When you learn to fly an airplane, you spend a huge amount of your training time learning what to do when things go wrong.
When you fly cross country, you are constantly looking at your GPS to locate the nearest airport and studying the land to see where you might put down safely if the plane’s engine were to quit.
You study the weather ahead of you. In the winter, you are constantly checking the air temperature, particularly if there is any moisture that could turn into ice on your wings. If you ascend or descend through a cloud and the temperature is below freezing, you will pick up ice. You can only haul a little bit of ice before the plane’s wings start to misbehave.
Part of your training is to memorize — Aviate, Navigate, Communicate, Confess.
Here is what that stuff means:
1. Aviate — continue to fly the plane. Nothing good is going to happen if you stop flying the plane. You can put it on autopilot while you check the manual.
2. Navigate — as you deal with the problem, fly toward the solution. If you have turned into a very heavy glider, glide toward the nearest airport where they will have emergency services.,
3. Communicate — tell air traffic control what is going on. Stay in touch with them. They will tell you the direction of the nearest airport. They may have a recommendation on a good spot to land. They will clear the skies — make a hole in the air — for you. This is not their first rodeo.
I once made a terrible, stupid decision to fly down the East Coast on a summer afternoon when the cumulus clouds and thunderstorms were about ,thinking I could dodge the storms on the way to Charleston.
I found myself stuck amongst some storm cells in the Patuxent River area over the Chesapeake Bay. A cool ATC saint threaded me through the cells, thereby saving my stupid ass. He made it so damn easy, all I had to do was follow his instructions.
4. Confess — when talking to air traffic control, tell them what you have done even if you have done something wrong. They can’t help you unless they know where you are, how you got there, your level of expertise as a pilot, and what you want them to help you with.
Declare an EMERGENCY because they have to stop what they are doing and give you priority treatment if you do that one thing.
This also applies to CEOs running companies, be they startups, small or medium sized businesses.
You WILL encounter trouble. It is only a matter of when and how bad. Remember the List of Horribles? They will happen to you. Trust me.
As a CEO, do the following:
1. Operate — continue to run the business while you grapple with your particular crisis
2. Plan — continue to plan the business with the assumption you will solve the problem. Alternatively, plan for no solution of the problem. Any horrible is less horrible after you plan around it.
3. Communicate — tell the senior management, the Board of Directors — “Houston, we have a problem.” [Pro tip: Do not bring the Board into the discussion on the small stuff. Bring them in if the company’s existence is at risk.]
4. Confess — as you struggle with solving the problem, confess — first to yourself — what went wrong. Confess to everyone who has a need to know. When you solve the problem, confess to the entire company what happened. They will learn anyway.
If you attack a crisis with this orderly approach, you will reduce the swelling and staunch the bleeding easier. Trust me on this one.