By Jim Pitman
Culture should be more than just another business buzzword. It represents the collective attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and intentions of everyone involved with your organization. It takes intentional planning and leadership to develop and maintain a company culture that helps to effectively achieve your goals, but the benefits outweigh the cost.
For nearly 10 years, Ryan Mayo has been the owner of Take Flight Aviation at Orange County Airport (MGJ) in Montgomery, New York. Within just a few years of Mayo taking the controls, Take Flight had expanded into a 10,000-square-foot hangar that was renovated to give the look, feel, and functionality he wanted. Mayo had a great client list, a new Redbird FMX, a mix of older aircraft, and a commercially available training program. But something important was still missing.
There was a lot of resistance from much of the staff about adopting the syllabus and the associated paperwork. Many just opted to continue doing things the way they always had, so the simulator sat underutilized and the syllabus was overlooked. Even though the facilities looked much better, the company overall had failed to change at a systemic level.
“I knew what I wanted,” Mayo said, “but I wasn’t sure how to get there.” He met Chris Graessle who was managing another flight school just outside New York City. Graessle had similar thoughts on how a flight school should operate and happened to possess an advanced degree in organizational development and change management.
Mayo and Graessle determined exactly what the culture at Take Flight Aviation was going to look like. They put together a plan to get there. This required a culture change that was the overarching systemic part of a series of changes that were needed at the flight school.
For any changes to be effective, the Take Flight leadership team needed staff buy-in. This is where things became tricky. The most experienced and senior members of the staff were open to make a whole-hearted attempt at using the programs and embracing the new technology. Others resisted and started spreading stories of impending doom.
The Take Flight team quickly hired new staff and replaced employees who were resistant to change. The key term here is “quickly,” Mayo said. “It’s been my experience that the hardest part of change for anyone relative to anything is letting go of old, familiar ways of doing things in order to try something new. That’s an issue that has plagued our industry for decades. No one enjoys firing employees that aren’t a good fit. But it’s a bit like removing a Band Aid—the slower you go, the more painful it is,” Mayo said.
“Our goal was to have a learning-based organization culture. And we knew we couldn’t simply hire anyone who came through the door. It’s important to determine what traits we want that person to have,” Mayo said.
He and Graessle compiled a list of what they wanted in their new staff and created a pre-interview questionnaire that they sent to each job applicant. Interestingly, they report that not only did this step streamline their hiring process and aid tremendously in hiring the right people, but also new hires said the questionnaire helped give applicants a favorable view of the company during the hiring process.
Take Flight’s interview process was also refined to include a phone interview before each in-person interview. For flight instructors, the team decided on a panel interview approach. “We don’t just review a logbook and have the applicant teach us a lesson,” Graessle said.
Mayo added, “We open up a dialog with the CFI applicants and learn in-depth about their philosophy on flight training. While they absolutely have to be adept teachers, they also need to have a mindset that is naturally aligned with ours. When a CFI job applicant starts talking about how they feel the 152 is the best training aircraft ever built and that nobody should be learning with a GPS or glass display in the aircraft, we know not to waste our time asking more questions.”
Determining what you want, getting rid of those who don’t fit, and hiring those who do is a good start, but more is required to develop a winning culture. To keep the company growing and learning, you have to create upward feedback loops. Graessle said, “I’d heard many times in my graduate work that one of the most important parts of good leadership is good followership—and that cannot be had without clear channels of communication between all members of the team.”
For Take Flight that meant hiring an assistant chief instructor who works daily with the CFIs and conducts a structured monthly meeting where company leadership learns about the specific needs of the front-line staff. Both Mayo and Graessle live by the adage: “If you are going to ask your staff for feedback, you better be prepared to act on it—quickly.” Assistant Chief Instructor Ray Wagner relays requests from the CFI staff to the leadership team that are frequently acted on within of 24 hours.
Internal training is another key to the success of the company’s culture. Take Flight trains all its employees in company policy and procedures. “No CFI flies with a client until they have undergone intensive in-house training with our chief or assistant chief flight instructor, but this training isn’t limited to the flight staff. Our A&P technician staff, line service, and front desk staff all go through extensive one-on-one internal training. Everyone is hired and trained with the same mindset,” Mayo said.
When asked what advice he has for other flight school owners and managers, Mayo said, “Be intentional. Developing the right culture for your company takes concentrated effort and patience. We still have work to do, but we’re already seeing the benefits of having everyone on the same page and pulling in the same direction. It’s hard to explain, but it’s really a different feeling here. I often hear comments from our staff and clients about how much better things are. That’s how I know we’re on the right track.”
Learn more about Take Flight Aviation on the website. Contact Ryan Mayo at 845-457-4188.
Jim Pitman has been a flight instructor since 1997. He has been a Part 141 chief flight instructor, Cessna Pilot Center regional manager, and Arizona Flight Instructor of the Year. He currently flies the Canadair Regional Jet for a U.S. carrier while operating his own flight training business. Connect with Jim at his website (FlywithJim.com).