You probably remember seeing those amazing video clips of Captain Sullenberger landing his damaged jet in the Hudson River, saving the lives of all 155 people on board. Sully had only seconds after the bird strike to assess what was wrong, and make critical decisions about what to do.
Experiencing close calls of my own while piloting a jet, I know all too well that things can go wrong while flying when you least expect it, kind of like in business. Being a four-time CEO, as well as a jet pilot, has given me unique insight into the significant similarities between these two seemingly very different vocations. There are few responsibilities in life that require that level of self-reliance, skill, and leadership that these do. And both careers mean you have the lives of others in your hands.
The fact is that businesses crash vastly more often than jets. And with good reason. Like a pilot, a CEO needs to attain the knowledge, mindset and training essential to be prepared for a crisis, before it happens. Can anyone without the needed training expect not to react emotionally or impulsively when a crisis does occur? Of course not Yet, so many CEOs think they can just “wing it.” Really? How did Cougar’s boss put it in Top Gun? “Kid, you’re ego is writing checks that your body can’t cash.” Here are a few tips for keeping your jet, or your business airborne in a crisis:
Learn to stay calm under stress: In business we like to talk about “doing your homework.” Jet pilots go through simulation training; real-time scenarios of what to do when things go wrong. The difference is that there’s no way to kid yourself into thinking that you’re better than you really are in a simulator. It’s completely objective, not subjective. You either meet standards or you don’t. There aren’t any participation awards.
Because there isn’t time to train for everything that might happen, pilots are exposed to a broad array of scenarios. After a while you realize your reaction to every situation is pretty much the same. Stay calm, evaluate the situation, diagnose the problem, decide on a course of action, and commit to it! In my book, Cross Winds, I write about so many tense situations that weren’t expected. But what they all share in common is the same approach to dealing with them. If you’re in business and you’re dealing with a crisis, it’s “Tuesday.” So, what’s your approach to dealing with the crisis du jour? Does your leadership team know what to expect from you? Why not create some practice scenarios that involve your leadership team and spend an afternoon playing “what if.” I promise you’ll be surprised at what happens.
Make informed, logical decisions: A crisis situation in a jet aircraft is very rare, and very sudden. Like Sully and every other well trained jet pilot, my reactions in crisis weren’t correct because I had a lot of time to think about them. They were correct because I had been trained to quickly determine what my options were and make the best choice. I have trained in simulators so many times that when a real-life experience has occurred, I was able to reliably and calmly take the correct actions to survive. Likewise, as a CEO, you need to know ahead of time what your options are for any given situation. If your company’s key performance indicators start moving in different directions, how will your team react? Do you have a plan in place, with trained team members who can take the appropriate actions? Has there been a discussion of what, when, and how to implement those plans? Having a broad set of answers to “what if” situations in your back pocket will not only give you peace of mind, but may very well be the salvation of your company.
Implement decisions effectively and ahead of the competition: Even if you know what to do, and know how to do it, you need to actually act and act calmly. In business—as in flying—time is of the essence. I was once flying at 45,000 feet in a Gulfstream IV with seventeen passengers in the back, including a young woman, who was seven months pregnant. Just as the cabin attendant handed me a cup of coffee, the altitude alerter, a red light in the middle of the dashboard, started blinking and a horn started blaring. This meant that the cabin was at 10,000 feet. In fact, the cabin was climbing at 2,000 feet a minute. I calmly put my coffee cup in the holder as I gave instructions to my copilot, I put on my oxygen mask, disconnected the autopilot and autothrottles, deployed the speed brakes, smoothly rolled the aircraft into a 30 degree left bank and began a 6,000 foot per minute descending spiral. My copilot dropped the oxygen masks for the passengers, talked to ATC, and coordinated our landing at a nearby airport. I also directed the passenger closest to the cockpit to take the crew walk-around oxygen bottle (with pressure fed oxygen) back to the pregnant woman and put it on her. We were on the ground in fifteen minutes. It passed in the blink of an eye. My copilot and I spent many hours discussing our actions. It went down exactly like what we had trained for.
Likewise, as a CEO, you need to be able to implement your decisions effectively and ahead of your competitors. One of my companies provided high value services for clients such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin. To maintain such high-end clientele, it was vital for us to offer greater effectiveness and efficiency, i.e., better value than our competitors. To do that, we had to actually be better. That meant constantly staying on top of our game, pushing ourselves past our comfort zones, and being prepared to take advantage of abnormal situations for the benefit of both our clients and our company.
Adversity inevitably creates the opportunity for the best prepared to shine. If, like a good jet pilot, you prepare for each mission, your business will have a much greater chance of getting airborne and staying there. And during every mission, keep scanning your instruments so you don’t run out of fuel (money), spin out of control (misalignment of interests) or fail to maintain enough thrust for your altitude (don’t deliver enough value).
Jet pilots aren’t smarter than CEOs. We’re just better prepared. If you do your homework and practice, you will be too.
Steven is a four-time CEO and an Airline Transport Pilot with 12 jet-type ratings, including the Boeing 777! You can read more about Steven’s adventures in his new book Cross Winds: Adventure and Entrepreneurship in the Russian Far East.
PHOTO CREDIT: ©WARNER BROS.