Why you should think like a pilot

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After many years working as a TV producer and network executive, I turned my hobby (flying small airplanes) into a second career as a flight instructor. While you might not be excited by the prospect of getting behind the controls of an aircraft, every day that I teach new pilots I realize the skills essential to safe flying apply just as well to making you better at whatever you do. From that, a few suggestions:

Be good at more than one thing

Pilots have to be multi-disciplinarians. We’re required to learn about aerodynamics, engine management, systems, flight planning, weather, regulations, navigation, performance calculations, aeromedical factors, automation management, and much more.

Make yourself more valuable at your organization by learning things outside of your specialty. Ask about and research topics so that you know at least some of what your colleagues, partners, competitors, and customers know—and maybe a few things that they don’t. When things change and times get tough (again), do you want to be the person who can do only one thing or the one who can contribute in several areas? There’s a reason they’ve sold over 500 million Swiss Army knives.

Don’t confuse multi-tasking with serial tasking

As pilots, in any given minute we’re scanning for traffic, talking to controllers, calculating fuel burns, making navigational decisions, and more, all while actually flying our aircraft. The key is that we don’t kid ourselves that we’re multi-tasking by juggling all of these jobs. At best we’re serial-tasking, taking a few seconds to attend to an immediate need, confirming our work, then moving swiftly to the next task.

Step back and take a look at the flood of short-, medium-, and long-term tasks you juggle at work. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re demonstrating how capable you are by trying to do them all at once. In truth, you’re likely giving them all short shrift. You’ll be more effective if you first prioritize what you must accomplish, then give each task your careful attention for the right amount of time before you move on to the next one.

Stop talking. Listen.

CFI with student

Sometimes the best way to contribute is to be quiet—in the air and at work.

The most valuable realization I came to in my first year of flight instructing was when to stop teaching. When I stop talking, my students have time to process all the things, big and small, that we’re working on that day. Better still, it’s during these silences that students reveal (verbally and nonverbally) what scares, challenges, and excites them most about learning to fly.

In business, we all want to make our presence felt—and mistakenly think the best way to do so is by speaking up. Try not talking. Ask yourself if you’re making an original contribution or merely repeating a point already made. Take the time to listen to what colleagues and customers are really saying to you. See if you can let them know that you understand what matters to them and how you plan to act on it.

Choose your altitude smartly

In how many meetings have you heard the cliche, “Let’s look at this from the 10,000 foot level?” Well, I do that every day—for real. As pilots we like to say that altitude is life. Higher cruise altitudes give us more visibility over a larger area and more time in an emergency. However, flying too high can also cause us to burn more fuel, encounter headwinds, or risk oxygen deprivation. So we constantly need to factor in weather, fuel consumption, passenger comfort, and other variables.

When building a team, contributing to a project, or making a key hire, don’t blindly follow just one flight path. Be willing to consider many variables, some conflicting, to make the right decision for the route (job, project, or person) that you’re following that day.

Know your surroundings

For pilots, situational awareness is crucial. We need constant heightened awareness both on the ground and in the air for traffic, weather, and other external factors.

You, too, need ongoing awareness of what might be approaching on your horizon (both real and virtual) and how changes there affect you, co-workers, and clients. Keep your radar scanning for all incoming traffic!

Always have a plan B… And Plan C.. And Plan D…

As pilots we create detailed plans for each flight based on weather, fuel, daylight hours, and other factors. But we know we may have to alter those plans in an instant (just ask Captain Sully). Environmental conditions, equipment, and external factors can always change on us. And, as instructors, we don’t have separate lessons for unusual occurrences—we practice abnormal and emergency scenarios in every flight.

You and your team should regularly imagine, anticipate, plan, and rehearse all manner of abnormal and emergency scenarios. Did you do so before March 2020? This past year may have been a most extreme case, but train yourself to expect the unexpected in your field every year.

As pilots we talk about staying “ahead of the plane.” If you think like a pilot, you’ll stay at least one step ahead in your job. Who knows, maybe you’ll even find yourself interested in flying lessons as well…

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Categories: Get Your Pilots License


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