The novel coronavirus pandemic has heightened awareness of the value of business aircraft. However, as aviation leaders know, the success of any business unit is based in part on a consistent and cohesive program of strategic communications with company leadership to maintain the department’s profile within the organization. Now, as businesses begin to focus on the future, chief pilots and aviation directors must employ all their skills to ensure that business aviation remains an essential tool for companies seeking to move forward.
Strategic communications for an aviation leader combines some of the fundamental skills of good corporate stewardship, bringing together business acumen, relationship building, marketing and communications to illustrate the value of a flight department, says Jo Damato, CAM, NBAA’s vice president of educational strategy and workforce development.
“It has never been more important for our aviation leaders to be able to explain the value proposition of a flight department,” declared Damato. “At a time when c-suites across the country are grappling with pandemic-recovery plans, aviation leaders must employ key strategic communications skills to underscore that business aviation as the safest and most practical means of transport and a core element in any return to normal operations,” she explains.
Keeping the Flight Department ‘Front-and-Center’
The coronavirus pandemic has accentuated the importance of strategic communications, asserts Jad Donaldson, director of aviation at Harley-Davidson Motor Co. After playing a key role in relocating the company’s senior leadership at the start of the pandemic, Donaldson and his team took advantage of the lockdown to complete a virtual International Standards for Business Aircraft Operations Stage 3 progressive audit.
“The audit was important for many reasons, but it allowed me to keep the flight department in front of leadership and show that we were operating at the highest level, even during the pandemic, said Donaldson. “It also helped to remind them that, as essential workers, we were ready and available when they needed us.”
That appreciation of the c-suite’s need is a hallmark of great strategic communications, according to an aviation director of a large corporation.
“Before you say anything to the executive team, you have to understand their business. Regardless of whether you work for a manufacturer, a retailer or a non-profit, senior managers do not need to know the details of your aviation department, they just need to know you can contribute to the organization. Once you understand the needs of the executive team, you can craft your message to focus on what is important in their world, and you can if you intuitively understand their needs without having to have a conversation about it; you just added value because you did not have to disrupt them.”
Understanding an executive team’s needs requires research, so aviation department leaders will need to work closely with other business units, says a director of aviation of a Michigan-based company.
“I can’t tell you how many meetings I go to that have nothing to do with my area of expertise, but by doing so I gain a better understanding of the organization’s goals and can adapt my operation accordingly. Business is constantly changing, and more so with this pandemic, so it is up to our team to get ahead of this and ensure the flight department is ready.”
“It’s important for all aviation leaders to have good relationships with all the business units that you support.”
Jeff Poeppelman Senior Director and Chief Pilot of Operations, Nationwide Aviation Business Center
It is prudent to extend this relationship-building beyond senior management, advises Jeff Poeppelman, senior director and chief pilot of operations at Nationwide Aviation Business Center.
“It’s important for all aviation leaders to have good relationships with all the business units that you support,” said Poeppelman. Collaboration is key to modern business, and by building relationships across the company, you will also build credibility for the aviation department and for yourself. So, when the time comes for your input, like during this pandemic, your input is supported by the credibility you have created,” he says.
The Michigan-based aviation director notes that the successful employment of strategic communications requires a long-term and sustained commitment to be successful.
“You have got to continuously promote why you add value and why the aviation department is beneficial to the company,” he says. Normally, this message would focus on the financial benefits of business aviation, such as the total of business hours saved or the number of business opportunities created by having access to a flight department, but this year aviation operations can point to their role as an essential service during the pandemic to reinforce their value.
To gain the most impact from strategic communications, aviation leaders must deliver their message concisely and effectively.
“As a flight department, the value we add is time, and that value should be no different in our interactions with senior management. If you can frame your message so they can efficiently respond to your requests, or if you are prepared to answer any question, then they will appreciate that and likely will invite you in more frequently,” says the large company aviation director.
Success is also a team effort, he adds. “I tell my team that if we fly every flight as perfectly as possible, we will be seen as an invaluable part of the organization. By performing to this standard, we also build equity within the organization, so that even if something goes wrong, the conversation is not about our value, because our value has already been justified,” he says.
There is also an art to employing strategic communications, says Poeppelman. “Timing is key,” he notes. “Particularly with the added pressure of the pandemic, you have to be sensitive to your timing. The best argument in the world will fall flat if you bring it up at the wrong time. Most importantly, you might be asked for information at any time, so you must be prepared. A one-minute walk to the aircraft may be the only time you get with the CEO, so make sure you are prepared and that you articulate your message well,” he adds.
Prepare to Adapt
Aviation leaders must also be flexible, adds Poeppelman. “When you deal with senior management, appreciate that they are dealing with a whole host of other issues that might be prioritized over you and your department [so] you need to be flexible and prepared to adapt. Be ready to make decisions based on information that is known, and be willing to change when new facts are presented,” advises Poeppelman.
The skills needed to effectively employ strategic communications do not come naturally to everyone, but good leaders should always be willing to learn, says Harley-Davidson’s Donaldson. “If you don’t communicate well with the c-suite, find somebody who can help you get that skill and work on it. Don’t let somebody else tell your story, but when you tell it, you need to do so respectfully, concisely and honestly in a way that builds credibility with the c-suite,” he says.
Strategic communications also must be based on realistic results, cautions Poeppelman. “It is important to continually advocate for your department, but at the same time, you have to manage expectations. As a leader of a flight department, prioritize and focus on what you can control, while ensuring your team is prepared for that day when company leaders believe it is safe again to resume travel.”