On Careers and Aerobatics

Flying Inverted, and Loving It

I have a confession: I have a lifelong seemingly irrational fascination with all things flying. I have flown in many kinds of aircraft: commercial airliners, of course, but also in smaller prop planes, helicopters, hot air balloons, a Zeppelin and even a WW II bomber. I’ve also intentionally jumped out of planes couple of dozen times. After all, who wouldn’t? I mean sure they’re pretty to look at but noisy and smelly, and the door was open.

I was recently visiting Galesburg, IL to drop off my son at his college. As luck would have it, the 45th National Stearman Fly-In happened that same week. There were Stearmans flying over the college campus. There were dozens of Stearmans parked at the municipal airport tarmac. They were everywhere! The only thing drowning them out were the locusts and train horns.

OK, OK, what on earth does any of this have to do with careers?

I had a chance to climb into one of those Stearmans for 30 minutes of aerobatics. Naturally, I jumped at that chance. Reflecting on it later reminded me how many parallels there are between that experience and our careers.

Push Yourself

When the pilot asked me if I wanted a sightseeing or an aerobatics flight, I deliberately chose to try something I had never done before and frankly wasn’t at all sure I’d be able to handle.

In your career, as with your adventures, always push yourself beyond your comfort zone. If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you are not learning anything new. I learned plenty that afternoon strapped into a plane. I have learned plenty during my career as well, taking zigs when it would have been far easier to zag.

Done is Often Better Than Perfect

The only catch with aerobatics was that it required better weather than was available at the time. The weather that morning was sketchy at best, following the previous day’s thunderstorms. The pilot told me that late afternoon should clear up, but the next day might be even better. Luckily, the weather did clear up to a beautiful day making the flight possible. The day after that was back to rain and low clouds, and I was scheduled to leave town anyway.

In your career, take that chance when it presents itself. If I had waited for perfection, I would have missed an opportunity of a lifetime.

Take Calculated Risks

I could have gone the safe route and take the sightseeing flight with the lower minimum cloud ceiling earlier in the day. I evaluated all the inputs available to me: weather forecast, the pilot’s assessment, and the pros and cons between the two flights. I decided in favor of taking the higher risk because of the potential upside. Besides, I figured I could still go to Plan B, the sightseeing flight, if the weather failed to improve.

In your career, take those chances with less than 100% likelihood of success. They may not always work out, but the upside is usually worth it and let’s face it, most of the time those are not life-and-death decisions.

Age Matters Not

That biplane was built in 1941. It is far older than me — heck, or even my mother. However, it looked to be in great shape and the owner had just flown it from Virginia to Illinois. It had survived years of abuse at the hands of Navy pilot trainees. It had been lovingly restored and maintained.

In my career I have hired team members who were still in college, and people significantly older than me, and just about everything in between. Age is not at all an accurate measure of anyone’s ability. What matters far more is what you’re made of, how you think, and how well you keep up to date.

Good Support is Essential

I was strapped into a parachute harness. That whole package in turn was strapped into the plane snugly enough to sing soprano. You don’t sit in the plane inasmuch you wear it like a glove. This support was essential in ensuring that I did not fall out of the plane while hanging upside down, or inadvertently hit some important lever or knob. It also helped ensure that I did not loose any of my cameras.

In our careers, similar support is essential. That may be your spouse, your team members, your peers, or your supervisors. As they say, behind every successful man is a strong woman and surprised mother-in-law. I have been fortunate to have the constant support and encouragement of my wife of nearly 20 years. In turn, I do my best to support her career.

Hire Good People

When I booked the flight, I spent time chatting with the pilot and the owner of the plane. This is where lifetime fascination with aviation was invaluable in getting a good feel for their skills. We discussed the flight plan, what to expect, and how to achieve what I wanted trying to shoot with two cameras (GoPro and an SLR). More on that last bit later, as it turned out not be such a bright idea.

In your career, seek out and surround yourself with good people. You may not be an expert on their subject matter — and often you do not have to be — but you do need to know well enough to validate what you’re being told or sold.

Trust Your Employees

I essentially hired the pilot as a short-term contractor. He was the subject matter expert. He also was the pilot in command so while I might have opinions ultimately it would be his call on when and just how to get us both back safely on the ground.

In your career, and especially in any kind of leadership role, you work with people who are often the subject matter experts. You ask them to do something for you, but you should be very judicious about dictating exactly how they should go about doing the work. Now, sometimes that may be appropriate such as with an intern or a fresh college grad. Even then, try to figure out how to get out of the way as quickly as possible and accept the fact that they may well choose a different path to the goal you set in front of them. Nothing kills innovation and independence faster than micromanaging someone’s work.

You Only Have Two Hands

While we were literally flying in circles, the pilot was obviously busy piloting the plane. I was busy trying to capture video with my left hand holding a GoPro camera, while taking pictures with a Canon EOS 7D SLR in my right hand. This was a disaster on multiple fronts.

First, you’re doing a half-ass job on both tasks. Second, you can’t work a twist zoom lens with a single hand holding the camera. Third, you’re not paying attention to the horizon, which leads to motion sickness. Numbskull!

Fortunately, I had hired a sensible pilot (as per the point earlier) who recognized the early warning signs and leveled off before… well, er, things got out of hand, or rather mouth.

In your career, there will be numerous opportunities to stretch yourself by trying to do too many things at the same time. Strapped into an airplane flying inverted over cornfields is not one of those times. Delegate if possible or appropriate. Otherwise, reduce complexity and focus on what matters most. Namely, not vomiting all of over the pilot in the cockpit behind you, and picking only one camera and sticking with it. I quickly settled on the GoPro because it was far easier to handle in the prop wash. Frame grabs of the 4K video still look stunning.

Heading Up!

Land That Baby

The good news is that all the dizziness and queasiness from aerobatics does fade away.

Same is true for stressful times during your career whether that is because of a particularly challenging project, or a company going through tough changes, or because of issues in your personal life. Those too shall pass.

As they say, any landing you walk away is a good one — or that you should always keep the count of your landings equal to your takeoffs. Unless, of course, you’re skydiving in which case it is totally expected.