Change a Winning Team—and Breathe

A conversation with former pilot turned leadership development executive Thierry Beyeler

Summer travel, travel from hell. I just flew with United Airlines from Berlin to Atlanta, Georgia, and it took me exactly 24 hours door to door, due to some weather-related delay during my stop-over in New York, and not helped by the notorious Great Resignation-caused staff shortage in the industry. On top of the malaise, when we finally got ready for the final connection at the Newark airport, eight hours behind schedule, three of which I spent aboard the aircraft on the tarmac, the pilot had to abort the take-off due to a technical issue. I was so tired, frustrated, and helpless that I could barely hold it together.

The pilot, however, was the epitome of composure, a formidable professional. He stayed calm throughout all the hassle, shared all information honestly and timely, and eventually left the flight deck to step in front of the disgruntled passengers to address them face to face and apologize. He really led by example, and his classy demeanor set the tone and made sure no one snapped. It reminded me of the gruelling demands of his profession and the beauty of “grace under pressure.”

What can business leaders learn from it?

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Thierry Beyeler who is uniquely positioned to reflect on this question. For more than 10 years, Beyeler was a pilot with Swiss International Air Lines, for which he flew A320, A330, and A340 aircraft. He then worked as a pilot instructor. Most recently, he changed careers and industries, joining a global bank to help shape its new leadership development initiatives. I spoke to him about how his experience as a pilot helped him settle into his role in the corporate environment, what helps him in crisis situations, and how purpose, well-being, and emotional intelligence take the stage in both worlds today.

I must admit, I am a long-time aviation buff (the kind of person who spends hours watching planes at airports and even more hours on FlightAware to track flights….), so if the conversation might get too geeky at times, blame it on that.


Tim Leberecht, co-founder, House of Beautiful Business

Tim Leberecht: For many people, being a pilot is a dream—the most romantic job you can think of. Is it still that way for you?

Thierry Beyeler: For me flying is a bit like eating chocolate. I loved it. I loved every flight. However, when you have 16 flights in four days—which is more or less the maximum on the short haul—then that’s too much chocolate! All in all, getting to fly airplanes around the world is still a dream job, in small doses.

TL: What were some of the most dramatic moments or real emergencies that you had to manage?

TB: I did have a few in my ten years of flying. Once, I had an engine failure on the approach to Johannesburg, but that's very rare, and we handled it. Another time, we had smoke in the cockpit and the cabin, and we went to land quickly, because you never know where the smoke is coming from. In the end it was just the air conditioning having some problems, but you never know—there could be a fire in the cargo hold! I also had very difficult weather once, and we had to deviate to another airport. We were a little short on fuel at the end, but it worked out fine.

TL: You talk about it so calmly! I suppose that's because of your training, but I'm curious about how your body responds if you are in a crisis situation. Of course you may have been trained for it, and you know exactly what to do technically, but still, you're a human being.

TB: It depends very much on the training. I'm convinced training is the best thing you can do to manage abnormal situations—also in business. As Murphy said, “What can go wrong will go wrong,” so think about it and try to prepare mentally. For instance, during the engine failure I wasn't nervous at all, because we have backup engines and I had been well trained for that situation. I was a bit more nervous with the smoke because there's much more uncertainty. If you ask me, “How does the body respond?”, I think it depends a lot on how much uncertainty there is. We can also draw a parallel to the economic situation; the more uncertainty there is, the more difficult it is for us as human beings to manage the situation. One thing I have always told my students is to take deep breaths, like in yoga. Breathe into your feet, and stay calm. That's the first step in regaining control of your body; knowing how to breathe.

TL: Computing power has taken over the cockpit as well. Is it possible to automate entire flights? Or is a human element in the cockpit still important?

TB: Yes, I'm convinced that the human element is still very important. Apparently 80 percent of people are actually scared of flying, so as long as we have human passengers we need to have humans guiding that machine. That’s the first thing. The other is that people often overestimate the technical possibilities of aircraft. Yes, an airplane is able to land automatically, but it's very difficult and complicated. Automated take-off is not possible at the moment, of course it might be in the future, but the question is, do we want that? Like with cars. It's a very high-risk environment, it's not like riding a bike! If there are minor errors, it could have fatal consequences. There was an incident a few months ago, actually, where most of the plane was pushed down by the system shortly after take-off. If the pilot hadn’t intervened, 250 or so people could have died. Humans are intervening with technical systems to solve problems countless times a day, and it would be dangerous to forget that.

