In my role as an accounting firm coach, consultant and mentor I like to find examples in other industries to help accountants run better accounting firms.  It might surprise you that air traffic controllers provide some great examples!

I occasionally sit near the runways at Brisbane airport and listen to air traffic control and I have a friend who worked most of his working life as an air traffic controller and he has occasionally shared insights.

Clarity of purpose

The purpose of an air traffic controller is a single word – safety. It sits head and shoulders above all else. The secondary purpose is speed – to get aircraft in and out of airports as quickly as is safely possible. Do you have clarity of purpose in your firm? Can it be distilled to a few words or a sentence or two? Can everyone in your firm articulate it?

Clarity and conciseness of instruction

Air traffic controllers and pilots are busy people. Like accounting firm owners and managers they have a lot going on so they are concise in their communication with each other. Because their primary purpose is safety, there must be absolute clarity in that communication. There is a whole language or vocabulary that is used which is well established globally and supports that clarity and conciseness and when you train as either a pilot or an air traffic controller this is fundamental. When you are instructing others in your firm are you clear in what you asking for and do you do it concisely? No need to waffle!

Manage expectations and sequencing steps

This one surprised me but perhaps it should not have. In the space of about 60 seconds this is roughly what Brisbane air traffic control (ATC) and some pilots said:

ATC: China 156 (which has moved into position on the edge of the runway) you are next to depart after Qantas 615. Please confirm you are ready for immediate departure.

China 156: China 156 confirm ready immediate departure

ATC: Qantas 405 continue approach runway 19. Winds from the west at 15 knots. Expect late clearance to land with heavy A330 ahead of you for take-off.

Qantas 405: Qantas 405 on approach, expect late clearance

ATC: Qantas 615 (which has just taken off) contact departures on 121 decimal 9

Qantas 615: Qantas 615 contact departures 121 decimal 9

ATC: China 156 cleared for immediate take off

China 156: (as the plane starts to move) China 156 immediate take off

ATC (as China 156 lifts off) Qantas 405 cleared to landing runway 19

Qantas 405: Qantas 405 cleared to land

This exchange demonstrates very well the clarity and conciseness of communication, the managing of expectations, sequencing of steps, being calm under pressure and having a backup plan. Let me walk you through it.

At this time it was busy at the airport and there were quite a few planes queuing for departure and a number known to be approaching to land. Air traffic controllers know an idling plane burns a lot of expensive fuel and are keen to keep things moving as quickly as possible so long as safety is maintained at all times. They are well trained and understand the tolerances they must work within in terms of separation between planes and they are expert at applying these.

I think the conciseness and clarity are pretty obvious. And perhaps the management of expectations too. ATC are managing the expectations of the pilots of China 156 that they will get a prompt clearance to take off, if and only if, they are ready for immediate departure. The pilots are well trained and understand immediate means immediate and will only confirm if they are 100% ready. Similarly, the expectations of the pilots of Qantas 405 are being managed. They know they will most likely get a late clearance to land and will have prepared themselves for the possibility that they will have to pull out of the landing and go around again. But they will know that ATC have assessed that it is unlikely this will be required and will have heard China 156 confirming to ATC that they are ready to go.

There is plenty of pressure on the air traffic controller as there a lot of planes wanting to take off or land, but there is never any hint of that in his voice. It is calm and clear at all times and he speaks fastish but not so fast that he will not be understood. And he knows that if China 156 is slow to move he can ask Qantas 405 to “go around” and rejoin the queue for landing. Equally he already knew that if China 156 said not ready, he would clear Qantas 405 for landing. His skill is in managing China 156 to ensure he can safely get an extra plane away before Qantas 405 lands. Without the managing of expectations this high performance would not be possible and I put it to you that it is the same in accounting firms. As leaders of a firm managing expectations of your people is important. Equally when you report to someone, taking the front foot in managing their expectations is a great skill to have.

The other thing that is very obvious from the exchange between the air traffic controllers and the pilots is the expertise of the air traffic controllers in sequencing steps. If they get it right they can safely get more planes moving and it’s the same in an accounting firm. If you sequence steps needed to get work done for clients you will get more done. This is about planning work to be done in any month week or day, just as an airport plans the movement of planes.

Calm under pressure

Brisbane airport is not the busiest airport in Australia but it serves a significant volume of domestic and international arrivals and departures for aircraft ranging in size from A380 down to a single prop Cessna. No matter what happens the air traffic controllers stay calm and that is a good example for us all.

Have a Plan B

The aviation industry is renowned for contingency planning. In most cases they don’t just have a plan B but a C, D and E as well. (Which is comforting when our lives depend on it.) What Plan B do you have? For example if you lost your internet connection for the day or your office burnt down (no joke, I had that happen to me at a firm I worked in.) what would you do? Risk management is often forgotten….until it is too late. The aviation industry doesn’t work that way and nor should you.