Flying is all about giving up control, trusting your instruments, and staying the course. This week Paul and Rich break down the similarities between piloting a plane and piloting a company. We talk about the concept of instrument flying and explain why navigating crosswinds in a plane is not so different from an agency navigating their business.
Paul Ford Let me give you my impersonation of me learning how to play Microsoft Flight Simulator. [Paul makes propeller noises] ”Stall, stall, stall!” [Paul continues to make propeller noises] ”Stall, stall!” [Paul makes stalled noise] That’s it. [music ramps up, plays alone for 15 seconds, fades out]
Rich Ziade How are you?
PF How you doing?
RZ I’m doing well.
PF Man, I miss going to the office. That’s all. That’s all.
RZ I know.
PF Everything else is going okay.
RZ Everything’s going okay. I do too.
PF I just want to do a half day off site. Get some, you know what I—get some Potbelly Sandwiches.
RZ Oh, those are terrible. [Paul laughs]
PF Come on, just for a minute, let’s remember how it used to be, right. So it’d be like, okay, you spent about two weeks out you schedule the half day off site. [mhmm] Okay, you’re gonna work out the strategy for the digital platforms for the next six months, clients coming in, we’re gonna have three or four people from Postlight side. [mhmm] Gotta get sandwiches, [mhmm] got coffee in the morning, bagels, it’s a carb loading kind of thing, right? Because you’re gonna do—
RZ It’s great. You know, we really shine in those situations, not to toot our horn. But we’re really good in that room where there’s a lot of uncertainty and people are just looking for a way forward. We’re actually—I personally really enjoy that stuff. But I think we’re good at it. We’ve got good thoughtful people. We are Postlight! At Postlight.com! We got the pitch out of the way.
PF That aside, I miss that moment when it’s like kind of been building and nobody can really figure out what’s happening. And then somebody goes, ”hold on minute,” and they go up to the whiteboard—this is you, you do this, I do this, where it’s like, ”what if we just made a list of three people?” [Rich laughs]
RZ Three circles!
PF Yeah you draw three circles, and you’re like, ”but what if it was like that?” And everybody, everybody at that point is really hungry. [Rich laughs] And they’re just like, ”yeah, oh my god, that is—”
RZ What I don’t know is if we draw more than two circles on a whiteboard, we invoice you at Postlight.
PF It’s absolutely real. [Rich laughs]
RZ No I’m kidding. We don’t were incredibly generous with our advice. So Paul, today, I want to actually speak to a different audience. Well, not that different, but it’s probably a subset of the people that listen to this podcast. And that’s the leaders.
PF Well, you know what, it’s also good for people to build empathy and understanding around what leaders do. So this is good for everybody.
RZ Yes, agreed. And I want to key off of an analogy that actually spawns three analogies.
PF That’s a lot of analogy spawning. I was—[Paul chuckles]—salmon swimming upstream through the MBA program. [Rich laughs]
RZ I had dinner a couple of weeks ago with a friend, and he is a banker. But, his real, he doesn’t want to talk about banking at dinner, what he wants to talk about is flying.
PF Socially distanced dinner.
RZ Socially distanced dinner. We’re outdoors, very nice setting. And he doesn’t wanna talk about banking. He wants talk about his real passion, which is flying. And he’s taking flight lessons. He loves to fly. And he started talking about how he’s a bunch of lessons in and now he is flying. Like, essentially, there’s a obviously a certified instructor sitting next to him, but he’s doing most of the flying. He shared an observation that made me think about leadership and running companies and running teams and running groups, which is you could argue sad on my behalf, but we won’t get into that. The fact that he’s talking about the exhilarating feeling of flying through the air and I took it to an analogy around corporate leadership.
PF Listen, you’re never done. Never done. You know, just like, because you’ll you’ll hear this stuff. And you’ll be like, ”how am I still thinking the same dumb thoughts 20 years in?” [Rich laughs] Now, it’s actually the simpler the better. So alright, hit me hit me with a leadership analogy. I’m ready.
RZ Okay. So I was like, ”So what’s it like? How do you know? How do you start to feel comfortable?” And he said, ”Well, it’s when you realize you need to do less.” I was like, ”What?” Like I would my hands would be sweaty on the yoke. And I’d be like, just—and he was! His first lessons, he got home and his legs and his arms, because he’s dealing with the rudder and the and the yoke, were so tense for two hours, and he didn’t realize it that he got home and they were just aching and sore, because he was so stressed out. So he said, you know, ”doing less.” I was like, ”What does that even mean?” He’s like, ”Well cross winds.” I said ”Cross winds?” It’s like, ”Yeah, I’m in a little two seater.”
PF Little Cessna.
