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CEOs: Don't Be a Firefighter, Be a Pilot

Learning to react to challenges is necessary, but fighting fires isn’t the way to grow a healthy business.


Running a company (with the help of many others) requires thinking about numerous things — often simultaneously. Your top competitor just launched a great product, your VP of human resources has some very disturbing numbers about turnover, and your bank is worried that you’re close to breaking a covenant. And then there’s that upcoming board meeting, not to mention your kid’s soccer game.

If you allow others to run your life (I don’t separate business and personal — it’s just “a life”) with email, the phone, competitors and your bank dictating what you do each day, I promise you a career of misery and probably ulcers. Learning to react to challenges is necessary, but fighting fires isn’t the way to grow a healthy business.

I shared an analogy with a client recently that caught his attention. See if it works for you.

Decades ago, I was a student pilot flying a Cessna 152 with a limited panel of instruments and a top speed that a racehorse could best. It was overwhelming to begin with, but eventually you get comfortable. Fast-forward a few years (and many thousands of dollars) and I was flying a multi-engine aircraft that was twice as fast with a very complex panel full of instruments, and I was in a much busier environment (e.g., flying instrument conditions in major air corridors). Learning how to think at 250 knots versus 90 knots was a significant challenge. You must stay ahead of the airplane, or you’ll be in a world of hurt. This requires lots of instruction, checklists, planning and many hours of simulated emergencies.

Running a department or a small company can be very challenging, but you might get by “thinking at 90 knots.” Transitioning from small to big company, whether you grew it yourself or just jumped to a larger one, requires some different learning and a different thought process. You’re now working at 250 knots or faster. You’re now a pilot.

As a CEO, you must stay ahead of your company (internally) and your environment (externally) or you’ll be in a world of hurt. The systems, processes and behaviors that you and your people put into place are just as important as the checklists and simulated flights that an airline pilot is required to use.

Transitioning from one aircraft to another requires study, instruction and practice. Growing an organization should require the same of a CEO, but too often he or she tries to work harder while continuing to use a 90-knot thought process.

If you are running a growing organization, don’t be a firefighter — be a pilot.

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Todd Ordal

Todd Ordal is president of Applied Strategy®. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Todd is the author of Never Kick a Cow Chip On A Hot Day: Real Lessons for Real CEOs and Those Who Want To Be (Morgan James Publishing, 2016). Connect with Todd on LinkedIn, Twitter, call 303-527-0417 or email todd@toddordal.com.

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