Business Lessons From the Flight Deck

How leaders benefit from thinking a bit more like pilots. This month we are proud to feature a guest blog written by EFBC member BJ Slater of Plant Marvel Laboratories.

On a December evening in 1978 a DC-8 flight crew had a problem.  They were getting ready to land in Portland, OR but couldn’t tell if the landing gear was down.  One of the three green lights that told the pilots if the landing gear was down and locked would not illuminate.  Was it a problem with the landing gear or just the light bulb?  That question preoccupied the flight crew for over an hour as the airplane and its 181 passengers circled over Portland.

While fixated on the landing gear issue, another problem quietly grew serious.  The airplane’s fuel was dwindling.  On several occasions the first officer and flight engineer each noted the shrinking fuel quantity, but the captain, preoccupied with the landing gear, didn’t seem to register the increasing urgency in his crew members’ voices.  The captain did notice the sickening feeling in his gut as the first engine flamed out.  As the fuel tanks ran dry and the engines shut down one-by-one, the crew quickly re-focused on getting back to the Portland airport – or to any airport, anywhere at all.  But it was too late. United Airlines Flight 173 silently drifted to the ground and plowed into a wooded area in the southeastern part of the city.  Miraculously, all but 10 survived.

While airline accidents were not entirely uncommon in the 1970s, this accident changed the industry forever.  Concerned by how a well-trained, highly experienced, well-respected flight crew ran out of gas, Chicago’s own United Airlines led a decades-long industry-wide effort to change the way pilots were trained, how they communicated with each other, and even how they thought and handled emergencies.  The result of these efforts is known as Crew Resource Management (CRM) and is credited with producing much of the incredible airline safety record we enjoy today.

In CRM, the old command-and-control style of leadership common in veteran military pilots was replaced with more collaborative problem solving and risk management techniques. Crews were taught new ways to communicate and work together.  This great aviation safety revolution wasn’t about  engineering and aerodynamics.  It was about psychology and human factors – soft skills.  Today CRM is fundamental to pilot training at all levels world-wide.  Similar concepts are taking hold in fire departments, operating rooms, and other high-risk settings.  In these fields “soft skills” save lives.  As business leaders, we can learn a lot from them.

Before joining Plant Marvel, my family’s century-old fertilizer manufacturing business based in Chicago Heights, I enjoyed a fifteen-year career as a commercial pilot, flight instructor, and safety program manager in the aviation industry.  I never cease to be amazed by the myriad ways my training as a pilot comes in handy as I navigate leadership and business.  The aviation industry has many hard won lessons to offer.  Below I describe my four favorite lessons from my own experience that have made me both a better pilot, and a better leader.

Make Excellence Personal

Having taught over 2,000 hours as a flight instructor and graduated 76 pilots at every certificate level, I can assure you of one fact: There’s no such thing as a natural-born pilot.  The most successful pilots don’t possess some innate ability; they are the ones who work hard to hone their craft in a systematic and disciplined way.  I strongly believe the best leaders are similarly built, not born.  Leadership, management, and entrepreneurship are all skills that can be honed and sharpened with disciplined effort.  Here are some ideas for how to do that:

Read, Listen, Watch, and Learn

These days the amount of sources for professional development knowledge is staggering.  From books and trade publications to podcasts and Ted Talks, there are resources for every taste, style, and kind of entrepreneur and leader.  For every skill you would like to learn and problem you would like to solve, there is ample media available to help you in your quest.  The key is to be selective with what sources you consume, and to approach your learning in an organized and disciplined way.  Start out by defining your learning objectives and researching to identify the best sources on that topic.  Then as you read or listen, take notes, paraphrase ideas, and find ways to put what you learn to use.  These actions help solidify your new knowledge and skills in ways that passively consuming media won’t.

Development Opportunities

A level beyond books and podcasts are in-person and virtual conferences and workshops.  These interactive programs compel more active participation than a book and can take you a step closer to applying what you learn and getting feedback from instructors along the way.  EFBC offers numerous options in a variety of formats and topics.  One example are the EFBC Roundtables which offer a great way to share experiences with other professionals in a particular field over just a few hours.  Meanwhile the Leadership Applications Course presented by EFBC strategic partner Geroge Karavattuveetil gives a deep dive into practical leadership skills over multiple weeks.

