AINsight: Who Should Succeed the Aviation Director?

 - January 21, 2022, 8:23 AM

The role of a Part 91 aviation director has changed significantly over the last 10 to 15 years. Due to a variety of factors, including much more oversight by human resources and the C-suite, successors to the role require an even more diverse set of skills.

Yet one skill that isn’t required to successfully lead the aviation department is the ability to fly. Despite this fact, I often hear from hiring managers who insist that they must hire a pilot to run the flight department.

As an aviation HR professional, I don't believe this is the case. That’s why I reached out to a handful of successful leaders who’ve been tapped to lead their aviation organization. And they’ve come from non-traditional departments, including scheduling and maintenance.

Deb Prosinski is one of the directors I spoke with who’s seen success despite not being a pilot. Three years ago, when she was head of scheduling and dispatch, she was asked to take on the interim aviation director position for her Fortune 100 firm. At the time, she agreed, but wasn’t sure she had the requisite experience.

An Unconventional Path

Luckily, Prosinski was wrong. During her interim position, she realized that she didn’t need to be an expert in everything aviation. “That’s what my chief pilots, safety manager, dispatch director, and maintenance director are for,” she said.

Being inquisitive by nature has served her well. “People tell me that I'm really good at asking questions,” Prosinski said. “I'm always looking for another rock to turn over.” She also likened her role to that of an orchestra conductor: “I just have to make it all fit together and put the right players together.”

As the head of scheduling, she knew quite a bit about what was going on within the department. As it turns out, Prosinski already had a “big picture” view, especially since she reported to the director. Plus, she regularly interacted with executive assistants and senior leaders to plan trips. These skills have served her well in her role as an aviation director.

One of the most important aspects of the aviation director role, Prosinski said, is having the right industry connections. “I cannot tell you how many times I call my industry peers about issues that I've never personally been through,” she said. “I think having that peer network—knowing where to go and how to keep it growing—is super important.

As I always say, this industry is about the people you know. And if the person I reach out to doesn't know, they’ll probably know five people that can help me. I'm a huge believer in not recreating the wheel,” she added. “I'm always reaching out for that sort of help.”

Broad Aviation Experience

Clayton Wilson, the director of aviation for the Altria Group in Richmond, Virginia, came to his position after serving as a director of maintenance (DOM).

Wilson said his broad experience prepared him well for the challenges of aviation directorship. “Before I came to Altria, I had positions that taught me time management, crisis management, patience, scheduling skills, budgets… just about everything you need when leading a corporate flight department.”

He also said that, as a maintenance professional, he became skilled at problem-solving and multi-tasking, which prepared him for his job now. “Most times, I look at solving problems in two or three different ways and trying to figure out that if one thing doesn't work, then we need to be doing this next thing,” Wilson explained. “And if that doesn't work then we need to try something else. Working in maintenance, we learn to look further down the road than just one step at a time. And the same skills are needed as an aviation director.”

When I asked Wilson what he thinks are the basic requirements for his position he reiterated what Prosinski said: it requires “big picture” thinking. “You need insight, a gut feel for things, and the ability to see things from a broader perspective,” he said. “And, of course, you have to be a good leader of people.” Both Prosinski and Wilson stressed that managing people was the biggest aspect of the job, time-wise.

So, for those hiring managers who are recruiting for their next aviation director, I’ve come up with a list of skills one must have to effectively lead a flight department. They should:

  • have a desire to lead people
  • be a solutions-based creative thinker
  • know how to delegate to others without being the “doer”
  • fully understand the vision and mission of the aviation department
  • be a good communicator
  • work well with others, including those with egos
  • have a good handle on the “big picture” and know how to be strategic
  • know how to work with corporate/family office
  • make everyone feel included, especially diverse hires
  • be able to provide the necessary resources and then get out of the way
  • have industry connections and be able to grow your network
  • be capable of leaving your own ego at the door
  • possess broad aviation knowledge

Flight Skills Aren’t Required

While the aviation team is tasked with operating and managing aircraft, the main role of an aviation director is to lead people, communicate, and provide resources. That’s why I feel safe in saying that there’s no single protocol or prerequisite for hiring a director—especially one in a multi-aircraft operation.

We’re all aware how “evolving” our industry is, especially in these times. Doing what we’ve always done may no longer be the most prudent approach to effective leadership hiring.

Sheryl Barden, CAM, is the president and CEO of Aviation Personnel International, the longest-running recruiting and HR consulting firm exclusively serving business aviation. A thought leader on all things related to business aviation professionals, Barden is a former member of NBAA’s board of directors and currently serves on the NBAA advisory council.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily endorsed by AIN Media Group.