Blame It On the Managers

For the past few years in aviation, we have been struggling to identify how to improve flight instruction. Most of the analysis focuses on poor instruction by Certified Flight Instructors. Have we stopped to ask ourselves why CFIs are so much at fault?

Conventional wisdom concludes that much of the fault lies with low pay. But from what I’ve seen, most flight instructors exceed expectations to ensure their students are safe and well taught. I will have to admit that not all flight instructors fall into that category, and some of us share the blame for poor instruction. But can we also share that blame with poor managers who do not realize that their employees are the foundation of their business?

Let’s look at some hypothetical scenarios.

Sarah sat waiting…waiting…waiting. It was her first check ride, and she would be flying with Mike, the Chief Flight Instructor. The longer she sat, the more nervous she became. Finally, an hour late, Mike walked in. The result? An extremely nervous student passed her check ride, but with a lot of trepidation she didn’t need.

Mike manages a group of eight flight instructors for a well-known flight school. What kind of message did his tardiness send—not only to the student, but also to the flight instructors who observed his actions?

Let’s pick on Mike some more. After a Piper Seneca was added to the fleet, all the instructors were excited about the possibility to build multi-engine time, so all of them immediately got their multi-engine ratings and passed their checkrides brilliantly. But later in a staff meeting, Mike announced that only he and two senior instructors would be doing multi-engine instruction in the Seneca. The other five instructors were crushed! Not only had they paid to get the rating, but also they were denied the possibility of building multi-engine time. How likely is it those five instructors will work as diligently as they did before their enthusiasm took such a hit?

Cory was one of Mike’s instructors and looked like he was on his way to the airlines. He was making top dollar at the flight school based on number of instruction hours given. Perhaps that’s why Mike called him into his office and told that he had “no future” at his flight school. When Cory was hired, he was promised advancement and a good recommendation to fly charter in turbine airplanes at a charter business on the field. After getting the bad news from Mike, Cory was devastated! He had signed off more students than any other flight instructor and all those students had passed check rides on the first try. This seemed to be the end of a dream. Devastated by the unexpected negative review, he left aviation and got a job in another field. Aviation lost another good instructor.

In my first job instructing, I had “Mike” as my Chief Flight Instructor. Entering the aviation field as an older female who had ten years’ academic teaching experience, I was eager to prove myself as competent in a totally male world. Disillusionment soon set in. Every time I made a suggestion that my experience told me would improve our instruction methods, Mike ignored me.

Since I was the new hire, Mike asked me to do all the Discovery Flights and did not pay me for my time. I felt I was being “used”, so I left his school to become head of an aviation department in a community college. Perhaps Mike fixated on the spreadsheet and bottom line. But couldn’t he see how his actions affected his employees?

We need to consider how much poor management contributes to poor flight instruction. If CFIs are disillusioned, feel “used” and are made promises that are later reneged, then they can’t be expected to do their best. It’s just human nature.

Now let’s consider Lynn, who runs a comparable flight school in another part of the same state. How would she have handled the situations faced by Mike? First, Lynn is a listener. She does not over-burden her flight instructors with meetings, but she does listen to their comments—even taking positive action on them when warranted. And if she fails to take action on the comments, she tells the instructors why and encourages them to continue making suggestions.

Faced with an underperforming instructor, rather than devastating him with pronouncements of “no future” in her business, Lynn would talk with him or her about how to improve. She would continue to work with this instructor to cultivate dreams of upward mobility.

Lynn hires the smartest and most talented people she can find. She values her employees’ skills and promotes creative discussion with them. She collaborates with her employees and involves them in decision-making, rather than attempting to unilaterally impose only her brand of change. She takes the time to know the strengths of her people and then delegates the power to accomplish assigned tasks, rather than micro-managing the outcome. She doesn’t control employee behavior; she nurtures it.

The bottom line for Lynn is that she respects the people who work for her and values their commitment to the business. The result is; she has productive employees.

Mark and Lynn are different managers, not only in style but in their measure of success. That success is measured on the monthly financial statements, but more importantly in building the school’s reputation as a good place to work – and ultimately – a pleasant and efficient place to learn to fly.

So what kind of manager are you? Are you Mike; or are you Lynn?


–by Margaret Riddle





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