One on One

It is often said that you cannot learn to fly a plane by reading a book or watching someone else do it.  The only way we’ve found to safely learn to fly is by working one-on-one with a knowledgeable and experienced instructor to guide you through the process of developing the myriad skills needed to be a competent qualified pilot.  This one-on-one approach is both expensive and time-intensive, but it is also one of the most powerful ways to learn and improve.  In the aviation world pilots learn both from instructors that teach them specific skills and more senior pilots that help guide their development as professionals.  In the business world we would call these people coaches and mentors.  A coach is someone we work with to hone a particular skill or improve at some aspect of our work.  A mentor might be a less formal relationship with someone more knowledgeable and experienced than we are who can offer broader insights and feedback.  Both are extremely valuable and well worth the time and effort we invest.

Obsessively Learn from Failure

Pilots, as a general rule, have a morbid fascination with airplane accidents.  It goes far beyond the curiosity of others’ misfortunes.  Pilots tend to study accidents the way professional athletes review game tapes.  This serves pilots in three ways:  First it allows us to refine our technical and decision making skills. Second, it helps keep our egos in check by reminding us that tragedies can happen to anyone.  Third, and most importantly, it calibrates the hairs on the back of our necks.  What I mean is that when pilots study enough accidents they learn to see them as a chain of events ending in tragedy.  Many of the links in these chains of events, poor decisions or missed red flags, are similar from one accident to another.  By studying accidents, pilots become familiar with these patterns of events.  If they recognize an “accident chain” beginning to form in their own flight, a wise pilot will elect to “break the chain” by canceling the flight, diverting to an alternate airport, or otherwise retreating to safety.  The business world offers plenty of opportunities to learn from others’ failures.  Books covering Enron, the 2008 financial crisis, the BP oil spill in the gulf, the Boeing 737 Max fiasco, are among countless offerings available.  As they say, learn from the mistakes of others; you’ll never live long enough to make them all yourself.

Debrief Events

In addition to learning from others, you can learn alot from studying yourself and your own business.  Pilots and flight crews, especially in training or military settings, will end every mission with a review of the flight.  The flight crew will review their objectives, discuss what went well and what can be improved.  Those lessons are then carried to the next flight.  Get in the habit of debriefing any meaningful event: employee reviews, team meetings, client presentations, board meetings, quarterly results, or anything else important.  Ask yourself and your team what worked and what can be improved.  It is a habit that is crucial to continuous growth and improvement.

Seek to Understand Failure

the term will inevitably surface at some point.  Within the industry, safety took a giant leap forward when the discovery of human error came to be seen as the beginning of the investigation rather than the end. Understanding why an error occurred is so much more useful than simply admonishing the person who made it.  A simple tool for getting to the root cause behind error can be the “5Y” method which is to ask “why” five times. Each time, you dig a little deeper toward a meaningful and useful answer.  When things don’t go well, seek to understand why.  Focus on what went wrong, not who.  Seek to understand, not to blame.

Eliminate Ambiguous Communication

The worst airline accident in history happened largely from poor communication.  In 1977 in the Canary Islands, two Boeing 747s collided on a runway in dense fog.  The tragedy helps highlight five rules of clear communication.

Confirm What You Believe You Heard

A KLM Boeing 747 waited at the end of the runway while another airplane, a Pan Am flight obscured by the fog, taxied on the same runway.  Once Pan Am taxied off of the runway, KLM would be cleared for takeoff.  The control tower transmitted some route instructions to the KLM plane. The KLM captain mistook this as their takeoff clearance.  The captain believed he had been cleared for takeoff but didn’t know the other airplane was still on the runway hidden in the fog. Without confirming the instructions, the Captain began to advance the throttles of the massive jet.

Speak in Clear Terms

As the KLM captain began accelerating toward the other jumbo jet hidden in the fog, his first officer was having second thoughts. The first officer knew they hadn’t been cleared for takeoff, but the captain snapped at him when he raised a question.  Did the captain know something he didn’t? How could he clarify without risking the ire of his superior?  Unsure of what to do, the first officer told the tower “We are at Takeoff,” an imprecise phrase that only added to the confusion.  KLM was beginning to accelerate head-on toward Pan Am.

