Life-and-Death Lessons for 'Piloting' Your Company
Last Saturday, a Houston-bound Boeing 767 cargo plane transporting Amazon packages crashed into the waters of southeast Texas, 30 miles from its destination, after losing contact with air traffic control. The pilot, co-pilot and a second pilot riding as a passenger were killed and the plane's debris spread across an enormous, 180,000-square foot expanse, leaving NTSB investigators, at least for now, trying to determine a cause.
As a pilot myself, I've been monitoring news reports of the Houston tragedy, wondering what that crew experienced in those final moments. As a pilot, too, I know all too well that there are three things aviators learn to do when flight emergencies occur: aviate, navigate and communicate -- choices which can make the difference between life and death.
Those choices are not unlike the ones a company leader makes. That's why, as a CEO as well as a pilot, I frequently find myself turning to my own experiences in the air to solve business problems on the ground. Here are those lessons:
Defeat panic by planning for disaster.
Earlier this year, I was flying passengers at 12,500 feet, straight and level and on autopilot. But, then a problem: My oil pressure was falling and the engine oil temperature had spiked. That’s a winning combination (or a losing one, depending on your perspective) for an engine to seize.
In response, I first determined a place to put the plane down if necessary, and pointed the aircraft in that direction. As I worked the problem, I noticed the temperature on one of the engine cylinder heads climbing beyond 400 degrees Fahrenheit: At my altitude and the outside air temperature, there was no way this should be the case. And time was slipping by. Was it an engine issue, an air-flow issue or something else? I had to decide and I had to stay cool ...
Lessons for business: At my company, I recall when one of my senior executives made a severe error in judgment, and I quickly realized that this employee would have to be terminated for cause. There was no time to make a transition. I learned of the issue on a Friday night, and after investigating the facts over the weekend, made sure the person was gone by Monday morning.
What's important was that I didn’t panic. Instead, with our team, I mapped out the steps for a recovery, albeit not the most elegant one. By delegating and collaborating, I finished some critical projects the terminated executive had had, and the team kept other processes intact. In hindsight, my only error was that I had no checklist for how to manage the immediate removal of a top executive. Without some level of planning and composure, a crisis can quickly overwhelm any of us.
Planning: It's crucial. Remember the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency’s erroneous alert last January about a ballistic missile approaching the islands? Panic erupted. People largely didn't know what to do -- though some did. A tourist reported that the tour bus company he was with had driven everyone to take shelter in a concrete bunker in the hills of Oahu. Evidently, the bus company had planned for a disaster.
Solve problems by knowing when (or not) to communicate.
My company provides research, intelligence and archival services to law firms, corporations and even Hollywood studios. Some of our clients’ assets are irreplaceable. Many consumers consider their credit information similarly precious, which is why Equifax’s 2017 data breach and six-week communications lag about the breach were so troubling.
Equifax’s inexplicable delay was roundly criticized. By not communicating in a timely way, the company gave hackers a tremendous advantage over Equifax customers who could have earlier frozen their credit files to protect themselves from the potential for identity theft.
Lessons for business: Recently, a top manager of mine described what appeared to be a situation where data held by two clients had been compromised. I felt a wave of anxiety. But I stepped back and worked the problem out with my team. Within a few hours, I learned the problem was merely a perception that something had gone awry. At the outset, my team had considered immediately notifying our clients about the possibility of a breach. I decided to wait. Sure, there was an argument to be transparent and get in front of the issue to manage it. But in this case, had I notified the clients, I would have created a problem.
Keep your business running when problems strike.
A few years ago, Fortune named GM CEO Mary Barra crisis manager of the year for her handling of an ignition-switch defect that caused not only the recall of millions of GM cars but more importantly the loss of life. Barra learned of the ignition-switch problems within months of taking the helm of GM, in 2014.
Facing withering attacks and accusations of a cover-up culture, she stepped forward, apologized and began her investigation, which concluded the cause of the technical problem to be incompetence and neglect but not a cover-up. In the intervening years, GM’s price per share has returned to (and in some quarters exceeded) its pre-2014 levels, and the company has announced plans for an autonomous vehicle. Barra has kept GM going during problematic times by addressing challenges but also collecting business intelligence from customers to develop better and new products.
My own business intelligence comes from a variety of business intelligence tools giving me indicators regarding the health of our organization; alerts when things aren’t as expected; and the opportunity to get in front of potential challenges. I look at average revenue per person, sales, turnover and average deal size. If I notice that we’re starting to lose a certain type of sale, I run through my checklist: Is the problem the salesperson? The way we’re packaging the service?
By looking at various trends and identifying them early, a manager can break down a problem and keep on a correct heading for the conditions.
Lessons for business: When I learned of the possibility of a U.S. government shutdown last December, I talked to our team about setting ourselves up for the point when our employees servicing government contracts might no longer receive paychecks. In aviation, that’s called putting yourself "on the longest possible glide." Drawing on that lesson, I looked at my company’s bank of unused paid time off (PTO), so I could give employees a glide slope, meaning time before the government might resume operations.
I didn't want anyone to leave us for another job before the government reopened. And, yes, the shutdown had a dramatic impact on our revenue. But we continued offering benefits, allowed full use of PTO and kept our communication lines open to deal with the government-induced furlough.
Aviate, navigate and communicate.
This brings me back to my own flight with the sudden problem at 12,500 feet. We didn't crash! Instead, I pinpointed the problem and fixed it and we landed safely. But ahead of that fortunate outcome, I probably worked through 20 different micro-steps. I also decided not to tell the passengers.
Good pilots know what, if anything, to tell their passengers. The same goes for good managers who'll ask: Am I communicating with the right people about the right information? Am I giving the problems I face my undivided attention, so I can work them?
So, whether you’re flying a plane or running a company, department or small team, stay aware that people are counting on you. And recognize that you must make decisions as though people’s lives depend on it. Because sometimes those are the stakes.