Eric Allais is President & CEO of PathGuide Technologies, which provides warehouse management and shipping solutions for distributors.
As business leaders, we’re always on—always thinking about ways to improve the company’s bottom line, reduce expenses, introduce new lines and stay ahead of the competition, not to mention ensuring that our employees remain productive, loyal and engaged. Despite all these objectives, one thing that’s always intrigued me is the personal pursuits of business leaders.
I recall reading an article in the Harvard Business Review (HBR) a few years ago about why CEOs dedicate time to personal hobbies. No, I’m not talking about the executive who spends more time on the links than in the corner office. If the activity is keeping you away from work too often during business hours, that’s not a hobby, it’s a problem. But the HBR article provided an interesting look at what motivates CEOs to make time for serious extracurricular interests outside the office and whether it helps them become better leaders.
I took flying lessons more than 30 years ago, embarking on the path to earning a commercial pilot’s license several years later. While I have no doubt that juggling the demands of a business and becoming a pilot helped me become a more thoughtful, patient and nimble executive, what I also discovered is that after-hours activities—and the people you meet as a result—can spark insight and innovation that likely would not come to fruition inside the office.
One thing I enjoy most about flying is the art and focus it takes to share a safe and enjoyable experience with passengers whose excitement and trust shine through. Whether it’s a sibling, spouse, mentor, friend or business acquaintance, I firmly believe it’s those individuals outside of your company who often provide great advice and perspective. I find that their inspiration often comes in three forms, which are common to my piloting pursuits outside of the office:
Tailwinds that propel you forward can signal complacency.
When you’re piloting an aircraft, tailwinds help you get to your destination faster. With the wind at your back, why change course? It’s easy to become complacent with the state of your company, which is natural. Business has never been better. Revenues have continuously grown year over year. Employees are seemingly happy, while your closest competitor struggles after losing several top lieutenants to the Great Resignation.
But unless we turn to people outside of our business or industry for fresh insights, we might miss out on untapped market opportunities for growth. These individuals bring a unique point of view from their own experiences and achievements, in business and life alike. Amazon could very well have enjoyed remarkable success selling only books.
Instead, besides becoming “the everything store,” they fundamentally changed how we read and even listen to books. It pays to surround ourselves with outside voices that push us to try new things, think differently and embrace new markets, products and services. Much like Jeff Bezos did in 1997 when he emailed 1,000 random customers to ask them what else they could sell on the internet. It was then that he realized, “We can sell anything this way,” even though the company’s revenue had grown by 838% just selling books.
Respond to the headwinds slowing you down.
On the flip side, headwinds are something that will slow you down—sometimes quite significantly—and make it take longer to get where you are going. As CEOs, our historical biases can cause us to miss or misread these headwinds. This ultimately becomes self-limiting. In the business world, if you don’t relax your assumptions, all of that past experience can hold you back.
Here again, turning to outsiders can push us to expand our horizons and better recognize business obstacles. While you may well find yourself stuck in the mindset that it has always been done this way, those with alternative experiences will be more likely to share what worked best in their experience. An outside viewpoint often leads to probing questions like, “What are you doing about this?” or “Why are you doing it this way?”
It’s easy to prematurely stifle your imagination when it comes to addressing business challenges, especially if you’re only getting advice from your team.
Prepare for unexpected surprises like engine failure and clear air turbulence.
Lastly, there are the surprises that you can’t see coming. This is the case with issues like engine failure or clear air turbulence while flying. You can’t possibly anticipate it, but you need to be ready with a plan B mentality if it occurs. When the engine quits, where will you land? As a pilot, especially with passengers, panicking is not a good option.
Remember those happy employees? Well, now two of your senior leaders just gave their notice. What do you do next? You can’t obsess about it happening, but you must be ready to react accordingly. Those with outside perspectives have likely experienced similar scenarios in their careers or daily lives. While no one could have predicted a global pandemic two years ago, the conversations I had with outsiders in those early days of the Covid-19 outbreak helped me bring clarity to the business on where to focus attention amid such uncertainty. New rules were being written with each passing day, but advice from others about adaptability and risk-taking positioned my business to come out the other side stronger than ever, both as a business and a team.
I believe there’s the opportunity for tremendous joy as well as business value in pursuing a serious hobby or activity outside your professional life. It provides relief from stress, introduces us to new ways of thinking and empowers us to become more well-rounded leaders who can propel our companies to new heights.