John Stevens’ Success Story: As Chief Pilot, Business Coach and Copywriter

At the outset, I’ll explain that while I’m quite proud of this story, I’m telling it as an example of the work I could do for you, as my business coach client. My purpose is not to blow my horn but to show you how I can blow your horn for you.

The story revolves around a group of disgruntled freight pilots considering joining a union. That arrangement wouldn’t have worked for us, and, as Chief Pilot, my job was to eliminate that threat. Here’s how we did it!

Cessna Caravan – our freighter – credit

Introduction about John Stevens as Chief Pilot

In 2007, after several years as a pilot with a regional air freight company, I was asked to take the position of Chief Pilot, responsible for the performance and training of my pilot cohorts.

My employer was a contractor who provided “small aircraft feeder” support for a major international freight carrier. We performed this service with cargo versions of the Cessna Caravan (pictured above in passenger configuration.)

During the few years prior to this time, the pilots had developed an attitude of animosity toward the company. I’ll explain a little more about my assessment of the reasons for that attitude a bit later.

Along with that attitude, the pilot’s performance deteriorated.  A particular feature of the poor performance was frequent damage to aircraft due to prop strikes or wingtip impacts with objects on the ramp. Freight ramps are often cluttered with conveyors, aircraft tugs, freight containers, etc., so the potential for such strikes is high unless everyone consciously and diligently guards against them.

When an aircraft is damaged, however slightly, in such a strike, the result is departure delays or cancellations. In the airfreight business, schedule disruptions cause troublesome ripples through the system. Of course, management gets very disgruntled when such incidents are frequent.

After some discussion of who I am and what I’m about, I’ll finish this story later.

Teamwork is the key to business performance – credit

What are my Achievements?

Throughout my business career, starting in 1969, I’ve had two spells in aviation, two in petroleum exploration and production, and a few years in real estate. 

Without going into all the gory details, I’ll summarize my career as follows.

My first work was un-glorious as a young engineer learning about people, business, and oil fields. After seven years culminating in the position of District Engineer, I decided to strike out on my own.

I partnered with a pilot friend (we were both inexperienced pilots) to start an aircraft charter and flight training business. My friend had some sales experience and I imagined myself as a business leader. The business failed after four years. However, the experience taught me a wealth of knowledge about myself and about business. 

As I recovered from the financial losses of the failed aviation business, I took the position of Airport Administrator of the airport where I had operated. My significant achievement in that position was privatizing the fueling and servicing of airline and transient general aviation aircraft. 

The Airport Administrator position was not very lucrative, and I soon moved back into the petroleum world with a worldwide oil and gas exploration and production company. After a series of promotions ending with a Vice President position, my employer was acquired by another company, and I was transferred to Indonesia, where our major worldwide asset was located.

As V.P. of Technical Services, I was responsible for the engineers and geologists who were designing exploration and development programs for our huge gas field. During my tenure, we reorganized these professionals into multi discipline teams, each responsible for a particular area of our concession. This improved the efficiency of the programs over the prior arrangement, where the engineers and geologists were in separate departments.

A drilling rig similar to what we operated in Indonesia – credit

After a year in that position, I was transferred to our field office with the position of Operations Manager. There, the Drilling and Production Departments were the core of my responsibilities. Those two departments had many overlapping responsibilities, but were not communicating well with each other. Seeing the lack of efficiency in that breakdown, I began working with the two department managers and their subordinates to help them see ways to cooperate and communicate. 

A few months into this chapter, I woke up one morning, noticed that operations were smoothing out, and said to myself, “Wow, this is great! Bringing teams together to cooperate is where I belong in the business world!” Since that experience, my clear focus has been on teamwork and leadership.

When I returned to the U.S. in 1992, opportunities were scarce in the petroleum business, and I worked with my brother for several years in the real estate and natural resource business. I worked to acquire large tracts of land and participated in developing and marketing the land and its resources.

In 2001, I returned to the aviation world as a freight pilot as described in my opening section. The Chief Pilot position was my final act in the corporate world, ending with my retirement from the freight company in 2010. I’ll complete the story of that episode in the final section of this article.

Progression into Business Coaching and Copywriting 

Actually, the seed of this episode was sown very early in my career when it became apparent to me that every organization of two or more people wastes time and resources due to people working at cross-purposes. The larger the organization, the more prevalent this phenomenon becomes.

As I worked through my various responsibilities, I began subconsciously focusing on teamwork to combat these inefficiencies.  My focus sharpened as I had the experience in Indonesia with the Drilling and Production Departments, as described above.

A copywriter hard at work – time and location don’t matter – credit

After a few months of retirement, I longed to return to the business world. Now, at the age of 67, I didn’t want to work full time, so I set myself up as a business coach, working mostly with small businesses to help them improve their efficiency.

As a business coach, my crowning achievement was working with a plumbing and heating contractor. We identified and rectified a communic breakdown in their dispatch function and transformed the company into a masterpiece of efficiency.

