The New-Generation Aviation Director

It takes a strong flight department leader who is attuned to the business needs of the company to bridge the gap between hangar and headquarters.

Aug. 10, 2015

“Closing the Gap Between Hangar and Headquarters,” which appeared in the May/June edition of Business Aviation Insider, looked at the divide between many flight departments and their company headquarters. This second story in the four-part series on this subject provides recommendations on how an aviation director with the right business and communication skills can form a strong partnership between the flight department and company headquarters.

In today’s evolving corporate environment, what essential attributes should a strong aviation director or flight department manager have?

“Flight departments need to make a shift in how they view the requisite skill set for an effective aviation director,” said Mike Nichols, NBAA’s vice president of operational excellence and professional development. “Historically, the flight department director has been the most senior pilot. Going forward, companies expect their flight departments to be run by skilled leaders and asset managers.”

Steve Brechter, senior advisor of operations at Gray Stone Advisors – a Knoxville, TN-based advisory firm that helps business aviation leaders align flight department operations with corporate expectations – suggests there are four critical attributes of a good aviation director:

  • Business acumen
  • Astute communication
  • Proactive asset management
  • Effective partnering with the parent company

Effective flight department managers today need a wider variety of skills to maneuver in the corporate environment than they did in previous eras. Aviation directors should be proficient in business and financial management and also be organizationally savvy.

These managers need to be able to make compelling business cases for the flight department and should be able to clearly communicate with executives who are not experts in aviation.

Brechter emphasizes the importance of communication skills, saying flight department leaders should be able to express flight department issues in terms relevant to the executive team, not in technical aviation terms. Ideally, aviation directors should aim to get the executive team’s attention by communicating concerns with the issue’s potential solution first – not the background of the issue. You only have a short time to capture an executive’s attention, so communications with company headquarters should be kept concise, focusing on clarity, not volume. This type of communication is a skill that aspiring or current aviation directors can develop with practice.

“The language of aviation needs to be secondary to the language of business,” said Brechter. “An effective aviation director needs to be as comfortable in the halls of the company headquarters as they are walking across the hangar.”

Data-Based Decision-Making

Executives are increasingly focusing on data-driven decision-making, which requires flight department managers to produce relevant metrics and explain them to the executive team.

Dustin Cordier, regional sales manager for Embraer Executive Jets, has observed a fundamental difference in how individuals from different generations approach challenges. In his experience, it is common for Generation Xers (typically considered to be individuals born from the early 1960s to the early 1980s) to be more data-based in their decision-making, while Baby Boomers (typically considered to be born between 1946 and 1964) rely more on previous experience and “gut feeling.”

More Generation Xers at the executive level also means a more data-based management and strategy model. This strategy can lead executives to consider other options for their flight needs, such as management or charter companies. Cordier says an astute aviation director can help make a business case for maintaining or growing an internal flight department, especially if that director is in touch with the organization’s needs.

An aviation director who is plugged into the direction of the parent company as a whole does not only articulate the value of an internal flight department, but also makes appropriate recommendations on replacing aircraft, increasing the effectiveness of the fleet and meeting strategic business-development needs. This internal connection with headquarters helps to demonstrate the value that is inherent in a company-based flight department versus an outsourced management company or charter use.

“Aviation directors must ask themselves, ‘Am I tuned in to the short- and long-term needs of the organization?’” said Cordier. “Proving you are an internal partner with company headquarters can address questions about outsourcing.”

Being business savvy, having excellent communications skills, being a proactive asset manager and keeping in touch with the organization’s overall needs are only part of the qualifications of an effective aviation director in today’s flight department, cautions Nichols.

“While these attributes are critical, it’s also important that an aviation director maintain technical skills and a thorough understanding of business aviation overall,” said Nichols. “An effective aviation director must have these business-related skills in order to effectively work with headquarters, but he or she also must maintain technical skills in order to maintain safety in the organization and credibility with the flight department staff.”

Preparing for the New Leadership Role

How should an aspiring aviation director prepare for the role? Most importantly,he or she should be comfortable with the role of leader.

“Becoming the flight department manager shouldn’t be strictly a means of receiving higher compensation,” said Brechter. “These individuals need to be committed to leadership. They should be comfortable with empowerment and delegation and be very good at motivating the [other members of the] organization to perform. If a person isn’t interested in this type of role, they might be better suited to stay in a more technical role. Promoting someone into the director role for whom the ‘fit’ isn’t right is not beneficial to the individual or the organization.”

Individuals considering a leadership role within a flight department should carefully review the job description and then consider their current skills, experience and education, compared to the formal requirements. Then they can establish an individual development plan to help address any gaps in their background.

Some companies might require their aviation director to be a Certified Aviation Manager (CAM) or have an MBA degree. NBAA’s accredited CAM program helps management candidates prepare for career growth and prove their knowledge and qualifications to be an industry leader. Some universities now offer an MBA with a specialization in aviation management. These degrees and other business- and leadership-focused education can help aviation directors or candidates hone their skills.

“We encourage companies to use a competency-based hiring model,” said Brechter. “Even if a company already has an internal candidate in mind, we recommend they do a parallel search for qualified external candidates.

Companies go through transitions and their needs change, so an internal candidate isn’t always the best choice. The days of the ‘good old boy’ network are over. As an industry, we should be evaluating a wide range of candidates using competency-based recruitment and selection, not strictly relying on ‘who you know.’”

The next article in this series will identify issues related to communicating with the executive team and provide guidance to help the flight department become a strategic partner with company headquarters. Learn more about NBAA’s Business Aviation Insider magazine and download the mobile app at