RZ Little Cessna! ”And I’m getting batted around, and it’s utterly normal. It’s a perfectly nice day to fly. But I’m 6000 feet up over sort of Westchester County. And I’m getting tossed around and my reaction is oftentimes, early on my reaction was to oppose the forces essentially, when I got a crosswind from my left, I would want to turn the yoke towards the left against the wind.”
PF This is really normal in that you learn to do things in a reactive way, rather than a strategic way. Because this is what I’ve learned about flying from Flight Simulator. So let me let me give it back to you, which is that it’s math, like you literally are thinking of a big triangle in your head, you’re like, ”I’m up here, and the earth is here. And like, you know, the ground is there,” and you’re like, you’re drawing the hypotenuse. And figuring out how you’re gonna like, traverse down that slope. It’s Pythagorean. And then meanwhile, like, if you actually are like, ”Oh, my God, the plane, it’s tilting one degree to the left, let me tilt to the right!” You’ll screw everything up.
RZ Okay. So here’s the fundamental point. Leaders are in a place where when there is adversity, or externalities that are affecting, whether it be your group or your company or your business, they seek control. What you’re trying to do is exert control over forces that are outside of your control.
PF You have to. you have to manipulate the environment to get to certain outcomes, because you wouldn’t be in this position, if that wasn’t your job.
RZ Correct. But in reality, there is only so much we can actually control, there’s only so much we can actually influence. It’s very limiting. Which is counterintuitive for a leader, because a leader in the world of you know, the Roman Empire, and in realtime strategy games. And in most cases, you are in absolute control, there’s almost it’s almost romantic, the level of control you’re supposed to have. Here is where I seek sympathy from people that work for me. Understand how little control I actually have.
PF They don’t believe it. Nobody believes how little control you have. And I know this because I read a lot of Twitter, and I see how they talk about CEOs. [Rich laughs] Right. The fantasy of the physician. So what we’re talking about right is, in a smaller environment where there’s a certain number of people, you can actually exercise a tremendous amount of influence, simply by being present and saying, I want this not that. But that by absolute definition that doesn’t scale unless you’re willing to essentially ruin every aspect of your being to support it. And even then it doesn’t scale.
RZ It’s tyranny at that point, if you try, it’s madness, right. So it doesn’t work.
PF That’s right. But you know, what’s interesting is you bring it back to control, right? If you notice one of the great themes of young Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are trying to build businesses, they’re all into things like body hacking and brain hacking and mind hacks and motivation, and how can I gain control over my body and my direct environment and be more mindful and microdose with LSD and so on. And to me, when I see that, as a guy who is further along in life, what I see it’s just young, late adolescence, with a fantasy that they can really reshape reality, to react to them. And what’s bizarre is that every now and then one of them can do it, and drop a product into the marketplace that the marketplace goes bananas for, and that one person out of thousands gets billions of dollars. And everybody optimizes for that outcome. And they’re like, ”Well, you know, he’s really into canning, his own honey that he makes in his own. You know, he breeds his own bees.” And they’re like, ”I better do that,” as opposed to, ”what is the flow? And how do I go with it?”
RZ So what does a good leader do them? A, they don’t react to every micro external action, not everything deserves a reaction. What they do is they look way out, they look out ahead, and they’re okay with the batting around. The plane getting batted around, as long as I’m still continuing to go at 42 degrees towards that runway. And as long as I’m still descending a couple hundred feet every minute, I’m good. And I’m going to get bad at and every so often I got to write it, I do have to write it every once in a while a good leader writes it without jerking the plane. That’s what a great leader does. They know when to nudge just enough so they don’t rock the whole thing and cause you you know, total chaos.
PF You wanna know something about that? You’re never gonna get credit for it.
RZ No, because it’s invisible. It’s nearly invisible. It’s nearly invisible.
PF Where as if you watch me land a plane in Flight Simulator, you’re gonna say to yourself, ”I didn’t think that was gonna land.” [Rich laughs] There’s a lot of smooth days at Postlight, right?
RZ Exactly. So I want to jump to the next analogy. We are an agency Paul. Whereas a business that sells you know, peanuts to candy companies can look out one year, two years, they can buy futures, not futures, and plan their business and see 3% growth or 4% growth, and it’s pretty smooth sailing. The intensity and frequency of crosswinds for an agency is orders of magnitude more severe than your more classic sort of long view type of business. And which leads me to the analogy of something called instrument flying. Do you know what instrument flying is Paul?
PF Even if I did, I’d want you to explain it for the purpose of this podcast.
