in this case, you're learning from the military. But it's learning from a best practice from another organization. And it's not exactly how we do it. It's understanding how we do it, but then applying it to your team or organization.

And that's what I, that's one of the things I leave with them. Understand that process. Understand that your team learning and getting better is a leadership responsibility. That's that's up to you and you can help a leader can help set that, that conditions for that. I think it's just important to take the time to stop and pause with your team and say, let's just stop for a minute and talk about whatever it is

that's important to our organization. That is so important. We want to take time to think about it. I think those are the real key takeaways from that. 


Mike O'Neill: I think that's excellent. We'll make an attempt to include what you just shared and the five P's in the show notes. So if folks are out and you couldn't write this down, we'll try to include those in the show notes

so you can access those when you go back and play this. Bob if folks want to reach out to you directly, what's the best way for them to contact you online.

Bob Hughes: You can find me online, online,  nl2executivecoaching.com and, my email will be part of this, but NL2 Executive Coaching. And as you mentioned earlier, if I continue my work to just help other leaders be successful and, really enjoy helping working one-on-one with small teams, help them get better

Mike O'Neill: That comes

through pretty loud and clear.

Bob. Thank you,

Bob Hughes: Mike. Thank you. It's been a real privilege. And again, thanks for what you do.

Mike O'Neill: Again, it's been my pleasure and also want to thank our listeners for joining us for this episode of Get Unstuck & On Target. We upload the latest episodes every Thursday, and I hope you'll subscribe via your favorite platform. But if you've been listening to my discussion with Bob and you're realizing that something's keeping you or your organization stuck, let's talk.

Visit unstuck.show to schedule a call. We'll explore. Maybe what's got you stuck and things that you could do to get you or your company unstuck. So I want to thank you for joining us and I hope you've picked up some tips that will help you Get Unstuck & On Target. Until next time.

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