TL: In sports, and also in business, we have this saying “never change a winning team.” We believe if leaders are very familiar with each other, that enhances performance. I read somewhere that in the cockpit environment, that is not necessarily the case. And that, in fact, airlines actually are very interested in breaking up familiar patterns and exchanging teams. Why is that?

TB: Yes, for every flight you are with a different crew. There are a lot of advantages like having a good atmosphere, having good discussions, etc. But why do airlines not want that? Because if you feel too comfortable, there is the possibility that you don't intervene, you won't speak up and tell the other pilot what they are doing wrong. That's one of the most important elements of being a pilot, and of having two pilots in the cockpit—having the four-eyes principle and telling the other one if they are doing something wrong. What's the plan? What's the shared situational awareness? If you know each other too well, it might make you less alert. Next to that, changing teams is just for planning purposes, because it's much easier than always having the same crews. But the main reason is actually that you don't get too comfortable with each other.

TL: You work in a somewhat claustrophobic environment, sometimes for many hours. What if you really dislike someone's attitude and personality? It requires so much discipline to act professionally. Is that something you also prepare for emotionally, that you train for?

TB: You're not really trained for it, but you get used to it (laughs). You gain experience and you start to know how to handle those situations. And you also have to ask yourself if there is something about you, maybe. But if you speak up, and that's an important part of the speaking-up culture, it's about a thing, it's not about the person. So if somebody smells a bit or whatever, I think it's not worth mentioning. One good thing about changing teams is that we only work together for three days, then it's over. But of course yeah, there were some awkward situations. Sometimes you have people who just don't want to talk at all, you just have to accept it. The most important thing is if a situation develops in a way you don't want, that you intervene, that, even if you hate the other person, start asking questions. If you have a nine-hour flight next to somebody you don't really like, you can read a newspaper. It's not claustrophobic, actually, as you can enjoy the beautiful view—the curve of the Earth.

Knowledge, skills, or attitude?

TL: How have the skills of a pilot developed in the last decades? Not only technical skills, but in terms of communication and emotional intelligence?

TB: It has evolved quite a lot. I would say 40 years ago it was 90 percent technical. Then there were crashes, fatal crashes, and the industry realized that we had to change something. Pilots were not communicating properly, and were not behaving in the right way. There was a lot of overconfidence and no speaking up, so the regulators pushed for more human factors skills.

As a pilot, these human factors are critical. Every pilot has technical skills. If you don't have them, just work through the night, and you'll have them the next day. That's the easy part. The human factors take a lot of time to develop, you can't just learn them overnight. As instructors, we're always asking ourselves, is it a problem of attitude, skills, or knowledge? Knowledge is easy to correct, skills are easy to correct, but attitude, if there's a problem with attitude, it becomes more difficult and takes more time and needs much more discussion.

TL: You mentioned breathing exercises earlier, and yoga. Are these types of holistic practices still alien to pilot training?

TB: I think for some people it still sounds woo-woo, but it’s definitely becoming more common. Actually in the human factors courses that I taught we included a one hour yoga session for all pilots. At first they were apprehensive, but afterwards everybody was like, “Wow, that was really good!” So well-being and self-reflection are being increasingly recognized as essential. Mental strength is a huge issue for pilots.

TL: Your new role is in leadership development at a global bank. How much of your experience as a flight instructor can you apply to this role, and to what extent is it a completely different environment that requires a new type of leadership?

TB: I think I can actually apply all of it, everything I've learned, everything I've seen, because it concerns the human being. There's humans in an airplane, there's humans in a bank... everywhere there are humans we find similar issues. In aviation, in finance, and many other industries, things are changing. Human factors are becoming much more present and important. The main difference is that if you look at a leader in a corporate world, they are with their team for the long term, so you have to deal with people for a much longer time than you do as a pilot, where you are with them for three days and then it's over. In the corporate world leadership has a strategic and a long-term part. You are responsible for lives in a different kind of way, as you guide people’s careers and help them grow. It requires more future-orientation.

TL: One final question for you: What does beautiful business mean to you?

TB: It actually connects to the human factor. We now talk about mental strength, about well-being, about developing a human-centered culture for employees. The younger generations want beautiful jobs, they want to have beautiful work, they want to get up in the morning and think, “it's a beautiful day because my work is meaningful.” If business is not beautiful, if work is not beautiful, if how you spend your day is not beautiful, will you find the right people to work at your business? I don't think so. Purpose, well-being, and emotional intelligence—going forward you will not be able to operate without them.

The interview was conducted via Zoom and edited for length and clarity.


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