Why good pilots make great CEOs
From the cockpit to the C-Suite: Picking a pilot to run your company may be the best thing you can do for it
Share this article
By Paul Jansen
From the Left Seat
Sam Walton was a remarkable businessman. He had to fight disbelievers and find investors who would support his vision. But he kept at it and built a global merchandising empire.
The company he founded, Walmart, had sales of US$405 billion in fiscal year 2010, and earnings of US$14.2 billion, making Singapore’s state-owned investment company Temasek look like an SME. It buys so much from China that it is said that if Walmart is a country, it will be the sixth largest importer of China-made goods.
The company has 8,000 stores worldwide today. But right up to the 500th or so, Walton would faithfully fly his little plane to scout out the location.
In his autobiography, Sam Walton: Made in America, the late Walton (1918 – 1992) said that flying was very important in enabling him to pick the best spots.
“From up in the air we could check out traffic flows, see which way cities and towns were growing, and evaluate the location of competition—if there was any.”
“I’d get down low, turn my plane up on its side, and fly right over a town… There’s another good reason I don’t like jets. You can’t get down low enough to really tell what’s going on, the way I could in my little planes. Until we had 500 stores, or at least 400 or so, I kept up with every real estate deal we made and got to view most locations before we signed any kind of commitment.”
He started making flying an integral part of his corporate life early on. In 1954, after 10 years of setting up and running franchised stores, he grew tired of driving long distances to check out competitors and visit suppliers in a three-states area.
So he coughed up US$1,850 – a considerable sum at the time – for a twin-tailed two-seater 75hp 1947 model ErCoupe 415-C. It was billed as an aircraft that was safe and simple to fly, and you could even order it from a Macy’s department store.
But Walton’s brother Bud, a Navy pilot who flew off an aircraft carrier in the Pacific War, recalled:
“I’ll never forget going out to the Bentonville airport and seeing what he called an airplane. It had a washing machine motor in it, and it would putt-putt, and then miss a lick, then putt-putt again. It didn’t even look like an airplane, and I wouldn’t go near it for at least two years.
“But then we were putting some more stores in around Little Rock, and one day he says, ‘Let’s go to Little Rock.’ I hadn’t flown since the Navy in the Pacific, and I was always used to water. Here we were with Sam at the stick going over all these trees and mountains. It was the longest trip I ever took. That was the start of the Wal-Mart aviation era.”
Walton sold the ErCoupe in September 1956, replacing it with a Piper Tri-Pacer, and continued to buy and fly other aircraft, although always sticking to propeller-driven ones. They slashed his traveling time considerably, letting him go from 50mph meandering drives around the Ozarks, to 100mph straight line trips.
He used the planes to drop by his many stores and talk to the staff and see what customers were doing. He called it his “Management by walking and flying around”.
When the man dubbed the “Discounting Dynamo” by Time magazine died in 1992, his family’s net worth was US$25 billion. Today, reports say that his family’s wealth is as much as Warren Buffett’s and Bill Gates’ combined.
Reading about Sam and his personalilty, and Singapore’s duelling politicians’ recent flurry of comparisons of government leaders to pilots, set me looking into whether there is a deeper connection between being a professional or General Aviation pilot and being a leader.
After Singapore’s General Elections saw an erosion of support for the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the loss of two Ministers and one potential Speaker of Parliament, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew told journalists:
“Do not believe that the Singapore flight can be auto-pilot. You will run into storms, you will run into all kinds of emergencies and you must have good pilots on board and passengers who do not panic.”
Other PAP leaders had also talked about national leaders being like Captains who needed to be left to do their job, while Opposition candidates countered that the “right co-pilots” were critical to ensuring the ruling party performed satisfactorily.
And it struck me that the analogies were so apt because of how much they were based on aircraft captains needing to possess leadership qualities – and that these same traits and skills, which they are required to fine-tune throughout their professional or recreational flying days, would stand them in good stead in a CEO’s office.
I believe that Sam Walton, in flying around the country, not only learned new things about future store locations and current operations, but that the flights also subconsciously sharpened his C-Suite and Boardroom skills.
The best pilots possess an escalated “situational awareness”. They keep themselves fully informed of the things that are going on around them. They know the strengths and weaknesses of their crew. They prepare for any eventuality, any emergency.
They act decisively. They know that in the end, only one man can, and should, steer. That man is the one with his hands on the controls, who is in the front seat, who has first-hand information on what is going on around his vehicle. Not the veteran or board member in the First Class section, or the managers back at HQ. The Captain knows whether there is a crisis or not, he bears the mantle of responsibility and that there are no more unforgiving laws than the laws of Gravity.
They communicate clearly. Precision in delivering a message or accuracy in listening to one is key in the air. Good pilots will correct their wrong transmissions instantly and ask for clarification when unsure about what they are told. And when they need to, they will selflessly help another Captain by passing his messages to air traffic control and vice versa with the same level of clarity.
