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Set Up for Success

Four Steps to Help Your Aviation Manager Thrive

“You set Bill up to fail. Without some significant changes, your next Aviation Manager will fail, too.”

Having to deliver these harsh words to a recent client was not a pleasant task. As an organization consultant and talent acquisition specialist, I was asked to find a new Aviation Manager for a billion dollar technology company. After meeting with the HR folks, I asked to meet with the entrepreneur founder and CEO, who I will call “John.” Here’s the gist of the conversation we had about how to create a new and different path for the leadership of his aviation department.

After hearing this bomb, John stared across the conference table at me for a few seconds, leaned back in his chair, took a deep breath and challenged, “What do you mean?”

“When you bought your jet, you hired Bill as your co-captain. From what I hear, he is an excellent pilot.”

“Yes, he’s the best I’ve ever been around. That’s why, when Harry left two years ago, I promoted Bill to Aviation Manager. He seemed to do fine at first. But, for the past year he has not done well at all.”

“What has been the problem?”

“Well, our recent hangar construction project stalled because of his micro-management. And he managed his people the same way, so we had high turnover.”

“Those are fairly common problems. John, how often have you seen a doctor succeed at running a hospital? Aviation professionals are a lot like medical professionals. They pursue their careers because they love the practice: the application of their art and science. There is little in their educational and professional development that prepares them to lead or manage a business. Using those criteria, fewer than 5% of aviation managers qualify for those aspects of their jobs – so you are not alone.”

“I see your point. But, how did I set him up to fail? And, more importantly, how do we set his successor up to succeed?”

“Bill’s tenure is a perfect example of the Peter Principle in action: you promoted him beyond the limits of his competencies. If you had stayed with a single aircraft, he might have been able to learn and mature in his role. But, your business grew rapidly and you added two aircraft, the hangar, and eight more people. The complexities of that change are exponentially more challenging. They overwhelmed him. Additionally, Bill reports directly to you. Please pardon my directness, but from the perspective of the needs of the enterprise, it’s inappropriate for you to oversee the aviation department. Your time and focus are better invested elsewhere.”

John leaned forward, listening intently.

“John, what happened here is very common among organizations with aviation services. An aviation department is not part of your core business. As a result, it is often treated differently. In some organizations, that may be appropriate. In most, it is not.

“Let me put it into perspective. Your aviation department is not a profit center because it does not create revenue. Nor is it just a cost center. It does not maximize its benefit to the company simply by managing costs. An aviation department is a multi-million dollar service center. It generates value by providing the service of creating time/place mobility for your key travelers while also greatly enhancing their productivity and the quality of their work lives. It requires highly refined leadership and management skills. Anything less is not an option. After all, you put your most critical assets into their hands: yourself and your people. You must be able to trust your pilot to fly you safely. But it does not necessarily follow that he or she will be a good manager – unless you see to it.”

“I’ve never heard it put that way. It makes sense. How are you going help us get to where we need to be?”

“Prior to starting the search, I will work with your HR folks to create some descriptions of new policies, practices, and critical criteria for performance for your approval. We should have them ready for you in a week.”

If a scenario like this applies to your company, these four steps will help you set up your Aviation Manager for success.

1 Create a vision statement for your Aviation Department. It should clearly express how aviation services support the success of your core business and your travelers. Who does it serve, why, and how? Your vision statement is a fluid document: it can and should be amended any time a significant business change occurs. Without a well-conceived, well-written vision, Department members are apt to “make it up as they go,” individually or as a group, either intuitively or in reaction to unplanned input.

2 State the priorities of the Aviation Department’s deliverables in unambiguous terms:

  • Safety and Security: Identify and mitigate all significant risks.
  • Service: “Take us where we want, when we want, in the style we want.”
  • Efficiency: Run the department as efficiently as possible without sacrificing Safety, Security, and Service.

3 Hire the Aviation Manager using many of the same criteria and standards used to hire other corporate business unit leaders. He or she should be able to function as a peer among the other company managers and directors, which will include mastery of specific strategic, tactical, operational, and soft (“people”) skills, such as:

  • Organizational leadership, business leadership, and management
  • Written and verbal communications at an executive level
  • Project management and change management
  • Relationship management with customers, vendors, staff, and other key constituents.

4 Appoint a Responsible Executive to oversee the Aviation Manager. The Responsible Executive should be a senior corporate leader who has the capability, capacity, and willingness to mentor, coach, and lead the Aviation Manager. If the Aviation Department reports too far down your organization chart, decisions may be hampered by a lack of strategic perspective or authority. The Responsible Executive will help the Aviation Manager learn how to:

  • Assess the business and leadership skills and knowledge of each of the Department’s managers (scheduling, maintenance, flight operations, etc.)
  • Create, implement, and oversee a professional development plan for each key manager
  • Budget the time, dollars, and staff capacity needed to implement these plans.

The Responsible Executive can encourage the Aviation Manager to pursue professional development opportunities specific to business aviation. Some options might include leadership and management development programs, such as:

Most aviation managers are exceptionally bright and talented people who want to do a great job. While they may be well equipped to manage a single aircraft in flight, they need effective guidance, development, and leadership to successfully manage an entire aviation department. Following these steps, you can help set up your Aviation Manager for success. BAA

Pete Agur, Jr. is chairman/founder of The VanAllen Group, a management consulting firm specializing in the business of business aviation. With an MBA and a BS in Aeronautical Sciences, he is an NBAA Certified Aviation Manager.


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