Think like an air traffic controller

No one has any time, anymore. Sometimes even getting the reactive, day-to-day stuff done can be a challenge, leaving less time to focus on the proactive and creative work we all entered this profession to do.

If it’s any consolation, your peers are in the same boat. Comments about reductions in headcount, budget freezes and fears of burnout all pepper our customer survey. As do concerns about scrappy competitors disrupting markets and not playing by the rules.  These dynamics are nothing particularly new. What is new is that digital is adding pressure and an additional layer of complexity.

We also heard that marketing and communications directors are increasingly responsible for leading their company’s response to digital transformation. While it’s good that your senior leadership trusts you and your team, it’s another thing added to an already full plate.

The complexity and pace show no sign of easing up anytime soon. However, by nature, communicators and marketers tend to be resilient and able to remain calm under pressure. We adapt well to change and are skilled at handling multiple, complicated situations.  I often draw the parallel with our profession and air traffic controllers.

The two professions have more in common than you might think. Every day, both deal with variable scenarios, changeable conditions - often beyond their control, and are responsible for averting actual and reputational disasters.  

Where air traffic controllers have regular, scheduled breaks to help them remain focused, communicators are expected to be responsive 24/7 and always bring their A game.    

What can we learn from air traffic controllers?

They always have a 360° view

The only way to get an air-cover view is to consciously step back and press pause to take stock. It might seem hard, but detaching yourself from time to time from the block and tackle work – to attend an industry event or read around a subject - is critical in giving you the full picture. If you don’t have time, then you need to find time.

They manage flow and cushion any impact for stakeholders

Picture your internal and external stakeholders like planes on a radar screen – constantly shifting direction, sometimes in the same direction, usually in opposing directions and all at a different level.  Air traffic controllers rely on a mix of technology, teamwork and experience. However, they divide the airspace and work across the team and work together to ensure a smooth flow in and out of the airport.

They stay calm under pressure and remain focused on the destination

Senior marketing and communications professionals, while resilient, are notoriously bad at asking for help.  We are seeing signs of burnout at all levels across our client base. If that sounds like you, ask for help, challenge your boss and question the need to be available round the clock.  Unless you’re in the middle of a crisis, real-time updates are usually not needed.

It’s a great time to be in industrial technology communications. Whether you’re working for a large chemical company or an additive manufacturing scale-up, time is always going to be in short supply.  In the short term, that is exhilarating and provides a rush.  Mid- to long-term it can have a negative and detrimental impact on your performance as a team, personal leadership, your health and ultimately business success. 

Think about putting in hard and soft mechanisms for time out/off and press pause to review and celebrate success, or change direction.  That often starts with a conversation… you know where to find us.


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Communications Strategy


Posted by
Greg Farrett 
on March 13, 2018

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