The art of helicopter flying and leading businesses

05 November 2015

When I fly helicopters, I have the chance to learn and hone a lot of skills which I think are entirely applicable and transferable to the world of business.

I'm particularly interested in the discipline which pilots have to follow when it comes to communication. Effective communication in the skies, as with business, is obviously important - primarily with Air Traffic Control and indirectly with pilots of other aircraft. Unsurprisingly the world of aviation has worked hard over decades to create an effective protocol around how all parties involved communicate.

For a really critical instruction, no-one takes any chances. If you're looking to be cleared to enter an active runway space and take off, you really don't want your clearance getting mixed up with anybody else's permission to take off (or land in the same space). Four layers of communication and confirmation go with important activities like these: The pilot will ask Air Traffic Control (ATC) for the relevant permission, ATC will pass back detailed and specific instructions, the pilot will then be expected to read back those instructions, verbatim, and ATC will confirm that the read back is correct, typically adding extra secondary information which in turn allows the pilot to acknowledge they've heard the ATC confirmation. In many cases, there is also visual or radar contact to back up everyone's comfort that the task is being executed as planned, along with updates that are communicated as the task progresses. At the same time, all other pilots on that radio frequency can hear the story unfold in real time.

On the other hand, other aviation information may rely on a simple one-way broadcast. If features of the weather - wind direction or air pressure for example - change, then ATC may issue an all-pilots broadcast about that news. It's useful information to know, and will become more relevant at later stages of your flight, but is not so critical that it needs any more layers of communication to go with it. It would be a 'nice-to-have', but it's not practical to crowd out the radio waves with multiple conversations about relatively less important subjects. It's just not a good use of limited bandwidth.

We often have to make the same judgements in business, when deciding how and what to communicate, whether within the organisation or externally with its customers or other stakeholders. But it's not always the case that organisations attach the right number of 'layers' to the right items. Administrative matters can inadvertently use up disproportionate bandwidth compared with potentially more important matters of strategy, alignment, employee engagement, or external developments, which would deserve more air time and interactive communication.

One communication from ATC which would make any pilot feel deflated is when asked to 'stand by' - when ATC receives too many incoming radio calls at once and needs to prioritise. As a pilot it means you just have to fly around for a bit and wait your turn, which could be some time coming depending on ATC workload. As a parent with two young children I now know the feeling through the ATC lens - there are increasingly times when both children want my attention at the same time. As any parent will know, it's an art to juggle more than one communication channel at once, without leaving anybody ignored for too long. That's also a relevant skill for business, along with many other lessons from parenthood, but that's a story for another blog.

Raj Mody | Partner, Head of pensions consulting
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