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Plane Talk

Dear Flight Department Manager…

Posted on: May 19th, 2015 by Pete Agur

May AvBuyerWhen you dance with elephants, who leads?

Having “walked with the elephants” in Botswana, Pete Agur offers wise advice for all Aviation Managers who must communicate effectively with those who possess ultimate authority…

My wife and I just returned from Africa, where we were in close contact with native elephants. They were not tame or trained, however, they were socialized. The power of these massive creatures was awesome. They could do anything they wanted…with amazing tenderness or with brutal power. Our experience with the elephants reminded me of the dance we must do with C-suite executives.

Our firm works for Fortune 1000 C-suite executives, billionaires, and a few royal families. Like most Aviation Managers, I must dance with powerful personalities—the elephants of their domain, so to speak. Early on, I learned there are three choices of who leads the dance…

A) Elephant Leads

The best case exists when the elephant is a great dancer and he or she leads. There is no question about power, intent or direction.

One of my favorite examples was when I was asked to attend a Board of Directors meeting for a company. They had declared their goal was to grow by a multiple of 10 times over the coming years. They hired a new CEO, David, to lead this dramatic growth. David had very few pre-employment demands. A company jet was one of them.

David had a number of strategies and tactics he intended to use to achieve his goals. Business Aviation played a critical role in many of them.

Their primary target was revenue. The airplane became an accelerator of deals and a competitive advantage in a crowded market. It was essential for their growth success.

David also saw the business jet aircraft as an effective tool for cost management. By getting his current team of leaders more places, more quickly, and more often, he was able to avoid hiring an additional cadre of high-cost executives and their entourages. David saved more than the Aviation Department’s budget by not having to hire all those new people.

There is no question that David was the elephant and he had the lead in the dance. In fact, the Aviation Manager reported directly to David and closely followed David’s directions. However, a CEO like David is extremely rare. Very few CEOs have the vision, knowledge, and imagination to truly maximize the benefits their company can gain from their aviation services.

B) Elephant Follows

The second best case is when the elephant is a great dancer and he or she follows. This requires the leader (the Aviation Manager) to be extremely competent in the company of elephants. How do you lead a 15,000 pound dance partner? Very carefully…you take them where they want to go…figuratively.

Don was the Director of Aviation for one of the country’s largest banks. The banking industry has gone through some amazing transformations in recent years.

Don successfully guided his company’s ownership and use of business aircraft throughout those changes.

Don was an aviation professional who knew he was in the banking business. He got himself invited to corporate staff meetings. He learned the business. He earned a place at the table. He saw the trends. He guided the highest and best use of Business Aviation services in support of the company’s adapting strategies. He recommended growth of the Aviation Department when the bank needed greater travel capacity. He recommended downsizing when he foresaw it was necessary. He led and the elephants followed…because he took them where they needed to go.

C) No One Leads

The worst case scenario is dancing with an elephant when the two of you are not in synch. It is easy to get stepped on. And with an elephant, that can be terminal.

At least 80% of companies and Aviation Departments are not great dance partners. Think about it. Do you have a David providing clear strategic direction for your aviation services? If not, do you have a Don guiding the company’s highest and best use of Business Aviation services from the inside? If not, your aviation services are under-led and probably not in perfect rhythm. When no one leads, serious missteps are easily made.

• Can you assume that the better your Aviation Department dances, technically, the better you will dance with the company? Not likely. Better take-offs and landings, finer catering, or lower fuel costs are not critical. They are important, but they are not the dance.
• Can you assume the C-suite will proclaim the highest and best use for the Aviation Department in order to create the greatest overall corporate benefit? You could be wrong. Different executives have different views on success. One executive may see revenues as the answer. Another may see senior team efficiency and quality of work life as being the goal. Another may see saving every nickel possible as crucial, because savings have a direct improvement on profitability. All can be wrong, or in direct conflict.

The lack of synchronicity created when no one leads is a principal cause of the tension often experienced amongst companies, Boards of Directors and Aviation Departments.

The odds are against being blessed with a visionary CEO like David who knows the strategic impact he wants from Business Aviation. What should you do? Like Don, the Aviation Manager who perceived where his company executives wanted to go and led them there, you’d better learn how to be a great leader in your dance with elephants because being out of step is not an option.

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