RZ Okay, there’s visual flight, when it’s a beautiful clear day, and you could just see out around you, you can see where the airport is visually acknowledging where it is orienting yourself, seeing how the land is relative to your plane, meaning you’re not upside down. But that’s not always the case, what is sometimes the case is that it is just a gray mask in your windshield, there is nothing to see, absolutely nothing to see. But the engine is worrying. You’re thousands of feet up in the air. And it turns out, the water in your ears is a terrible guide, as to your orientation. And whether you’re right side up or upside down, it’s actually awful. So what you’re supposed to do is look down at those instruments and fly purely off your dashboard. And that requires two things. One, it’s an extreme level of unlearning, right? You’re literally training yourself to ignore your own physiology, and trust the instruments that are in front of you. The other is that you have to trust those instruments. A Cessna’s dashboard is just not that impressive. The arrows kind of wiggle a little, it’s not the most amazing thing.
PF I’m gonna argue that because again, we’ve talked about I’ve gone into Flight Simulator, I know it’s not impressive, but God it is a beautifully designed interface.
RZ It’s lovely, isn’t it?
PF Like is a piece of UX from the from the 70s, the Cessna dashboard—because what you realize what you’re back into, as you’re nerding around and learning about this world is that it’s optimized for that triangle, right for like figuring out that hypotenuse is you can do the math, and you can figure out where you are in the world, simply by looking at four or five key things. And then there’s a few other things to supplement that data.
RZ That’s right. And so the analogy speaks to being calm, trusting the information that’s being put in front of you. And not overreacting. You know, John F. Kennedy, Jr. I mean, this is the theory, but I think it’s it is the sound theory.
PF Oh, no, no, this isn’t gonna be QAnon is it?
RZ No, it’s not QAnon, it’s, it’s how he died. What actually happened was, he was flying from New York to Nantucket to meet the other Kennedys. And he fell into zero visibility and had to trust his instruments, he was an amateur pilot. And what happened was, he started to whip the plane around because he didn’t, he did, he was completely disoriented, right. And it led to this very tragic accident, I think him and a couple of other people perished. So if you look at these first two analogies off of flying, what you’re really talking about is trusting the information in front of you not reacting to everything that comes at you immediately, and taking a long view. And if somebody out there listening has an idea of how to make that happen faster for a prospective leader or a young leader, I’d love to hear about it, because it took years to internalize that, right? It’s hundreds of hours of flight training, to really feel comfortable enough to not have sweaty palms on the yoke, and just let the instruments guide and not overreact. It takes years of experience, I’ve seen you as a non manager digest it very, very quickly, it was still not months, right?
PF Here’s what you have to do if you’re going to grow into leadership from a non leadership type role. And when I mean leadership, I mean, sort of entrepreneurial leadership, as opposed to just organizational leadership. Organizational leadership, to me is like, ”hey, you’re gonna run this part of the show, here’s the things we need. And we need quarterly results. And it’s going to look like this. And you’re going to have a team of 12, or it could be a team of 1200. But ultimately, you’re responsible for a thing that feeds into the larger enterprise.” And I feel that that is a very specific kind of craft. And then there is what we do, which is A, you know, we might make less money and have less upside than the organizational leader inside of a giant org with 1200 directs like, it’s not about success, necessarily. It’s just the attitude. What has happened to me as CEO of Postlight over the last five years is that I’ve gotten closer and closer and closer to the actual business that we’re in, like, not the one in my head, and not what people tell me an agency is, but what actually operates day to day, how the money comes in how that gets turned into work, how that becomes products and ship. And that sounds unbelievably stupid. Like what business did you think you were in? But you know, as you’re talking about the instrument flying, I remember having conversations and many conversations about three or four years ago, where people would come to us and they’d be and they’d be our friends. And they would say, ”What are you guys doing about, you know, like machine learning? What’s your plan? What’s your plan about, you know, AI or about this or that whatever was really cool blockchain?” And I look at them and I’d say, you know, and I feel kind of weird, but like we don’t have a plan. And what I was seeing in my eyes like the work of shipping products and platforms, that scale that are efficient and can be delivered quickly, is not done yet. Right? Like there’s another 30 years of that before we can point to it and say, we got it.
RZ Yeah, exactly. I mean, we spend a fair amount of our money marketing Postlight, ad spend in different places on LinkedIn and Google and other places. And we just want that feedback so badly. We want to know what’s working and what’s not. We want to we want to know that we’re spending our money.
PF Yeah, oh, they click on the red button, but not the blue button. Let’s get more red.
RZ Yeah. Exactly. And and what you have to trust. And the truth is, you know, for us, our success for us is not engagement metrics, that’s not an end in of itself, that’s just still a step along the way. We need you to call us and talk to us and get to know us.
PF There’s no free tier sign up.
RZ There’s no free tier sign up. Exactly. So you don’t have that visibility, you got to trust your instruments. Again, this goes back to those instruments. You know, the instrument, in most business cases is the proverbial dashboard of some kind. [RIch chuckles] For the very senior people, but that’s real. I have one remaining analogy, Paul, until you’re completely analogy out. You know, when I was little, I wanted to be a pilot for medical reasons, I can’t be one. But I wanted to be found, you know why? This is gonna sound twisted and messed up in a lot of ways. But I’ll tell you why.
