Skip the MBA. Learn to fly instead.

September 11th, 2013 by Rod Rakic


Venn Diagram - Aviate - Navigate - Communicate

The best business advice I’ve ever been given came from my flight instructor.

Aviate. Navigate. Communicate. …in that order.”

Success in the cockpit relies on managing bandwidth. It turns out, so does success in any business. As my friend Steve [@StephenForce] likes to say, flight training is all about bandwidth packing. Making a business work is no different.

I try to balance consuming ideas and immersion. Much of what I’ve consumed in the last couple of years has been business advice and counsel. Eighteen months ago I had no idea what a “cap table,” was or what the heck, “preferred stock,” meant. I immersed myself in the lingo as I went about the business of starting a business. I’ve come a long way through immersion.

As I consumed most everything I could get my hands on to help me through each stage of the project, it struck me how many aviation analogies you find in business books. (Second only to military analogies by my count.) Startups have, “runway,” which is calculated from a, “burn rate.” We, “launch,” products and we hope the business, “takes off.” You get the idea.

Many businesses fail because of distraction. Don’t believe the hype. Human beings are terrible at multitasking. Entrepreneurs are notoriously distracted people. (Just ask my team, they’ll tell you after the laughter subsides.) Prioritization of attention is a critical life skill for both flying and business. Fixation is the enemy of any good instrument scan, and it can completely blow up you calendar too. Managing a business like we manage a cockpit may not be for everyone, but here’s my idea. Cockpit discipline can be a guide for how to structure time and help you manage your bandwidth better.

AVIATE – (Operations, customer service, production, finance, etc.) The tasks that make a business a business are the foundation. When I see businesses disappointing people, it seems most often due to distraction from the basics. My primary flight instructor taught me long ago, “Never drop the airplane to fly the mic.” Aviating must come first. If you’re a retailer, you should first and foremost be good at selling stuff. If you’re a flight school, you should prioritize your focus on tasks that get people flying. If you make stuff, make it better. See what I mean? In my case, since launching OpenAirplane I’ve tried my level best to always make the operational tasks my priority. Personally, this kind of discipline has never been my strong suit. I’ve adapted.

NAVIGATE – (Product management, design, planning, strategy, etc.) In flying and in business, we should always be asking ourselves, “What’s next?” My friend Jason [@TFPofFLYING] likes to stress how important it is to always, “stay ahead of the airplane.” The same discipline can be applied to your work. In every business there are opportunities to look ahead within to improve experience, refine processes, expand or cut offering to make the business run better. Sometimes we get task saturated and get buried in the day to day operations, but unless there’s the discipline to regularly step back and turn the focus to planning, we’re plowing forward without a map.

I’m a student of the design of business. Our industry mostly evolved; very little around us was designed. Much of the industry doctrine in aviation isn’t a product of regulation or design; it’s a product of inertia. On the commercial side, look at the lowly boarding pass as an example. Good luck trying to make sense of those things. Recently someone actually took on a redesign of the boarding pass. The results will make you wonder what took so long.

COMMUNICATE – (Marketing, advertising, public relations, promotions, etc.) I’ve been in some sort of marketing role my entire career. I default to it. But others do not; I get that. Our industry has evolved to be exceedingly efficient at communicating to our own community. Beyond preaching to the converted, the industry for the most part is incompetent. Lack of communications is killing us. Go to Oshkosh, and you’ll be saturated by the message of how amazing aviation is. But imagine trying to penetrate the aviation community from the outside. You might as well be holding an iPhone in a camera store.

Communications is a muscle few aviation businesses take seriously. There is a huge market opportunity for those who invest in outreach. Props to the folks at Icon Aircraft [@ICONAircraft] for making it a priority to grow the pie, not just carve it up.

One of our Operators nailed it when he shrewdly observed, “Aviation expects excellence, but it seldom rewards it.” Turns out the mental pegboard for achieving the balance we need may already be right here.

I try my level best to attack each day with the discipline I learned in my primary flight training.


It’s helped me hack my productivity, and maybe it can help you too. That, and starting every day with the Shepard’s Prayer couldn’t hurt.

Rod Rakic

Rod Rakic is committed to making aviation work better. He’s the co-founder at OpenAirplane, which is dedicated to making flying safer and more useful. He’s a pioneer in creating interactive experiences for almost 20 years. Rod is a digital strategist, professional pilot, and a user-experience nerd with a mission.

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The opinions expressed by the bloggers do not reflect AOPA’s position on any topic.

  • Jamie Beckett

    Brilliant observations and correlation of skills, Rod. I’m so glad I came across this piece. Excellent!

    • Rod Rakic

      Thanks Jamie!

  • Brent

    Great stuff! This is the kind of information that we need. Great life hack too!

  • Adam Smith

    Nice article Rod

  • Larry Overstreet

    Nice way to put it, Rod! But what do you mean that entrepreneurs get distracted? Oh wait, I just read this instead of doing that thing I was supposed to do…

    • Rod Rakic

      Thanks Larry, trust me as I wrote this I kept thinking to myself how I was taking time away from the very important “aviate” part of the mission. It’s all important… balance. Maintain that scan…

      Oh look… a squirrel!

  • Chris DeVaughn

    Very good, interesting article. I think the medical profession could borrow from the Aviation community too, especially in the crew rest department.

  • Michelle Batten

    Digging the ‘cockpit discipline’ mantra, Rod – great framework for life!

  • David DePaolo

    I’ve often said that executives should be required to take flight lessons because the valuable skills hugely valuable: Communication, Planning, Decision Making. In aviation there is very little margin for error in any of those categories, and so it should be in business. When the pilot fails to Communicate, he dies. When the pilot fails to Plan, he dies. When the pilot fails in Decision Making, he dies. The consequences in business aren’t usually as drastic, but still applicable.

  • Nick

    Indeed a great analogy! It would be great to share with others, but this article can only be really appreciated by pilots. Unfortunately I have not encountered enough in my”workspace” 😉

  • Todd Burger

    Love the insights and artilce. As both an MBA and Commerical pilot I find that the flying is a great leaning tool, and a way to explain complex business problems. I’ve often said to newly minted MBA’s you might have read the book, but that doesn’t mean you can fly the plane.

  • David Ramsey

    Thanks Rod.
    Yet more good reasons – for learning to flying – personal development “par excellence”!

  • John Lafferty

    “If you want to learn to swim, jump into the water. On dry land, no frame of mind is ever going to help you.” – Bruce Lee

  • Travis Sherman

    Hey Rod! Amazing post. I too am an aviator and young entrepreneur. I looked over your site and am very impressed. I am still in college and would love nothing more than to at least exchange some emails with you to get an idea of how OpenAirplane came to be and some of the obstacles you had to navigate. Keep on Rod its always great to see innovation in the general aviation community!

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