As seen in the NBAA Business Aviation Insider publication.

Shoes to Fill: Does Your Flight Operation Have a Succession Plan?

Many flight departments are led by directors with decades of experience. They’ve earned the trust of their teams and they run efficient operations with excellent safety records. But what happens when they retire?

“A certain number of people can create high-performing organizations for a short period of time, but when they leave, the organization declines,” said Randy Hudon, who ran BellSouth’s flight department for many years and has watched four members of his former team go on to become directors themselves.

“To sustain a high-performing organization, you have to build bench strength,” said Hudon, now president and CEO of Aviation Leadership Group. “You have to move beyond seniority-based leadership and develop leaders who have the skills to sustain the organization.”

As the flight department gains more visibility and the regulatory environment continues to shift, companies are looking more and more for strategic business leaders who understand aviation, rather than the most senior operations person. Focusing on succession planning is critical to ensure the department has the leadership to be effective into the future.

More Than Anointing a Successor

Succession planning is about investing in your people. “It’s important to focus on succession planning because it’s always best to promote from within,” said Sheryl Barden, president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, a recruiting firm specializing in business aviation. “It provides continuity of culture, values and institutional knowledge.”

Promoting from within also demonstrates there’s room to grow for everyone in the flight department. “You can always go outside and hire good talent,” said Kent Ramquist, flight operations manager and chief pilot at American Family Insurance. “But if your people in-house are ready, then you can hand it over to somebody who knows the culture and the operation.”

Barden points out that promoting from within and looking outside for talent can work hand-in-hand. “If the company does a national search and still chooses the candidate from inside the flight department, that candidate gets a huge validation,” said Barden.

Aviation directors who excel at developing their people know that there’s a lot involved in succession planning. “There’s a difference between a succession plan and anointing a successor,” said Barden. “Your organization should have more than one person to choose from to fill a vacancy. If you only develop one person and for whatever reason they choose to leave your organization, then where are you?”

Identify Talent, Aspiration, Engagement

A succession plan is often a brief document that a company’s human resources (HR) department will ask aviation directors to develop. Almost always the plan is not just about who will replace the director, but who is ready to step into each management role within the department, including the chief pilot, manager of maintenance and scheduling manager posts.

“We use a form HR has developed to evaluate our people on three areas of readiness,” said Ramquist. “Do they have the talent? Do they have the aspiration? And are they already emotionally engaged? We look at that annually with HR because maybe someone has come into focus since last year who we weren’t previously looking at.”

For flight department professionals to be ready for leadership, they need to be continually developing new skills. “The whole key is not just succession planning but development,” said Barden.

Bill Shaw, Sprint’s director of flight operations, agrees: “We have a requirement that everyone on the team accomplish one professional development activity per quarter,” said Shaw.

A long-term succession plan for all the management roles in the flight department actually begins before team members are even hired. As Hudon explained: “It’s about getting the right people on the bus. For example, if you need to bring on a scheduler and your department is weak on financial skills, look for someone with financial acumen in addition to scheduling and dispatch skills.”

As Shaw sees it, recruiting, professional development and succession planning are all tied together. “Directors have to take a long view,” said Shaw. “When hiring a line pilot, consider the skills he or she will need to step up to be the next chief pilot. The next chief pilot or maintenance manager should have the foundational skills to eventually replace the director.”

Create Stretching Opportunities

There are many different ways to engage aviation personnel in professional development. Among the most common is enabling employees to attend industry and NBAA events, as well as to participate in the Association’s Professional Development Program and On-Demand Education online courses.

Many directors also work with their employees to create plans for pursuing continuing education, such as an MBA or university aviation courses, or studying for NBAA’s Certified Aviation Manager (CAM) credential.

Professional development doesn’t have to be expensive; Shaw has found that by sending employees to sponsored leadership-training events, nearly the whole department can participate. “In a period of serious budget constraints, you have to be creative,” said Shaw. “Many companies have great internal training programs. For example, we have ‘Sprint University,’ with courses in HR, finance, supply chain management and computer skills.”

In fact, the most important things a director can do to develop people cost nothing and are available everyday. Ramquist emphasizes the importance of giving each team member “management stretching opportunities,” such as working with company staff outside the flight department on a special project.

“One of my pilots was on a cross-functional environmental sustainability team, and it gave him great visibility within the company,” said Ramquist, who has also assigned one of his pilots to head the department’s International Standard for Business Aircraft Operations Stage 2 audit process for 2012. Directors also recommend delegating budget preparation to a scheduler or chief pilot, which gives them the opportunity to work with the company’s finance department, or assigning the maintenance manager to work with the legal team on updating the fleet plan. Creating those opportunities is essential to succession planning, because they’re the tasks employees will eventually take on when it’s time to step up.

“Because I’ve invested in my team’s potential, I know I’ve got somebody in place who can take over without a hiccup,” said Ramquist. “I know I can leave the flight department in good hands.”

For More Information

NBAA offers several professional development resources that can help your team prepare for management roles and develop their leadership skills, including On-Demand Education webinars , the NBAA Leadership Conference and the NBAA Certified Aviation Manager program.

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