They learn continuously. More things are being discovered about the weather all the time. New instruments are being introduced into the cockpit. New aircraft are being launched. There is no let-up in the learning, no handicap given for age.
As surely as these characteristics enable a pilot to navigate the toughest weather or handle the most dire emergency in the air, they will elevate him above the ground-locked CEO.
My advice: If you manage a company and do not already have a Private Pilot’s Licence, get one. Or if you are hiring a leader, ask if he knows how to fly.
Or, you can opt for the next best solutions. Attend a management course which distills the lessons learned from the art of flying. Send your chiefs to one. Or hire a consultant with a PPL to give you a new perspective.
There are such advisors. In this part of the world, there is The Air Adventure Flying Club in Malaysia. Its unique 5-day Adventure Camp combines flying and 4-wheel-drive sessions to bond participants and teach them teamwork. The Head of Training and Chief Flying Instructor is Captain Andreas Walther, an ex-hotelier, who is an excellent teacher.
It is still possible to be a good leader without the benefit of the unique perspective afforded by flying.
I have had the privilege of working with such outstanding leaders. Among them, Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) Editor-in-Chief Peter H.L. Lim, Sunday Times Editor David Kraal, and Straits Times/Sunday Times Editor Leslie Fong Yin Leong, now SPH marketing chief. Peter always wanted to fly – so, perhaps, he must have been aware at a subliminal level of its benefits. He embodied the qualities listed above. When he asked for your opinion, you instinctively knew that it was a genuine inquiry. David had an equable temperament with a laser focus that would have made him an ideal Pilot In Command of the most complex endeavour and diverse crew. He was also extremely creative, producing elegant solutions to problems which always seemed to crop up right at the deadline.
But the one who impressed and inspired me the most, as he did many he worked with, was Leslie. He knew, like the best pilots do, that you have to take risks, listen to and take care of your crew, and take the long view – this storm will pass – if you want to venture to distant promised lands. He displayed consistent courage in plotting new paths, where others preferred to stick to the “safety” of old routes, putting his reputation on the line, time and time again. And when the lightning flashes came, Leslie invariably stepped out front and centre. His success as a great editor was no flash in the pan. After he switched hats and became chief marketeer for the newspaper group, he led the sales team from one revenue milestone to another, sending records tumbling.
I am proud to have been your wingman, Leslie.
If good pilots make great CEOs, why aren’t more captains of planes captains of industry? Actually there are many who are. Take Joseph Ricketts, who opted for an unheard of runway and persevered to found the largest online discount brokerage in the world, Ameritrade. It now has a market cap of US$12 billion. He flies.
Another example: John Wood, Jr., Chief Executive of Analogic, a medical and security imaging corporation, which booked revenues of US$424 million in 2010. He not only holds all ratings except that for experimental aircraft, but is also a certified flight instructor.
Interestingly, they appear to be mainly Americans, beginning from the end of World War II when the cessation of hostilities unleashed a host of military-trained aviators into civilian life. Is there a correlation between the number of pilot-CEOs in the United States and the fact that the country continues to lead the world in innovation and business?
A study in 2010 by Matthew Cain at the University of Notre Dame and Stephen McKeon of Purdue University indicate that companies run by General Aviation pilot-CEOs have higher stock volatility, greater propensity to mergers and acquisitions and higher quality acquisitions if the firms have few measurable growth opportunities. In other words, these pilot-CEOs are particularly suited for a world where nimbleness is required to steer a moribund company out of the doldrums or move one in a sunset industry to a brighter future.
While there are quite a few who straddle the cockpit and the C-Suite, why don’t more of the good General Aviation pilots take up the challenges of commerce by starting their own business or aiming for the top post in their company? I think I know the answer to that. Some folks would like their bank balance to be in the billions, but there are others who prefer to spend more time in the air as they find that flying enriches the soul like no other activity can.
I get up in the morning and the sky beckons. I dance over clouds. Cities shrink and distances compress. Eagles pass me companionably. Problems fade. Life’s hurdles are replaced by a horizon of possibilities. In the left seat, my world expands.
Copyright: Paul Jansen. All rights reserved.
NEXT: Pilots say the darndest things!
Paul Jansen is a media professional with extensive experience in journalism with The Straits Times and Singapore Press Holdings. He is the founding editor of The Straits Times Interactive, now straitstimes.com, conceptualised and led the multiple award-winning search and directory engine Rednano.sg, and played a role in the start-up of the telco M1 and other companies. He has left the editorial and marketing trenches and is currently advising firms on dealing with the press on a daily basis and especially in a crises. He is also co-founder and executive chairman of aSpecial Media Pte Ltd, an award-winning company which specialises in collecting and analysing behavioural data for public and private institutions, policy-makers and marketers. But mostly he flies.