Confirm What You Said Was Understood

Though vague, the KLM first officer’s transmission got the attention of the control tower.  The tower radioed to KLM to hold their position.  Having heard KLM’s transmission, the PanAm crew also transmitted a message.  The two messages were transmitted at the exact same time rendering both of them unintelligible to their intended recipient.  The KLM crew only heard an annoying squeal.  The tower’s critical instruction was transmitted, but not received. Yet, the control tower failed to verify the KLM crew was staying put as instructed.  Instead, the controller asked Pan Am to report when clear of the runway and they replied they would. Meanwhile the KLM flight was building speed and rapidly closing the distance in the fog.

Expect Miscommunication

The KLM Flight Engineer overheard the last radio exchange and knew something didn’t seem right.  He asked the captain, “Is he not clear then; that Pan American?”  Still confident in his grasp of the situation, the captain replied emphatically, “Oh, yes!”  The captain failed to consider he could have misunderstood.  He failed to consider his crew member’s objections as red flags that he was wrong.  Rather than expect that someone could have miscommunicated, the captain remained convinced that he was correct until the Pan Am airplane materialized out of the fog about ten seconds before impact.  KLM was moving too fast to avoid the collision.

Say What is Most Important

While the KLM first officer and flight engineer both attempted to express concerns to the captain or clear up ambiguity, they were hindered by professional courtesy and a desire for their captain to save face. Their decorum proved to be fatal.  Human nature can make it hard for us to speak up even when our lives are in danger.  Rather than ask questions or hint at the problem the crew might have averted disaster if they had simply ordered the captain to stop.  Unfortunately the culture of a 1970s flight deck made this improbable.  In the collision 583 people, including everyone on the KLM flight, perished.

While the stakes in our businesses may rarely, if ever, be this high, the lessons of this tragedy are applicable to all of us.  How much stress and disappointment could be avoided if we make sure we clearly state the most important information, ensure we are heard and understood, and make sure we hear and understand others?

Effectively Balance Risk

The flight crew we met at the beginning of this article was so busy handling a known issue that they were blindsided by an emergency they didn’t see coming.  In business, while caught up in the day-to-day operations of meeting customer needs, I have been similarly blindsided by financial or personnel problems that, in hindsight, I felt like I should have seen coming.  In flying we learn to balance completing the mission with safety.  Psychologist and organizational safety expert James Reason referred to it as balancing production with protection.  Stephen R. Covey meanwhile talked about the balance between production and production capability.  The idea of striking a balance between a goal and the associated risk is echoed throughout textbooks and memoirs alike.

Risky Business?

Entrepreneurs and small business owners are traditionally thought of as risk takers.  Personally I don’t identify myself that way.  A colleague once questioned that assertion. “You fly airplanes,” he pointed out, “isn’t that risky?”  I thought about it and explained that one of the things I liked about flying is that, when you do it right, the risks involved are really well-controlled.  Indeed, that is the same thing I enjoy about business.  We have the opportunity to do things that many people will never get to experience, but we also have a choice about the kinds and amount of risk we are willing to take on.  In determining their risk tolerance in any given situation, entrepreneurs might do well to heed a classic aviation maxim, “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.”

Always Have an Out

In aviation and industrial safety alike, “safety” is not defined as merely the lack of accidents.  Safety is better defined as the presence of adequate defenses.  If you assume that things will go wrong – and they will – what is the backup plan?  When you are sitting in the back of an airliner as it is taking off, the entire experience is orchestrated around things going wrong at the worst possible moment.  Everything about the design of the airplane and training of the pilots assumes that moments before the airplane leaves the ground, one of the engines will fail.  This is incredibly rare of course, but if it were to happen, the plane and the passengers will be just fine.  The airplane, pilots, and the procedures they follow ensure that they always have an out – a way to recover safely if things go wrong.

How do you know if someone is a pilot?  Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.  Pilots in general, and myself in particular, never tire of talking about flying.  I’ve had a lot of great experiences at the controls of an airplane.  As I continue my adventures in business and leadership, I find many of those experiences and the lessons I’ve learned continue to serve me well.  I appreciate the opportunity to share some of them with you and I hope you find them useful as well.