October 30, 2018

From Fighter Pilot to Sales Leader: Surprisingly Relatable Skills for Enterprise Sales

By Tim Cavins

I’m a proud veteran of the United States Navy, having served from 1984 to 1991, I piloted F-14 Tomcat fighters off the USS Forrestal aircraft carrier.

As a Navy officer, I also held various leadership positions in operations, safety, training, and administration. However, flying Navy jets off the carrier created the most memories and provided the most durable life lessons.

After serving in the Navy for seven years, I traded my wings for a career that eventually led me to a global provider of CRM and operations software for the recruitment industry. Working as a managing director of global enterprise has allowed me to develop relationships with some of the world’s largest staffing companies, helping them leverage technology to solve their intricate business challenges and achieve their mission of putting the world to work. So I can say from personal experience, how many of the skills I learned as a pilot have helped me to successfully navigate enterprise selling.

Be Prepared
To accomplish any mission, preparation is key. When working off aircraft carriers, the missions are fast moving, complex, and unpredictable at times. To ensure success (sometimes defined as living until the next one), my fellow pilots and I had to clearly understand the goal at hand and had to prepare for anything. This started with endless hours of training and culminated with detailed preflight briefings that reviewed the mission, outlined the overall strategy, and defined each person’s role and responsibility for a successful mission. In the briefs, we reviewed all the potential scenarios that could happen (planned or unplanned), so we could achieve success and get home safely.

Transferring those skills to enterprise sales, preparation is extremely vital. Before client or prospect meetings, my team and I develop strategic plans for how we’re going to approach the conversations; it’s incredibly important for all of us to align ourselves on the goals of our clients and prospects and understand their business objectives. Winging it is dangerous and rarely generates the desired outcomes, essentially derailing the mission.

Maintain Situational Awareness
Possessing situational awareness, or SA as we said in the Navy, can help keep the mission on course. In flight debriefs, particularly if something unusual happened, someone would ask, “Did you have good SA?” As in, did you know what was happening around you, and how it related to your situation? That could mean the positions of the “good guys” and “bad guys,” the aircraft speed, fuel levels, ammunition status, etc.

Switching to business, SA could mean fully understanding the business models of our customers and prospects and how their competitors impact them, knowing which company executives are working on new initiatives, and staying abreast of new competitors trying to steal market share. My team and I must have a holistic view into our customers and prospects so that we can consult to them – and not get blindsided by items that we didn’t see coming our way. One of my former bosses used to preach “a so-so strategy with good data will beat a great strategy with bad data every time.” In challenging sales situations, we need to keep our SA high, especially since the unexpected can occur at any time.

The reality of flying and life is that, even with the best preparation, stuff out of our control can happen. When flying tactical jets, there were times when I had a split second to make decisions that could have produced serious outcomes.

Trust Your Teammates
While enterprise sales isn’t life or death (although at times it may feel like it), making big decisions with incomplete context is crucial for success. My team and I must display qualities of speed and agility to go around obstacles for our clients and prospects. We need to solve their problems with confidence and urgency – even if we don’t have all the complete information at our fingertips. If we don’t have all the facts, we need to rely on the expertise of our teammates to make strategic decisions.

Without my fellow pilots, I wouldn’t have been a successful naval aviator. I specifically chose to fly F-14s because they were two-seater jets. I loved having a second pair of eyes as the radar intercept officer (“RIO”) or guy in back (“GIB”) with me in the jet. Working off aircraft carriers required a skilled and well-orchestrated team in the air and on the ship to support safe flight operations.

In the dynamic world of enterprise sales, I rely on the various skills of my colleagues who understand the big picture and their role in delivering results for multi-faceted global accounts. It takes everyone – no matter what level – to successfully deepen a client relationship or work with a new prospect. I love the feeling when we work hard to come together as one team for our clients and prospects. We’re a team first. We win together, and we lose together – hopefully more of the former.

Stay Focused
Working as a team also enables us to remain focused in stressful situations. Landing jets on the carrier, particularly at night, demanded sharp focus. Multitasking, or even the slightest wandering of my mind, meant that I wasn’t going to successfully get aboard the ship.

The same level of focus is critical in business too. A colleague recently recommended “Great at Work: How Top Performers Do Less, Work Better, and Achieve More” by Morten Hansen. Many of the book’s themes remind me of when I had to apply all my training and 100 percent of my focus to achieve what can sometimes be difficult objectives. In my role as a managing director, multitasking is required, but I believe it’s an overrated skill when trying to execute at the highest level. Therefore, it’s important that I remain focused on my tasks – no matter how stressful they may seem – and work directly with customers and prospects so they can exceed their business goals.

The lessons that I’ve learned from being a United States Navy fighter pilot have helped me in my role servicing global accounts at Bullhorn. It’s a privilege to work with so many incredible customers who are putting the world to work. And it’s a privilege to have served my country to keep its freedom ringing.

Tim Cavins is a managing director of global enterprise for Bullhorn, the global leader in CRM and operations software for the recruitment industry.