In 2016, after visiting Argentina, where a friend was developing a high-quality resort, several times a year for several years, I decided to move to Cafayate, a lovely rural town in the northwest of Argentina (much more on that story here.). 

With my move to Argentina and in search of more schedule flexibility, I decided to focus on my lifelong love of expressing my ideas and observations in writing and become a copywriter supporting business coaches. I’ve been publishing the newsletter you’re reading since then and have helped many business coaches tell their stories and explain their coaching practices.

The Best Lessons I’ve Learned so Far

The lessons I find most important in the success of any business venture are.

  • First and most important, the value of teamwork. Businesses are formed to multiply the results of the individuals making up the business. When they work together, like a good team of horses, they can accomplish many times what they could working independently. If they’re working against each other, results are compromised. 
  • Good leadership is critical to good business performance. Effective leaders result in effective teams. There are too many aspects of leadership to elaborate on here. I’ve discussed the most important ones in this article from a few months ago.
As a business leader, how you communicate makes all the difference! – credit
  • Customers and employees are key to the success of any business. Take good care of your employees and customers, and they’ll take good care of you. Thoughtful communication is a mainstay of supporting customers and employees.
  • When I started my career in my mid-twenties, I remember thinking, “People are a nuisance. Machines are much simpler – turn ‘em on, turn ‘em off, and most of the time, they do what we expect of them.” Throughout the rest of my career, my focus has gradually turned to people. I no longer see them as a “nuisance” – sometimes unpredictable, yes, but always fascinating!

Do I Have Failures? What are They?

Of course, I have failures – anyone who doesn’t isn’t doing anything or certainly isn’t taking on any significant challenges. Challenges and failures are the path to success.

My most spectacular failure was my first aviation venture, in which I invested $80,000. That doesn’t sound so huge now after the dollar has lost about 90% of its value.

With that money, I bought three airplanes, hired several pilots, and operated for four years before it was all gone. Ultimately, I lost my entire investment and closed the doors with debt that took me ten years to pay off.

I’ve just finished a coaching program that required a significant investment that has not yet paid off, though I believe it will.

And, of course, not every leadership experience has been as successful as the ones I described earlier. As I’ve learned while I’ve become a people person, as described under lessons, people (including me) are not always predictable. Sometimes success is a trial-and-error process.

Union Movement Thwarted

Now, to finish the story I started at the beginning of this article.

With management becoming increasingly frustrated with the delays resulting from ramp strikes, they had begun to impose increasingly severe penalties on each pilot whose airplane was damaged in such an incident.

As a result, the pilots began to operate with the mentality of “trying not to make mistakes.” This is a negative approach to any endeavor.

In addition, I learned that the pilots felt a lack of voice in their destiny as some members of management had been lax about returning phone calls and email messages.

These two factors, in my judgment, were the primary causes of the pilots considering a union. Some union officials had picked up on the symptoms of this frustration and put up a website where the pilots could go and vent their frustration. Of course, the union management was capitalizing on the pilots’ complaints to build a case for union representation of the pilots.

When I became Chief Pilot, I began a campaign to do three things. 

  • I worked with the pilots to help them think about the successful completion of each mission and focus less on avoiding mistakes.
  • When I received a message from a pilot, I did my best to return the message within an hour. I vowed never to leave a message unanswered for more than a day.
  • Every day, I actively sought out a reason to compliment a pilot on something exemplary that he or she had done.

While I was the face on the front line of these initiatives, I want to mention also that the company’s senior management were very supportive of my efforts. No man is an island, and I couldn’t have accomplished what I did without management’s support.

The union story ended when the website I mentioned was taken down six months into my tenure as Chief Pilot. The incidence of ramp strikes decreased from one or more per month to a few a year. On-time performance of the whole operation improved markedly.

This has been a long-winded account of my professional trek through life. I hope you’ve found it interesting and would like to discuss my telling your story or some part of it that you particularly want to highlight. You’re welcome to post a comment or schedule a call to discuss that or whatever’s on your mind.

Note: Archived issues of The Unity Community are available here. Search that page for keywords representing your particular interest. Most articles offer suggestions for ways of improving business and personal relationships. Keep in mind that business is done by…people. Every business concern is essentially an interpersonal concern. 

Are You a Coach Who Wants More Market Exposure?

Stories are great ways to engage your prospects and clients and keep them engaged. You’ve helped clients surpass the potential they saw for themselves. Those stories need to be told!

Read about the experiences I’ve highlighted from my 50+ year career as a business leader and coach. With that experience, I’m your best choice to tell your story. Book a call so you can tell me the experiences you want your clients and prospects to hear about, and have me tell your story!

A “Shot in the Arm” Every Day!

Eric Lofholm, my friend, mentor and sales coach, hosts a 15-minute motivational call every business day.  The call is at 7:45 AM Pacific time. Join the call here

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