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This article’s title is intended as the highest possible compliment. If you’re a sales leader, and your team is producing, I really do believe that’s because of your ability to do what an air traffic controller does. You’re just like the skilled professional with the headset on, monitoring the screen, taking in all the relevant information, and ensuring that all the takeoffs, all the landings, and all the decisions in between proceed according to plan. You are the one making sure the right plan gets implemented in the chaotic corner of the universe for which you have accepted personal responsibility.

I first shared this idea at the 2022 Sandler Summit. I knew it was a powerful metaphor, but I didn’t expect it to capture people’s imaginations in the way it has. (The article inspired by my Summit talk can be found here.) As we lean into 2023, the air-traffic-controller comparison seems more apt than ever. Here are the seven most obvious parallels I see between a skilled sales leader and a skilled air traffic controller.

  1. You both constantly process and adjust to never-ending waves of extremely complex data. Just like an air traffic controller, you’re responsible for making a series of high-impact decisions based on your personal assessment of a firehose stream of information that never turns off. These decisions have very narrow margins for error, and they can carry huge consequences for everyone involved. Not everyone can be trusted to make all those decisions. Only a few people prove themselves qualified to do so over the long term. And honestly, I think your job is harder since your data is coming from people who can be considerably less accurate than pilots – as you probably know from doing pipeline reviews!
  2. You must both maintain strong lines of communication in multiple directions. Air traffic controllers interact constantly with pilots, ground crews, and of course their own leadership team. Their ability to fulfill their responsibilities and avert disaster depends on their ability to communicate effectively, even in potentially stressful situations. So does yours.
  3. You both have the responsibility of ensuring that people get where they need to go. For an air traffic controller, that’s pilots, crew, and passengers. For you, it’s the entire organization (because let’s face it, everyone in it depends on the revenue your team generates) as well as everyone your organization touches – including, but not limited to, clients and customers. Bottom line: You’ve both got a lot of people counting on you.
  4. You both serve as a critical buffer zone. At any given moment, countless variables are in play that could affect a flight… but an air traffic controller doesn’t simply dump all that information on the pilot. They keep pilots focused. Anything that isn’t immediately relevant to the pilot’s real-time priorities gets edited out of the conversation. As the sales leader, you play the same role for your team, because you occupy the all-important space between the salesperson and the rest of the organization. You edit out the noise, and you make sure they get the information they need to move deals forward. You keep salespeople focused on generating revenue.
  5. You both know your process backwards and forwards, making sure all the boxes get checked off in the right order. Air traffic controllers don’t “wing it.” They can’t—the stakes are too high. They follow clear, documented procedures. Don’t you do the same? And aren’t the stakes high in your world, too? You set clear, comprehensible exit criteria for each stage of the sales process, and you make sure everyone on your team has been trained to recognize and honor those criteria. No exceptions!
  6. You both get paid to focus on where things are going, not just where they are right now. And of course, you both must be accurate in your assessments of where things are going and when they’ll arrive. For each of you, that means following a proven process (see #5) with total commitment and forecasting responsibly from process outcomes, using verified data.
  7. You both leave the drama outside the workplace. Air traffic controllers know that there’s no time to play head games when communicating with a pilot – and no conceivable advantage to doing so. Communication is always peer-to-peer and focused on the facts. If something goes wrong, the big issue is always what happens next, not who should be blamed. Who has time for blame? Effective sales leaders (and salespeople) live and work by the same principle.

So, hold your head up high – you’re one of the elite few keeping all those “planes” flying and landing safely!

And for lots more ideas on focusing on where your team and your industry are going (as opposed to just understanding where you are right now), join us for the 2023 Sandler Summit, March 16-17 in Orlando, Florida. You can register here. 


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