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— James Albright





Pawn becomes king (Vitalii Vodolazskyi, Shutterstock)

A recent leadership topic has become critical in light of today’s dire shortage of high quality pilots and mechanics interested in business aviation for the long haul. In the past, we could count on the “cream” of our people to rise to the top and it was just a matter of selecting the right person for the job of flight department leader. These days, the right person may have walked out the door years ago and we can find ourselves with the wrong person trying earnestly but failing. A strategy for success may be to think very long term.

1 — A's hire A’s, B’s hire C’s

2 — A's cultivate future A’s

3 — How to develop a basic leadership succession plan

4 — Regular reviews of the plan



A's hire A’s, B’s hire C’s

In my Air Force and civilian careers, I could always spot a top leader – the “A” – by the people they gathered in their inner circle. A’s hire other A’s, knowing that the better the troops, the better the group can become. B’s, on the other hand, feel threatened by A’s and even other B’s. So they hire C’s and you end up with an organization of B’s and C’s with no high quality people at all. This paradigm has shifted, however, since many of the A’s are lured away from us by the airlines or other flight departments willing to pay more, offer better working conditions, or provide a better quality of life. You cannot hire an A if there are no A’s in your grasp. Something has to change.


A's cultivate future A’s

A sure recipe for failure in a flight department’s long-term health is to ignore the need for a leadership succession plan, the “what’s next” step for the organization should the current leader depart for other opportunities or retirement. In 25 years as a civilian pilot, I got the nod four times because nobody else seemed qualified. How could they be when the organization itself ignored their potential for leadership? In far too many cases, however, it is the current leader who squashes all leadership growth opportunities because he or she views up and coming leaders as threats. In either case, it is in the organization’s best interest to develop and regularly review a leadership succession plan.

U.S. Navy Captain David L. Marquet’s book, “Turn the Ship Around!” provides what I think is the best advice on how to cultivate future leaders and how that also improves the current organization. He turned his nuclear submarine from one with poor morale and no potential leaders, into one that led the fleet in awards and became a Navy “farm club” for future leaders.


How to develop a basic leadership succession plan

The first step in any leadership succession plan is to conduct an inventory of all current leaders and potential leaders. Take note of any previous leadership experience, training, and personality traits. Remember leaders do not need a job title to lead. Your safety officer, for example, may be an informal leader for the entire flight department, despite having no actual subordinates.

A flight department that must go outside the group to hire the next leader has more often than not failed to develop in-house talent. Every new hire should be considered as a potential future flight department leader and given opportunities and training for the next steps on their paths to leadership. A new copilot, for example, should be paired with strong captains who aren’t afraid to mentor and are willing to provide wise counsel.

While everyone in the flight department can be a mentor, there is no more important mentor than the current boss. A chief pilot should make it clear to the next level of leadership that all leaders are responsible for encouraging the next level of leaders. By giving senior captains growth and training opportunities, they should be encouraged to do the same for junior captains and first officers. Even if the top spot belongs to a pilot, mechanics, flight attendants, and others should be included in this kind of mentorship.

In some flight departments, the easy solution is to farm out training to formal Client Aviation Manager and other Professional Development Programs. While these can be valuable, in house training can be even more important if conducted skillfully. When the flight department leader learns something new, passing those lessons on will empower the next generation of leadership much more than anything learned in a classroom.

It may seem that leadership opportunities are slim and far between in small flight departments or even larger flight departments where personnel turnover is low. It is common for a flight department leader to hoard duties as a way to justify one’s position as well as to ensure the work gets done correctly. We are often reluctant to delegate, because a poorly handled assignment reflects on us as leaders even more than our subordinates. But a delegated task is an opportunity to develop leaders. Handing over the next Letter of Authorization application package to a young captain is a good way to test the mettle of the future leader as well as lessen our own workloads. If the leader in training fumbles, you provide guidance. The first time you do this the project might be delayed a bit. But with each subsequent attempt, the mentee gets better, and the mentor’s leadership bench gets a bit deeper.


Regular reviews of the plan

Not having a succession plan might be the worst mistake you can make in strategic planning for your flight department, but a close second is having a plan gather dust on a shelf. Once written, the plan should be reviewed whenever a new person is hired and at least annually. Has the “A” hired more A’s, mentored and trained potential A’s, and provided the entire alphabet of personnel to become stronger leaders? Doing anything less is a failure of leadership.