Management Lessons from the Flight Deck

Carrier Flight Deck

Who’s In Charge of New Opportunities and Key Customers?

The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is a hectic, dangerous environment.  Dozens of crewmen in colored jerseys working skillfully around heavily armed jets and spinning propeller blades to launch and recover dozens of flights around the clock.

Much of the order amidst this chaos comes from a well-designed system and discipline that clearly indicates precisely who is in charge of controlling and directing each aircraft as it starts-up, taxies, launches and lands.

From the time we climbed into our jets, started the engines, taxied into launch position, armed the weapons and catapulted from the deck… ten or more flight deck personnel might have separately been in charge of our aircraft and its movement.  It was rarely the same from mission-to-mission, but it was always clear to everyone who was in charge, when responsibility shifted, and who was next to take charge. The system ensured safety, success, and built tremendous and often unconditional trust amongst pilots and deck crew.

Does your organization have a similar system and culture as it relates to communicating with prospective new customers through the buying cycle, or in managing existing, strategic key customers?

Your customers value and appreciate a clear understanding of who is in charge of the business relationship.  This ensures consistent communications, the organized flow of timely and mutually beneficial information, and the prompt handling of problems or new opportunities throughout the lifecycle of the relationship.

This leadership role is typically the responsibility of your business development executive or a key accounts manager.  Based on the well-defined role of this individual, he/she is THE person from your team who is “in charge” of the buying cycle or existing relationship. All critical communications, activities and future plans related to the prospect or customer should flow to or through this executive. To break with that discipline creates confusion for your customer as well as your own team. The management, utilization and business rules associated with your CRM system can be a great tool to reinforce account leadership. Leave no doubt as to who is in charge.

As a green new sales manager I was eager to spend time traveling and meeting the larger customers and prospects of my capable and ‘in charge” Reps.  My rookie management mistake was to confuse customers about who was in charge.  “Here’s my card… call me any time I can help”.  Who was in charge?  Their Rep, or the Rep’s boss? (unintended answer: the boss)  I muddied the waters, instead of reinforcing the role of the Account Executive as the person in charge of their business with our company.

A great example of a strong customer management culture occurred when the sales-savvy CEO of a Fortune 100 company planned to invite a customer’s President to join him at a pro-am golf tournament. Prior to making the invitation, the CEO contacted the national account executive for that customer directly to effectively ask permission, and get a quick update and status check on initiatives and the relationship.

Similar to the order on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, that call from the CEO to an account manager left no doubt as to who was in charge of the customer at that company, and reinforced their culture of centralized customer management.

Reinforce the role of your business development and account management execs as the master leaders of their accounts, with ultimate responsibility for new and happy customers.  Amongst other benefits, you’ll grow revenues and deliver greater value and consistency with your hard-won strategic customers.

Jack Liles flew combat missions in the Navy F-14 Tomcat after graduating from The Citadel, and successfully transitioned into a sales and marketing career following his naval service. He’s held leadership roles at the ad agency Leo Burnett, Coca-Cola, UPS, several start-up tech and consulting companies, and is an occasional military analyst on CNN. Jack is a Partner at TechCXO, an executive professional services firm that provides C-level leadership and consulting services for clients seeking accelerated growth and revenue. Reach Jack at

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