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Flight Dept Managers: Motivate in Changing Times!

A case study in successful flight department management

Jodie Brown
June 18, 2016
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Jodie Brown
Jodie Brown

Jodie Brown is the founder and president of Summit Solutions – the only Business Aviation company devoted to both executive recruiting and leadership & management d...
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Faced with the spectre of a consultant’s mandate to effect change, a Director of Aviation launched her own critical review, reports Jodie Brown. But what was the outcome?

The re-engineering consultant was known for re-vitalizing companies and positioning them for acquisition. Called in by top management, he methodically trimmed departmental waste and eliminated unnecessary headcount. Not a supporter of corporate flight departments, he nonetheless knew that the owners required mobility and valued their business aircraft as business tools.

While it wasn’t in the crosshairs, the Aviation Department was a target for financial improvement. The Director of Aviation understood the precarious position and strategically decided to pro-actively create a lean, mean travel machine.

Shake the Status Quo

If corporate was getting a shake up, it was just a matter of time before the Aviation Department received a visit. The good old days were just that. Now was the time to get the aviation team to embrace change. Processes, scheduling, SOPs, duty times—everything—were going to be studied, updated and revised.

The Director of Aviation wanted to alleviate tension, limit gossip and reduce anxiety by providing as much information as she could. Even when there was nothing new to report, she still communicated updates via meetings, emails, texts and documents. She understood that people don’t necessarily fear change; they fear the unknown. People dislike feeling a lack of control.

Recognize the Need for Change

“So, what’s wrong with the way we’re doing our job now,” grumbled several members of the Aviation Department? First of all, complacency is a breeding ground for stagnation. Secondly, stagnation hinders development and performance. Furthermore, being defensive is a natural reaction when asked to examine the existing operation.

Old habits are hard to break. Much attention and hard work are required to alter a course of action or behavior that has become instinctive. We naturally balk when forced from our comfort zone. “Why fix it if it ain’t broke?” is an oft repeated question. How does a leader get the team to recognize and accept change? Metrics can be addressed and best practices presented. But you have to appeal to the heart as well as the mind.

Bob Dylan wrote, “He who is not busy being born is busy dying”. Sometimes the answer is just that “It’s time”. But more often the need for change is much more substantial, such as the company is moving in a new direction. Our customer base is changing.

The old ways don’t support the new mission and direction. Whatever the mandate, someone else’s idea of improvement doesn’t take away the sting from the people who have to do the heavy pulling.

For older adults, learning new information or methods is a little more complicated. Their brains are not clean slates so retraining requires a two-step process. First, old methodologies and information deeply etched into memory need to be erased or altered and then overlaid with new patterns. It’s easier to build a house from scratch than to remodel around existing structures.

To motivate your mature employees to change behavior, empathize the additional effort required. Since success breeds success, break down the change process into steps. Understand that small wins help make adapting to change easier to swallow. Set your people up to feel like contributors to the goal.

Focus, notice and reward any and all efforts that support your agenda. Eventually your people will not only incorporate the change, they will perform it naturally and habitually.

Be Part of the Solution

When people feel pain, they are more likely to embrace suggestions for improvement. Help your people identify either their or the customers’ pain points. Then focus their attention and energy on identifying solutions. Help build rapport. Realize their world view is limited by the confines of their cockpit or hangar, so expand their horizon from what they don’t have to a new vantage point from “the hill”.

Do what you can to share what you’ve learned in the Boardroom or talking with the company’s executives. Explain the ramifications of external factors such as poor exchange rates, the time-value of money and its implications in investing in large capital equipment. Lay out why you have to do more with less. Twenty percent of your efforts to create change should be directed to what’s not working; 80 percent focused on developing creative, possible solutions.

Evaluate Options and Select the Best

Leaders know they don’t have all the answers. Good leaders surround themselves with others whose expertise helps them determine best possible solutions.

Before you ask for your team’s opinions, be clear that they truly understand the constraints, such as no funding for additional training, a requirement to reduce headcount, or the need to reduce equipment costs. Let them know that although you value their opinions and advice, the workplace is not a democracy and many elements are not within their control. You as manager still have the responsibility to make a final decision. You will listen to their expertise and advice. Not being able to embrace all they suggest, however, doesn’t negate its value.

Because of the pro-active approach by the Director of Aviation and her team, the corporate consultant saw an efficient use of resources, high safety standards, and increased productivity by the executives. To this day, the company’s Part 91 operation remains an integral part of the corporate family.

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