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Successful Succession Planning Grows Future Leaders

Baby Boomers are retiring in large numbers just as airlines are hiring pilots, maintenance technicians and other talent away from business aviation. While organizations focus on having enough people to accomplish day-to-day tasks, planning for longer-term needs can take a backseat. However, the reality is that failing to plan for future leadership needs is – in itself – a failure of leadership.

“We are experiencing an extreme pilot shortage and leadership shortage in this industry, but what we’re really seeing is a lack of succession planning,” said Dan Wolfe, vice president and general manager of Nationwide Aviation Business Center.

Be in Touch with Your Team

How can aviation organizations plan for smooth transitions to new leadership? Both managers and employees occasionally can be surprised by life’s twists and turns, but staying in touch with your team can help you identify and plan for future leadership needs.

“Encourage your team to be open and honest about their expectations and career path,” said Tim Sullivan, president and COO of Chantilly Air, an FBO and aircraft management company in Manassas, VA. “No company can be everything for everyone. If someone wants to be an airline captain, they won’t do it with Chantilly Air. If we’re a steppingstone in someone’s career, that’s okay. We just ask for people to give their best while they’re here.”

Sullivan said this kind of transparency requires a culture of trust and can take time to build.

Wolfe agrees. “When you build trust, you build engagement, which creates your culture, and culture is extremely important in an aviation environment,” he said.

“When you build trust, you build engagement, which creates your culture, and culture is extremely important in an aviation environment.”

Dan Wolfe Vice President and General Manager, Nationwide Aviation Business Center

Overlap Enables Mentoring

In this high-paced, sometimes high-stress industry, it’s understandable if some people want to spend their last full-time working years in a less-demanding position.

Chantilly Air’s former director of maintenance (DOM) approached Sullivan to explain that while he wasn’t quite ready to fully retire, he was ready for some more family time and a little less responsibility. Sullivan and the former DOM worked together to hire a replacement, then the former DOM helped train the incoming DOM. The former DOM will be with the company for a few more years to mentor the new manager and ensure a smooth transition.

“Some people might want to have less responsibility and step back a little bit as they near the end of their careers,” Sullivan explained. “However, you don’t want to lose that long-term experience and the culture they share with your company. So, it’s beneficial for both parties if you find a way to retain excellent talent in the organization while shifting the employee’s responsibilities for the remainder of their tenure. Overlapping in positions is good. It’s actually a lot less expensive in the long run than having a gap, especially in management positions.”

Wolfe is planning for retirement later this year, but the succession plan actually began in concept 10 years ago, and in practice about five years ago. The company’s chief pilot retired four years ago, and the organization promoted two people to the chief pilot position. One was initially assigned operational duties and the other administrative duties. Midway through the four years, the two swapped roles.

This reversal of duties enabled Wolfe to educate them on running the flight department and to mentor them on how to interact with C-suite leaders. This process also acted as a four-year job interview.

Wolfe plans to have a three- to four-month overlap with the incoming director of aviation in order to ensure a seamless transition. But his hope is that one day someone comes looking for him in his office and is surprised to learn he retired. In other words, the transition will be so seamless, no one will even notice.

Succession Planning Begins with Recruiting

Don’t wait until you know you’ll have a leadership position to fill before you begin looking for the right candidate. Ideally, succession planning begins with recruiting. Each candidate you interview is not only a potential pilot, maintenance technician or scheduler, but might be a future supervisor, manager or director. Evaluate their aptitude for leadership and discuss early on their desire to lead.

“Leadership is about developing people,” said Wolfe. “That separates you from a manager. Ask your people what their five-year plan is. Are they interested in a leadership position? Not everyone is, but if you show interest in people, their attitudes change.”

Make sure your team is part of the hiring process, so you get buy-in from the team on a new hire. If you get buy-in, then people are more likely to work well together.

“In the hiring process, you’re looking for future leaders, not just a pilot or mechanic.”

Joe Coates Senior Director of Aviation, The Home Depot

Joe Coates, senior director of aviation at The Home Depot, also says it’s important to identify potential leaders early on and assess their potential to lead.

“In the hiring process, you’re looking for future leaders, not just a pilot or mechanic,” said Coates. “Some people just want to be pilots, and some people want to do other things. Keep an eye out for those people.”

Coates says it’s important to task people with leadership potential and desires with leadership activities early, adding, “Your whole career is essentially a job interview.”

Managing the Runner-Up

In most aviation organizations, there are a limited number of top leadership positions. If you’ve been hiring good people who are interested in leadership, investing in their skills and coaching them through their careers at your organization, you’ll inevitably have some disappointed team members when only one is selected for a top position. How do you keep the folks who didn’t get the promotion engaged?

First, come to terms with the fact that you won’t hang on to every employee throughout their entire career. People leave for a variety of reasons, and sometimes they want to grow in ways your organization can’t offer, or can’t offer right now.

“You have to be a realist,” said Wolfe. “High-performing people might not stay with you forever, but while they’re there, they’ll make the department, your company and the industry better.”

Investing in people, including contributing to their ongoing education, can help keep people engaged. Experts also recommend giving potential leaders additional duties and opportunities to learn and grow.

Coates says it can be challenging to manage the person who doesn’t get chosen, but it’s beneficial to find ways to keep them on the management track; there could be opportunities in the future.

As the industry grapples with a pilot and technician shortage, succession planning will become even more critical. If it’s becoming so difficult to find pilots, maintenance technicians and other skilled personnel, who will be the leaders in 15 years?

The key, Coates says, is to keep the people in your organization happy enough for long enough that they will become the leaders in your organization. That means creating a culture of trust that enables personal development.

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