CEO Coaching: Change Altitude To Change Perspective

People fly for several reasons but most often to get from point A to point B with little energy. To accomplish this, the pilot undergoes a formal trip planning process; a climb up to a turbulence-free, energy-efficient altitude (considering engine efficiency, headwinds, drag, etc.); autopilot activation; and a relatively straight-line cruise until it’s time to reverse the process. The view for most of the flight is from 30,000 feet.

It’s similar to the way people sometimes try to run a company. Let’s get this sucker launched, get it big, profitably cruise with as little turbulence as possible at one altitude, and then exit.

This dream of a turbulence-free, wings-level flight without deviation or exploration of other altitudes in a business setting is virtually impossible. Things happen. Stuff breaks. The environment changes.

I recently encountered several companies where the CEO was trying to fly perfectly while ignoring the turbulence around them. Three had their heads in the clouds (mahogany row), and one had his head in the weeds (details), and they refused to climb or descend to see what was going on at other altitudes. They wouldn’t change course despite deteriorating conditions. And unbeknownst to them, their crew was battling in the back of the plane.

Once you’re in the CEO role, think of yourself as a fighter pilot rather than an airline pilot. There are no smooth flights, though you might encounter small segments of turbulence-free air when you’re planning for the shit to hit the fan. As you fly the mission, you’ll need to spin, loop, descend, ascend, shoot some missiles, and avoid the ones shot at you—all while focusing on the mission.

More specifically, you must descend from the C-suite to engage with the folks (customers and coworkers) at all altitudes. You may have to chart a path through some awful weather, but as a pilot knows, you don’t do that by the seat of your pants—you observe and plan. You can’t fly through thunderstorms; you must go around them. You have to constantly monitor the important gauges in your business to know what’s going on and be prepared to address deviations from expectations. When a pilot sees something wrong on their dashboard full of gauges, they confirm it with a secondary gauge and act. There’s no thought of avoiding a hard decision and creating a committee to ponder it!

The CEOs I reference have poor situational awareness. They aren’t looking at their gauges or out the windscreen—they’re stuck at one altitude. What can you do to improve your situational awareness?

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