PF I don’t know actually.
RZ Okay. It wasn’t the thrill of flight. I love the idea of being responsible for a lot of people.
PF Oh, interesting. I get that.
RZ And, you know, when you’re flying Paul, and the turbulence kicks in, and then the captain comes on. And in a very calm, relaxed way said, ”we’re going to hit some turbulence, just please sit back in your seats and put your seatbelts on.” And for people, most people don’t fly that often. And when serious turbulence kicks in, it’s scary. The message that he sends out, its tone is as important as its substance. Because he’s calm and relaxed, and he is the one flying the plane, you calm down and relax. And one of the key signals for leadership, and this is why a lot of people don’t become leaders, is you have to internalize that stress, and communicate and be a source of calm and stability for the people in your company or in your business.
PF Let me add to that, right, which is, so I’m a public person, I’m on this podcast, other podcasts, I tweet, I write, I’m in Wired. And what I’ve learned is that everything I say in public is utterly open to interpretation. And if Postlight, in particular, has a lot of people who are dependent on this firm for their livelihood, they’re talented people, they could go get other jobs, they’re here now. What we say, when a human being hears it, they don’t just hear the words at all, they hear every single shading and every aspect of it.
RZ Totally true.
PF And I think like, what I’ve been learning over time is A, stay transparent, be honest, be clear, like don’t we’re not going to fool with that. But if there’s an opportunity for optimism and good cheer, and to let people know that you’re excited about something, take it, because that will cut down on the number of potential readings. And that’s actually a gift you can give to someone, again, not a cover up like that’s like, because the reality is when when we’re done with work, I still go read about databases, because I have the time and freedom and I kind of love it. It’s a focus for me, you and I have been talking about Flight Simulator, like, our lives are still very connected to our industry. I love this industry, I still have software for all of its terrible problems. I still can’t believe I get to work in it all the time. And I think there was a part of me that felt weird being the boss, and bringing that into it. Like, you know, am I a fraud? Should I you know, am I good enough programmer, I’m not really a designer and just sort of like a kind of apologizing for existing. And then I just realized, I love this. We get to do it every day. I don’t have to do it, I get to do it. Try to share more of that around.
RZ Yep, I think that’s good advice, to add to what you just suggested, even if things are going fine, and it’s not really big news, saying things are going fine, is meaningful, even though it’s not the most exciting announcement you can have at an all hands meeting, it’s still a good thing to do. Because like you said your words mean a lot.
PF I mean, bring this home, right? So it’s like, what are we really talking about? We’re talking about the fact like this metaphor actually works all the way around, which is the people imagine that you’re up there with your hands on the yoke, like watching for geese to crash into the windshield and like turning really fast. Yeah, trying to keep the plane balance. And the reality is so much that you’re literally in the sky on a path. And you want to just stay as close to that path as you possibly can, while also really being aware of major risks and concerns. And the part that you want to communicate is not how hard you’re holding on to the yoke. Because people know that’s not good. The part you want to communicate is ”I got it.” Now if you look out the window and you see an asteroid, I’d love it if you came and knocked on the on the cabin door.
RZ Yeah, let us know. [Rich laughs]
PF Let us know! Like don’t, that’s I think where you get into trouble is when the captain is like, ”Ah, you know, you might notice that there’s an enormous fire in the middle of the plane” like don’t be that person. But for the most part, you want to just like you’re up there, you’re staring you’re watching your instruments, and you’re communicating clearly what’s going on in a polite, respectful and cheerful manner. [music fades in]
RZ What’s crazy is I have like five more micro analogies that I’m not going to subject you and the audience to.
PF That’s because Flight Simulator is an amazing game,
RZ I feel like the advice we’ve given today applies to the manager with four people, four reports, as much as it applies to someone that’s running a bigger company.
PF Oh let’s just, we’re gonna bundle this into a book and it will get like some Captain to write an intro. [Rich laughs] This is huge.
RZ Sully! We’re gonna get Sully to write!
PF Tell you why, ’cause we’re gonna be able to sell it at the airport. That’s what’s amazing here.
RZ Paul, I hope you found this useful.
PF Look man, I mean, is this the greatest metaphor that ever existed? That’s not the job. But it’s a common frame of reference that you and I can use to talk to remind each other to settle down, take the data in front of us and use that to make better and better decisions as we go. And and frankly, that kind of thinking works for us.
RZ I actually don’t think we need to pitch Postlight, Paul, I feel like we talked enough about Postlight in this podcast.
PF Absolutely. I mean, email@example.com is the email Postlight.com is the website. Postlight is the company and we’re good digital strategy partner.
RZ Have a great week, everyone.
PF Bye! [music ramps up, plays alone for 3 seconds, ends.]