Managing Your Newly Hired Pilot, Part 1

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So, you’ve hired a new pilot, or perhaps a new pilot has been hired for you, and now it is up to you to make everything work out smoothly.

Either way, as the person in charge, you need to have a plan to get the new hire up to speed.

You also need to be ready for the many pitfalls ahead. It is all too common for the flight department boss to think it is up to the new hire to fit in. While much of the responsibility falls on your new hire’s shoulders, it is also up to you and the rest of the organization to make the smooth transition possible.

Meeting the New Pilot

You have probably heard that “you only get one chance to make a good first impression” and that “the first impression is the last impression.”

Remember that this cuts both ways: The new hire will also be forming a lasting first impression about you and the organization.

If you’ve been in the “boss category” for a while, you probably have a refined ability to size up a newly hired pilot very quickly. If you are new to all this, you might be more open-minded and inclined to look past a bad first impression. But in either case, your opinions about the person will begin to set. This can be unfortunate if those first impressions are wrong. You should realize that the new hire is also making a similar judgment about you and the organization.

In both my military and civilian lives as the person doing the hiring and firing, I’ve benefited from the fact that my organizations attracted good talent and there were no shortages of qualified volunteers.

But I also learned very quickly that it is easier to hire than fire, and that it takes years of development to bring a newly hired pilot up to the qualifications of a recently departed pilot. Getting the pilot hired is only the first step in a very long process. You want to get the pilot qualified, upgraded and productive to the point where you can assign them a duty and consider it done. All of this begins with the first handshake.

The new hire’s objective for that first meeting is to assure you that the hiring process did a good job. Your objective should be to instill into the pilot that they made a good decision coming to work for you and that extra effort in upcoming training will be rewarded.

I’ve seen many chief pilots fail in these efforts because they assumed they had the upper hand during the first meeting and that all the pressure was on the new hire. In fact, it is the other way around.

Every now and then I came away from meeting a new boss thinking that I struck gold and it was going to be a real privilege to join the organization.

More often, unfortunately, I wondered if the boss was having a bad day, at best, or that I was about to join a group of misfits. The best way to avoid souring your new hire’s impression of you and the organization is to replay your most recent introduction but in the shoes of the new hire. What impression would you have made? More importantly, how could you have improved upon it.

The “I am better than you and I want you to know that” First Impression.

This usually happens with the boss looking over a new hire’s resume and giving a live critique comparing experience levels. “I was multi-rated when I turned 18,” the boss might say. “How many oceanic crossings have you had? Well, don’t worry, we’ll get you up to speed.” These jabs can be well-intentioned, of course, but they telegraph to the new hire that they will be on the defensive from day one. That is hardly the best way to start a new job

The “I am going to be your new best friend” First Impression.

Most flight departments are led by pilots with very little leadership training and some of these bosses can be overwhelmed by the idea that they are the boss of anything or anyone. A common reaction is to deny the rank and attempt to remain as “one of the guys.” “I’m just another pilot,” they might say. “Everybody has the same pull around here.” When the person in charge refuses to take charge, the result is often chaos.

The “I am too busy to deal with peons like you” First Impression.

“Just do your job and you won’t have any problems with me,” the chief pilot might say. “Dealing with corporate is a full-time job, but I wouldn’t know about that.” I heard this once from a “chief pilot” who had business cards proclaiming the position as well as a snazzy desk plate with his name and title in gold letters.

It was all I could do to restrain open laughter at the thought that he oversaw just two other pilots and a mechanic. In the next year, I learned he was reluctant to share information but quick to delegate tasks he thought beneath his lofty position.

The “I just want to make it to retirement” First Impression.

“Let’s cooperate and graduate,” the boss might say. “We have a good gig here and let’s not spoil it with a lot of whining or second-guessing of the ways things have always been.”

These are just a few examples of how you can make a bad first impression, but there are many others. I liken these leadership situations to parenthood. No amount of training can adequately prepare you. Actual experience is the best teacher. Once you’ve figured it out, it’s too late, you are done. But unlike parenthood, you have many opportunities to improve. The only way to do that is to be self-critical and to objectively critique yourself after every first meeting.

I’ve learned over the years that you can and should come up with a strategy for success when indoctrinating new pilots or, for that matter, any employee.

As with many things in the boss-to-subordinate relationship, all meetings should have an objective in mind and the boss should think through how their conduct will further the objective.

You want to reassure the new hire that coming aboard was a good decision. You want to arm them with the needed information to excel during training. You want to begin the process of acclimating the new hire to the rest of the flight department. And you want to do all this as if it is a natural, organic process. They are joining a smoothly operating organization, after all!

Introducing the New Pilot to the Flight Department

The Group
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When the new hire meets their new peers, they hope to get a glimpse into the world they are joining, perhaps learn a bit about the organization, and glean whatever pearls of wisdom they have to offer about the airplane and the operation. If any of the group had been scarred by their experiences as new hires in your organization, they might also be on the defensive and can telegraph their ill will to the newest new hire.

You want your new hire to meet your best people, those you can be sure will paint the new environment in a positive light and will be helpful to the new hire’s transition. Don’t leave this to chance; make sure your best people are available for the new hire’s first day on the job.

Of course, there are potential pitfalls on both sides of the fence. Some new hires take on accentuated personalities when in stressful situations. A naturally quiet person can be reclusive. A naturally talkative person can become overbearing. These reactions to a new environment can be off-putting and set things off on the wrong foot.

Some people in your flight department may attempt to establish what canine trainers call “alpha dominance” when meeting a new pilot. All your good work in setting the right tone can be undone in mere minutes by one or two pilots determined to establish themselves as the “alpha dogs,” the real powers to be reckoned with in the new hire’s world.

You may be surprised that some in your flight department have deep-seated prejudices against certain types of pilots. As archaic as it may sound, I still encounter pilots who vow to never fly with female pilots.

This kind of animosity isn’t limited to sex or race. In my first civilian job, I was paired with a pilot who spent the first hour of our flight to Europe talking about how military pilots have no place in civilian aviation because we never earned our hours. He kept this up until I told him I had been a U.S. Air Force pilot for 20 years. “Well, you are the exception, then.”

Once the new hire returns from school, they will have earned a type rating, some “street cred,” and confidence. At this point, any troublemakers will have a harder time “blowing smoke” about the aircraft or training.

In Part 2, we’ll discuss how to prepare your new hire for a positive training experience.

James Albright

James is a retired U.S. Air Force pilot with time in the T-37B, T-38A, KC-135A, EC-135J (Boeing 707), E-4B (Boeing 747) and C-20A/B/C (Gulfstream III…