Developing the Business Aviation Talent Pipeline: Rich Walsh Interview

Author By Jim Lara

Aviation Directors face several obstacles when managing people and developing a business aviation talent pipeline.

To help identify the issues and create solutions, I [Jim Lara] recently sat down with one of NBAA’s newest Board Members, Rich Walsh, to discuss his insights and recommendations for creating tomorrow’s successful Business Aviation leaders.


Jim Lara: Having worked with your flight for the past 5 years, Gray Stone has seen you implement a number of hiring and developmental best practices. During the NBAA Regional in Chicago and then again at NBAA in Las Vegas, we heard you present on this very subject.

How have you become so passionate about developing aviation leaders?


Rich Walsh: You’re right, Jim. I care very much about our industry and think it’s imperative that we, as Business Aviation leaders, develop our personnel in a way that fosters a culture of continuous improvement.

Collectively, we are excellent technicians, pilots, and operators. But, most of us were not educated—in the traditional sense—as businessmen and women. Yet that’s exactly what Business Aviation leaders are expected to do– run a business within a business. Honestly, I don’t think many of our Directors understand how to properly assess fit and develop the teams needed to lead flight departments for today’s corporations.


Jim: What’s a common mistake that Directors make when developing people?


Rich: One common mistake I see is that leaders are not connecting each employee’s goals with the mission and vision of organization. It’s really important to align an individual development plan (IDP) to the strategic objectives of the company.

This gives each person a purpose so they know how and why they’re contributing to the big picture.


Jim: How do you know when someone’s ready for leadership—to go from ‘doing’ to ‘leading’?


Rich: We need to assess each employee’s fit within the culture. For example, if you’ve targeted a person for development, what happens when you ask that person to take on additional responsibilities? How well do they problem solve? How do they work with and through others? Do they want to stay in their technical role or move into leadership?


Jim: Here at Gray Stone, we talk a lot about training vs.development. What are your insights into this issue?


Rich: From a tactical perspective, our industry professionals can turn a wrench and fly a plane. Plus,our FAA and ICAO requirements ensure that, through annual recurrent training and SMS plans, we have the technical competencies needed for today.

But just because someone is training to be technically competent today doesn’t mean they’re developing for tomorrow. Personal development is all about growing from your current role to your future role.


Jim: One of the myths we see is that ‘getting in good’ with the senior executives and providing great service will ensure job security. It’s no longer the ‘good ol’ boys club’, is it?


Rich: Unfortunately, some aviation professionals spend their extra time developing relationships with internal customers, instead of working on building their technical know-how. But the truth is, if someone just wants to come to work every day and fly a plane or operate equipment, they will be performance managed out of the organization.

There’s much more work required to stay relevant these days than just being a’good guy/gal.’ It’s not longer about who you know, but what kind of contribution you’re making.


Jim: In our NBAA Safety Committee meetings, we talk a lot about the impact technology has on safety. In fact, technology is one of our Top 10 Safety Focus Areas. In your opinion, is technology a friend or foe?


Rich: It’s both. The ability to call up a handler and download a trip plan onto an iPad is very helpful and efficient. Yet, due to our increasing reliance on technology, many of today’s professionals do not have the same level of technical competency around flight planning, for example.

If a flight department were to bring this capability in house, would the staff be able to manage through an operational irregularity? Would they know what’s behind the numbers? The same goes for advanced avionics and other technologies that we rely upon to do our jobs.


Jim: Speaking of technology, having worked with your flight department and the host company for several years we know that it’s a self-service culture. How has online automation impacted you as a leader—and your ability to develop future leaders?


Rich: All of the basic functions at our company—from HR to Procurement—are automated. And all our company-related training is online. This is true for many corporations. There’s no longer a dedicated HR person available to hold your hand and walk you through how to manage performance reviews, development internship programs, etc.

As a leader, you have to know how to navigate through processes, solve your own problems. This takes critical thinking skills, negotiating skills, troubleshooting skills. You have to know how to find the right person to help you.


Jim: How are you getting your staff up to speed on the business skills needed to run an international flight department?


Rich: Gaining financial acumen is a key developmental area for both our pilots and mechanics because these groups are spending thousands of dollars when they purchase fuel and parts,etc. It’s important to know how to interact with the different corporate business units, such as finance and accounting, and speak their language.

In our IDPs, we provide early (and frequent) exposure to core technical competencies and professional disciplines such as: enterprise risk management,data mining, safety management systems, technical writing, cross-functional project management, process improvement and strategic crisis leadership.


Jim: You know a lot about running an aviation organization. Tell us, how did you learn to run a business within a business?


Rich: I’ve owned a couple of businesses, and received business training working within the flight department at Cardinal Health. I also got much of my experience through United Airlines.

Back in the day, the airline really focused on developing their talent pipeline. They had a 5-10 year plan so when I was selected to be a Director of Training Center Operations, they put me through a series of rotations where I learned a lot of new business skills. I was basically running a business (cost center) within United, which generated revenue.

Unfortunately, the airlines were financially impacted by 9/11 and talent development was put on the back burner for a period of time. Now,I’ve heard that numerous airlines are struggling to find Operational leaders because they have gaps in their pipeline. We’re slowly starting to shift the needle in Business Aviation by focusing on our people.


Jim: Aviation Directors need to understand how the big picture applies to the team, and how to actualize a strategy. Then build this strategy into individual development plans. How do you know if or when a front line captain is ready to fill the shoes of an Aviation Director? What tools do you use to assess fit vs. fitness?


Rich: Within our Business Aviation organization, we put the people through 1-2 year rotations to forecast a future fit. We assign mentors, we create internships, and we see if tomorrow’s leaders can learn to close the generational gap.

We establish hiring and recruiting practices that are focused on developing people. We have mini trials and rotations to put people through a predictor as to whether the person is really going to make it when given a big-time responsibility. This sounds like a lot of work, but it’s much better than putting someone in a role ‘hoping for the best’ and then after the fact, assessing whether it’s working or not.


Jim: What other advice do you have for those who are new to developing talent?


Rich: Here are five things to consider:

  1. Don’t be threatened by developing your team.
  2. Understand professional and generational differences and close the gap utilizing a comprehensive talent management plan.
  3. Monitor your own situational awareness and be a role model/mentor in every moment.
  4. Remain objective and stay focused on desired outcomes.
  5. Align personal development plans to company strategic objectives.


Jim: Rich, we really appreciate your insights. Any closing remarks?


Rich: Build upon the core technical competencies and professional disciplines that are essential to the success of the individual employee. Their success ultimately benefits the long-term health of the corporation, and the Business Aviation profession. Make the commitment to lead and invest in your people, and the results will be phenomenal.


Your Turn

We’ve listed several obstacles that Business Aviation leaders face when managing talent. Do you agree with our assessment? Are there other threats you’d like to suggest? Do you have additional solutions not mentioned above? If so, please leave a comment below.