The Leap from Chief Pilot to Business Aviation Director

Author By Jim Lara

In our ‘Good to Great’ blog series, API’s Sheryl Barden and Jim Lara examine what’s required of Chief Pilots if they’re looking to assume the role of Business Aviation Director.

To recap, Part I reviewed four leadership traits important to Chief Pilots, and Part II looked at the importance of understanding finance and metrics.

Now, in Part III, we focus on additional business skillsets that a Chief Pilot must acquire if he/she wants to alter their career path and become a Business Aviation Director.

While it’s true that many current Business Aviation Directors have come from the ranks of Chief Pilots, the underlying question is:“How successful are these transitions –especially given the expanded expectations from the corporate Aviation Reporting Executive or High Net Worth owner?”

Both API and Gray Stone Advisors have worked with many, many business aviation operations. And both companies have witnessed Chief Pilots stumble during their transition to Aviation Director after either being promoted from within or being selected for their first Director position at a new company.

In the today’s competitive environment, there is very little tolerance for missteps.

Before we know if a Chief Pilot is ready to make the leap, let’s quickly review a Business Aviation Director’s role, which in many cases, is often its own distinct career track within the Business Aviation organization. In larger departments, this is a predominantly (or exclusively) a non-flying role in which the Director must be:

  • A jack-of-all-trades and a virtual master of every one of them.
  • The executive leader of a service enterprise within a host corporation/organization, where aviation is not part of the core business.
  • Focused heavily on areas that are outside of the aviation organization such as the interface with the Executive Office, Accounting, Legal, Finance and HR.
  • The principal interface with corporate’s executive team, which requires business and corporate skill sets that are not commonly developed within the role of Chief Pilot.
  • Well-connected and well-networked so they can continue to deliver the best resources on behalf of the organization.

The Leap from Chief Pilot to Aviation Director

When a Chief Pilot wishes to become a successful Aviation Director, he or she must have a unique combination of education and practical experience.

Education: An aspiring Chief Pilot must be well-educated in the field of commercial business and have an in-depth command of the technical aspects required of flight operations, maintenance, scheduling and dispatch, as well as in-flight services.

The preparation must start early since these line-operating skills take years to acquire and hone. In addition, we cannot begin to stress the importance of a bachelor’s or master’s degree in a business-related field. A degree is no longer a differentiator; it’s a requirement.

Experience: A good way for Chief Pilots to gain’Director-level’ experience is to take on special projects under the guidance of the Aviation Director or Reporting Executive. Projects may include:

  • Putting together the operating expense and capital budgets for the entire department.
  • Working with the department’s functional leaders (Maintenance, Flight Operations, Scheduling & Dispatch and Administration) under the guidance of the Director.
  • Being charged with preparing the monthly metrics package for the department that is eventually sent to corporate headquarters.
  • Job shadowing or taking on a temporary duty assignment as Assistant Director of Maintenance.  This helps one make the transition to a role where the requirement is to ‘lead’ rather than ‘do.’
  • Serving on a presentation team that reports to executive leadership in order to strengthen communications, team-building and interpersonal relationship skills.

What Business Skills are Required of Aviation Directors?

An Aviation Director is expected to perform at the highest level—just as his/her comparative peers at Corporate HQ who are serving as Directors of Security, Accounting, Lead Counsel and IT, amongst other leadership positions.

One simply must have all of the business and leadership skills required—and be capable of performing flawlessly the minute after stepping into the role.

Core skills include:

  • Education: This educational foundation, as mentioned above, must include all of the technical aviation skills as well as commercial business fundamentals. The rule of thumb is that you must know at least as much about any subject as the specialist you partner with at Corporate, including Legal (both Commercial and Aviation Law), Accounting, Finance, Tax, Human Resources and Vendor Sourcing.
  • Leadership: The EQ side of leadership now becomes more important than the IQ side.  A range of ‘soft skills’ especially as they relate to the four leadership traits we discussed in part one of this series.
  • Communication: Knowing how to create and deliver written and oral executive presentations is a crucial skillset. The mode of delivery must be consistent with corporate expectations.
  • Vendor Negotiation: This involves ‘people skills’ and the ability to make strategic business and financial decisions. In Business Aviation, contract negotiations are commonly measured in millions of dollars.
  • Accounting: Basic-to-intermediate familiarity with GAAP accounting principles and financial statements is an absolute requirement.
  • Finance: The ability to understand the time value of money, cash flows, and the implications of various asset leasing strategies vs. outright purchase are essential.
  • Corporate Governance: A very strong background in Board of Directors’ oversight principles and requirements of the Internal Control provisions of Sarbanes Oxley, Section 404 and the IRS Code as well as other taxing authorities applicable to corporate aircraft use.

Bringing it Home

A Chief Pilot looking to redirect his/her career should focus upon the important aspects of corporate life that today’s and tomorrow’s Aviation Director must have to succeed.

The absence of these skills is a huge contributing factor to the fact that there’s nearly a 25% annual turnover rate amongst new Aviation Directors, according to research performed by the NBAA several years ago.

Combining relevant business education with hands-on experience to hone the needed plethora of skill sets is the common-sense key to success for those in our industry looking to make the leap from Chief Pilot to Aviation Director.

Finally, remember that before the Chief Pilot can advance in his/her career, their successor must also be thoroughly prepared and job-tested as well, to ensure smooth business continuity for the organization.

Your Turn

We’d love for you to share your own thoughts, tips or personal experiences on how to best transition into a Director’s role. Participate in the dialogue by adding your thoughts in the comments section below.

About our Guest Blogger:

Sheryl Barden is the President and CEO of Aviation Personnel International. Now celebrating 42 years in aviation, API is the longest-running aviation recruiting business, exclusively serving the hiring needs of flight departments in business and general aviation. API offers the broadest portfolio of fully vetted candidates, including senior aviation leaders, pilots, maintenance, cabin safety crew, schedulers and dispatchers.