Prior to starting and leading technology companies, I spent close to nine years in the military as a helicopter pilot.
I’ve learned many lessons throughout my business career, but to date, it is what I had learned as a pilot that best guides me as an entrepreneur. Here are 10 lessons entrepreneurs can learn from military pilots:
1. Knowledge is king.
Before flying a new aircraft, pilots must learn everything about it down to the nuts and bolts -- hydraulic systems, electrical systems, transmissions. Though pilots are obviously not mechanics, the more that’s known the better the pilot will be at understanding and operating the machine, especially when things go wrong.
Likewise in business, entrepreneurs gain advantage by mastering their domain -- market, ecosystem players, technology, products, company KPIs. No detail is too small.
2. Practice makes perfect.
Before getting on an aircraft for the first time, pilots practice in simulators. The next step is flying hundreds of hours with instructors before becoming a co-pilot. Finally, they become a pilot in command for combat missions after practicing so much that it’s already instinctual.
Business is no different. To get good, entrepreneurs need to get many “business hours” under their wings, get mentoring from more experienced people, ask many questions and be humble. Practice never stops.
3. Always brief and debrief.
Before every flight, no matter how mundane, there’s a briefing meant to prepare and align everyone on the mission ahead. Likewise, after every landing, there is an honest and transparent debrief that surfaces everything good and bad, mainly focusing on mishaps and errors.
No matter how well the flight went, there can always be improvements. Conversely, if it was disastrous, the focus is only on improving a few salient points instead of trying to tackle everything.
In business, fortune favors the prepared and those who are constantly striving to improve.
4. Just get the job done.
A soldier, in the air or on the ground, knows that at the end of the day he simply needs to get the job done. Excuses, reasons, explanations, theories, justifications and complaints are simply irrelevant. There’s only one expected report at the end of the day: mission accomplished.
5. Expect the unexpected.
Things generally go wrong, and therefore, one should not be surprised or be caught off guard when they do. Pilots plan and practice ahead of time for a great many scenarios, no matter how slim the chances are that they would occur. Once airborne, they scan the horizon looking for enemy planes, including from behind, and continuously think, “What can go wrong with my aircraft and mission?”
The same should be done in business. In every operational aspect, ask what could go wrong and each risk factor can be prepared for and mitigated.
6. Trust the wingmen.
There’s usually more than one person in the cockpit, and more than one aircraft in a formation. One person, however bright and capable, usually cannot execute a mission alone. They must rely on their wingmen to not only do their jobs, but also keep them alive.
In business, not only choose people that can be relied upon professionally, but also ones who could be entrusted with taking care of the company’s best interest.
7. Keep calm.
There will be numerous demanding moments and days in the journey as an entrepreneur. The crazier things get, the more important it is to stay calm and cool. Physical relaxation tips from pilots include taking deep, slow breaths, stretching the shoulders and neck and unclenching of the fists.
Speak slower on purpose to give more time to think, which has the added value of sounding more authoritative and thoughtful. Resist making impulsive decisions. When an aircraft has a malfunction, pilots press the "reset" button on the alarm dashboard. It doesn’t help that much, but it inhibits pressing something else out of panic.
8. Constantly re-prioritize.
A pilot needs to multitask: fly the aircraft in often tough conditions, navigate, listen to many radios, maintain formation with other aircrafts, scan many gauges and perform many other tasks. At times, almost all of the pilot’s attention should be directed toward one key task, and at others it is spread across many.
Imagine the business as a radar screen with many blinking dots on it and constantly ask, “Which one is the most crucial dot? Which can keep blinking for a while longer?”
9. Be bold.
Simply put: No guts, no glory!
10. Be on time.
In a mission, being a few seconds late could make the difference between success and failure. Likewise in business, punctuality not only exudes professionalism, but also encourages it.