Moving from the role of Director of Maintenance (DOM) to Director of Aviation (DOA) might be atypical for certain corporate flight departments.
However, as recruiters and advisors to business aviation, here at Aviation Personnel International, we feel this career path deserves much more attention, especially for maintenance professionals who have a desire to lead.
To learn more about taking the leap from DOM to DOA, we spoke with two aviation department leaders: Brian Gill, a Director of Operations, and Mike DelMastro, an Executive Director of Aviation services.
Brian and Mike each run a flight department for a pharmaceutical company, and they’re both based in the northeast. Not only did these two professionals share their insights about what it takes to move up in the ranks as an aviation leader, they also offered several tips to help make it easier for aspiring maintenance professionals to do so.
Brian Gill: Taking Initiative Counts!
Prior to leading the flight operation, Brian spent five years in a more concentrated role as the department’s head of maintenance.
When his predecessor left, Brian’s “roll-up-your-sleeves” attitude toward helping with the transition resulted in him playing a major role in creating the “going-forward” plan for the team. It took six months to fill the open role, which he held as an interim leader. Brian and the leadership team around him worked tirelessly together to earn the trust and confidence of senior leadership, who eventually asked him to lead the department as Director of Operations.
Yet Brian’s path hasn’t been an easy one to negotiate. He admits that there have been a lot of obstacles.
It’s what he did to prepare himself that has made all the difference. For one thing, when he was a young maintenance manager, he participated in a 360-degree evaluation. The resulting feedback from his peers, direct reports and managers helped Brian identify what he was doing right in his new job and what he needed to work on.
In the latter case, he said where he discovered he was most lacking was in making personal connections with his team members.
“I never personally needed a pat on the back and didn’t value that type of acknowledgement,” he explains. Consequently, he didn’t offer that type of recognition to his team when he became their manager. “I quickly realized that I couldn’t manage and lead others the way I wanted to be managed and led,” he admitted.
Mike DelMastro: Mentoring Makes a Difference
Like Brian, Mike’s initiative—his enthusiasm for always trying to do more—played a significant role in his advancement. It also helped that he had several mentors who were quite instrumental in pushing him to achieve his full potential.
And, it was also not lost on him that his DOA had risen through the ranks as a maintenance professional.
When asked how he, as a maintenance technician, became interested in leadership, he revealed his affinity to ‘mess’ with things and figure out how they worked. “I wanted to understand aviation from a ‘nuts-and-bolts’ perspective,” he said. “But my personality is such that I prefer to lead than follow, which has been a consistent driver throughout my career.”
During Mike’s 11-year stint as a maintenance tech and DOM, he went from being a floor technician to managing the maintenance of his firm’s helicopter operation. Then he took on managing the helicopters as well as the rotor-wing pilots. And, later, he managed helicopters and a few fixed-wing aircraft.
Because Mike continuously took on more responsibility, his boss and mentor within the corporation gave him broader responsibilities both within the aviation function and outside of the hangar. He even went back to school to obtain his MBA and learned to fly (although he’s never flown professionally).
“I felt that learning to fly would be an important skill that would allow me to have a more well-rounded understanding as an aviation leader.” Today Mike manages a five-aircraft operation with more than 40 individuals.
Asked if having a background as a maintenance professional put him in a better position to run a multi-million-dollar business unit, Mike says he believes it did.
“There’s more inherent business skills that develop, particularly as maintenance pros get more responsibility for running multi-million dollar projects. They must manage contracts, purchase new aircraft and work with procurement. Overall, it’s the diversity of exposure, especially for a maintenance manager. It’s everything from putting project plans together to overseeing difficulties that arise that have to be managed . . . also it’s being able to manage outside suppliers—those skills help you when you’re dealing with other internal departments.”
Tips for Leaping from DOM to DOA
We asked both Brian and Mike to share any leadership tips that might inspire other maintenance professionals to take on more as they rise through the ranks. The following just might help smooth the process of transitioning from a DOM to a DOA:
- Develop Yourself
It’s important to continuously develop your professional and interpersonal skills. Not everyone is born with the skills required for leadership, and you might have to go out and find them. Self-awareness is critical. You have to be willing to put in the work to make necessary changes to your leadership style.
- Be Direct and Honest
Both Brian and Mike cite the importance of these qualities. They recommend being direct and truthful with your team members at all times, but, at the same time, being respectful. The ability to speak your mind clearly and effectively is a valuable tool. At the same time, try and build a high level of respect and mutual trust among others in your organization—the Chief Pilot and DOM among them.
- Be Authentic
It’s always best to be as real and sincere as you can be in every aspect of leading your organization. People will see that for what it is—and, in the end, respect you for it. Always put yourself out there, even if it means using yourself as an example.
- Know Your Corporation and its Goals
“Get to know the folks in the organization and learn the organization itself,” Mike says. “Understand how to integrate those goals into your operation. In other words, make sure your organization is connected to the ‘host’. When you need help, you need to know who to go to and go early, whether that’s HR or Finance. You need the connections to help your own team to function more fluidly.”
- Learn the Finance Ropes
While he was the DOM, Brian says he spent a large portion of his time working on the budget, learning the financial systems and tools. He insists that, in order to be a well-rounded aviation leader, you’ve got to understand the financial systems, capital expenditures, financial reporting and budgeting. He says: “Learn the company’s expectations for budgeting so you can mirror your organization the same way. You don’t want to be an outlier, you want to be compliant in every way, with the realization that what you’re responsible for is a business with a unique set of requirements and assets.”
- Speak the Language
Both Brian and Mike agree that when it comes to communicating with the aviation reporting executive and Corporate, you have to be able to talk on their level. Things happen and not everyone knows why, so you have to be able to interpret the “why” of what happens on a Corporate level and then translate it to the aviation department. Brian adds: “You’re the interface between the primary business of the company and the air operations—be it Finance, HR, Legal or any other department—so you have to be comfortable in a business environment.”
- Be flexible
Because business aviation is a 24/7 commitment, it’s best to give people breaks when it’s at all possible. “The talent shortage in this business is real,” Brian acknowledges, “and the issue isn’t just about salary—it’s about quality of life.”
What tips do you have for aspiring leaders who have their sights set on leading the entire aviation organization? Please leave a note in the comments section below.