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90 Minutes with Jack Pelton, CEO of EAA and Former CEO of Cessna

Good Morning,

As AirVenture 2016 draws near, EAA President & CEO (and recent McDermott & Bull client) Jack Pelton agreed to share insights from his life and career to date. In an engaging, thoughtful and warm conversation Jack showed us once again why all of us who love aviation are so fortunate that he chose a career path that ultimately led him to the helm of EAA.

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M&B: Can you tell us a little bit about mentors that made a difference in your life and career?

JP: On the personal front, my dad’s older brother Don Pelton, played a big part in my life when I was in high school. He was a teacher who didn’t have to deal with me every day and, as a result, he was able to step back and really help me see my true potential. From this early experience, I learned to seek out wise council and guidance, personally and professionally.

Later on, I had the great privilege and pleasure of working for legendary aviation industry leader, Pres Henne, recently retired SVP, Programs, Engineering and Testing at General Dynamics (and played critical roles on so many aircraft from the C-17 to the G650). He taught me what I was capable of, loading me up with enormous responsibility, but always with a “catch net” under me, just in case.

I’ve had the good fortune to have terrific mentors all my life. I am working hard to return the favor, paying it forward, as the saying goes, wherever I can.

M&B:  Can you talk about a crux moment in your life and career that, looking back, clearly helped shape you as an individual and shaped who you are as a leader today?

JP: Early in my career at McDonnell Douglas, the company was going through a very difficult period. I was in my early 30s. One night I got a call at home from the company president telling me that the next day MD would reorganize and I would be named head of a new, 6,000-person team, the combination of my 2,000-person group and two others about the same size. The other two group leaders, both 20+ years my senior, would report to me.

The promotion was an extraordinary opportunity to lead a much larger team and deal with a delicate situation, learning to lead more experienced subordinates effectively and with the appropriate sensitivity. We enjoyed a very good outcome for the company and the personal relationships with my former colleagues are very good to this day.

M&B: Please share your strategies and tactics for effective leadership?  Have you evolved your approach to leadership over time?  If so, how?

JP: Over the years my approach to leadership has evolved as the strategic directions of those organizations have developed. It is so important for leaders to develop/refine their organization’s medium to long-term vision, constantly look at the team one has to execute against that vision AND, at the same time, maintain a very clear understanding of where an organization is in the moment.  Leaders must understand and be able to clearly feel and see the cadence, the drumbeat of the organization in the present while looking carefully at the people on the team – who is great now, but may be challenged by the next phase; who is struggling now, but will be very important to the next phase, etc.

At EAA, we are working hard to evolve our customer service. Like many organizations, we are continuing to move marketing from print to the digital world. It is so important to be willing to evolve, to be engaged and passionate. In today’s world, leaders must be willing and able to move quickly when necessary, to try different things and to move on quickly when something doesn’t work, to fail forward fast.

M&B: Changing the subject, can you describe how EAA/ FAA/Dynon (D10-A) program came together?

JP: Yes, during the part 23 rewrite effort, one piece of the puzzle, non-TSO’d, non-certified product integration into certified aircraft, became too big a lift and was dropped.  But the FAA encouraged EAA to jump in and to look for an opportunity. Dynon had been a good partner to EAA. We asked ourselves, “Is there something here to test with the FAA?” We went to them to explore the idea. The three organizations worked together very well through the process. The FAA pointed the way through the highly complex rules and regulations, Dynon did the work under EAA’s letterhead and together we found a way through the Commercial Parts rule. The FAA was not willing to work with a brand new company as a partner in this. Dynon made sense because they had a great product, a track record and an organization capable of supporting the products over time.

This was honestly one of the best collaborations between groups I have experienced.  EAA provided the plane and flight testing, Dynon produced the product and the install kit and the FAA helped show the way.  The FAA really wanted to show themselves and the world that they could help move an initiative like this along quickly. All in all, a promising first step.

M&B: We know you can’t share details but, are there other projects in the works building on this initial successful effort?

JP: Yes, there are. And we have a strong desire to work with other organizations in addition to Dynon.  Next up will most likely be the larger Dynon A/I. And then we will work on engine monitoring, fuel system monitoring/control products, and then on to some great autopilot solutions. We hope to be able to talk about one more program at AirVenture and have another one finished shortly thereafter.
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M&B: AirVenture 2016 will be here in no time. What is it like to lead a team that grows so dramatically for one event each year?

JP: It is unlike any leadership challenge I have ever experienced. I had a great career designing, testing and building aviation products. EAA has been a whole new animal, a wonderful new challenge.

AirVenture is obviously so important to the financial side of EAA.  For the event to be successful, we start lining up next year’s features, designed to attract the crowds, right after the close of each show.  And fortunately, this part of our planning is getting easier.

Of course, the bigger challenge is growing from a year-round staff of 170 to 270 people for three months and then adding 5,000 volunteers for 45 days. Retaining the experience, the tribal knowledge is very difficult. It is very hard to keep it, hard to transfer it, hard to get key people to document their processes and procedures. Frankly, it has been a huge adjustment requiring a very different kind of leadership team that excels at servant leadership.

It is incredible to see AirVenture literally rise out of the ground each year. Buildings are being painted right now, tents are going up. It is so amazing and inspiring. And of course, it is hard when the show ends. It makes me think of a great song made famous by Jackson Browne. You know the lyrics …. oh please, please stay…just a little bit longer…

M&B: Anything else on your mind as we approach the middle of 2016?

JP: The growth challenge we face in general aviation is very much on my mind. I am seeing some really good innovation in our industry right now on many fronts. I am optimistic that this wave of innovation will help drive recovery as it has many times before.

Our thanks to Jack Pelton for granting us this interview and for his continuing service to all of us who love aviation.

Regards,The McDermott & Bull Executive Search – Aviation & Aerospace Team

Rod McDermott Managing Partner
Craig Sabina Principal Consultant
Jared Moriarty Associate Principal Consultant
David Pasahow Senior AdvisorRecent Aviation & Aerospace Activity: 
Insitu – Head of Quality
Thrush Aircraft – VP, Operations
Keystone Aviation – VP, Sales
Honeywell – Director, Systems Engineering

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