Financial Stability: Finance, the F‑16 and TOPGUN School

In the third of our F-16 articles, we look at the relationship between F-16 fighter pilots (Top Gun’s), TOPGUN school, and how these relate to the role of a Finance Director or CFO. F-16 fighter pilots who come through TOPGUN school are the cream of the crop, the ultimate in their field. However, TOPGUN school is far from being solely about flying a fighter jet, it is about so much more. With F-16 fighter pilots finding themselves in battlefield situations where no quarters are given, they are counting on not just what they have learnt, but how quickly they can learn and adapt to new real-time situations.

TOPGUN school trains these pilots to learn the skills that will make them excel in tough, challenging and potentially fatal scenarios. It teaches them on how to train other pilots when they go back to base, how to modify the resources around them, making them Top Guns too as one Top Gun is not enough. Top Guns must have the ability and leadership to upskill the people and systems around them so that they can work seamlessly to make great decisions in the heat of battle.

TOPGUN school demands only the best in fitness, be it physical or emotional, professional or leadership, it is about performing at a top-level. The question is, are you ready to be a Top Gun Finance Director or CFO? Learning the skills of a Top Gun fighter pilot to drive your business? If so, here are the skills Top Gun Pilots have, a mixture of hard and soft skills, and what to do.

Knowing your aircraft and the equipment you work with

As a Top Gun pilot, you learn to maximise the utilisation of the equipment that you are going to be using. Usually, practising on the more reliable equipment that is going to be used in battle.

A Top Gun FD/ CFO, like a Top Gun pilot, must learn to maximise the capabilities of the people, process, and technology that they are working with. This involves knowing current capabilities, envelope of maximum performance and the gaps to maximum performance. For an FD/CFO, the knowledge of systems and capabilities must be worked out through a rigorous system of audits and scenario testing. It is always good to benchmark versus the best of the competition i.e. how they use the equipment. Furthermore, you must also be looking at the pioneers, e.g. people breaking new ground in new systems and process.

Let’s take a look at these one by one.


This usually refers to the governance and processes in the business. The focus of these is on protecting the value of the business, the speed of execution and the ability to serve the customer in the best way. If they do not, then they should be changed or removed. No one process will be the perfect solution, they need to be adapted to the business requirements at hand. The test of any good system is a balance of its speed, efficiency and effectiveness.


This can be the most difficult part, getting the technology right. Some key questions are:

  • Is the technology serving your business objectives?
  • Is the technology easy to use, and execute with?
  • Is the technology helping add or protect value in the business e.g. controls vs better customer service?

When it comes to cost, the amount you pay for the platform should always be weighed against the above questions.


The pilot in the seat is not the only person that needs to be the Top Gun. Everybody else that takes the plane up into the air needs to be at the top of their game too. Does your business have the people with the right skills in the right place? If not, are you aware of the gaps and are you working to bridge the gap? The right skill doesn’t need to be the top skill, it needs to be the right skill for the right time. A Top Gun pilot will always be learning the skills that they will need in the future as well as what is necessary and relevant now. It is essential to assess what’s ahead and be prepared for it.

Are your systems, people, and technology Top Gun standard? Are they tried and tested to provide the best customer experience, withstand competition from competitors and the demands of the market?

Have you explored how to improve your systems and develop your people?

Self and situational awareness

There are three types of situational awareness a pilot can have. Good, bad and none.

Good situational awareness is having an accurate position of where you are, mentally and physically, right here and now, being clear on what the objective is. Knowing all of the same information on other aircraft around them, whilst monitoring the changing conditions and knowing what to do if circumstances change.

Bad situational awareness is thinking you know the above, when in fact you do not.

For a Finance Director to have great situational awareness we need to know our own space, have clear visibility of where we and the business are right here and now, where the business is headed, what information we have and don’t have, and how to get the information we need. We need to be able to understand the potential impacts on the business moving forward, and what we can do to counterbalance any change.

Do you have all this information at your fingertips? Are you able to access this information swiftly, all whilst communicating clearly?

Calm under pressure

Top Gun pilots are trained to remain calm under pressure, to deal with abnormalities or emergencies in accordance with their training. Their flight training is intense and is intended to test them under the most intense amount of stress, making sure he or she is confident enough to make sound decisions and execute tasks and checklists under pressure.

Pilots have access to checklists to follow in order to overcome difficult situations though these are not exhaustive of all the actions that a pilot needs to perform. It’s not all-encompassing. However, what pilots do have, and get access to train on, is the thought process by which they can solve problems in stressful situations. It is done by making the thought process a simple step-by-step algorithm focusing on simple criteria.

Top Gun pilots keep cool under pressure despite knowing that making the wrong decision can result in a fatal outcome. They consistently need to make the right decision, and on many occasions, they need to make their minds up quickly. This is where the simple process comes to their aid. CFO/FDs need access to a well-structured thought process by which they can navigate difficult and uncertain situations. The question, do you have yours? This simple process can take many shapes and forms, it’s about finding one that best suits you.

One way Top Gun pilots remain calm is practice, practice, practice. They call this simulated dog fights. They practice until they have several scenarios etched into their muscle memory by stretching themselves and the aircraft in simulated battle, in a safe environment, where the consequence is not fatal and they have the luxury of a feedback session at the end of each simulation. Through this process, they know how to respond when the situation is real and the outcome is deadly.

Finance professionals must, especially with a small and medium-size business, test their systems and processes and simulate scenarios of varying business difficulty, when the consequences are not dire for the company. This is done through desktop planning exercises, business and technology continuity plans and contingency planning.

Have you created your own simulated dog fight? Have you created your own safe environment in which to learn how to remain calm? When we are stressed, it is natural for us to make irrational decisions. Being able to act confidently under pressure in difficult situations is an important component in our role.

Learning and teaching

TOPGUN school is not just making the pilot good in a jet. Yes, the school teaches pilots how to fly in ways they never had before, but primarily they learn strategies for handling difficult situations and ultimately leadership;  the leadership of themselves and of others. Its primary objective is to create effective teachers. It is not so much an evaluation course, as it is a course of teaching.

As Finance Directors we need to learn new ways, to learn to stretch the envelope of both ourselves and our own aircraft. By doing this we learn what we need to do, we figure out our own blind spots. Having stretched ourselves we learn by practising in safe environments, and from our real-life experiences. We learn from reviewing our performance, taking time to look back reflect and learn.

Do you learn from your past experiences, do you continue to progress and get better? Do you have a target to achieve? Maybe it is to be the best of the best, the best Top Gun pilot! However, as we know, learning is one half of the coin. You also need to be able to give back, to teach those around you too.

Are you training the people around you? Are you sharing your learning with them? Do you know how your people can absorb? And can you make the distinction between capacity and capability to achieve?

All Top Gun instructors are Top Gun graduates, they know how to give back. How about you?

How can Cognition24 help?

Cognition24 are proud authorisation partners of FinancialForce. Our expert product specialists and project managers will guide your team through the implementation process and steer you clear of common pitfalls. FinancialForce unites front and back of house systems – providing a complete view of the business from sales to accounting. Whether you are a CEO, CFO, Sales leader or financial controller, FinancialForce’s suite of tools put you in touch with your organisation’s data. If you’d like to find out more, please contact one of our FinancialForce specialists today.