“Captain Sullenberger’s (Sully’s) voice is deep and a bit gravelly, with a brisk cadence and clipped syntax that is normal for communications between cockpits and controllers. If there was a sign of stress, it was that the captain fumbled his call sign,” Matthew L. Wald wrote in a 2009 New York Times article about what has been dubbed the Miracle on the Hudson.
On January 15, 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger became a household name. As he guided US Airways Flight 1549 in the wake of an engine failure, his calm and collected demeanor earned him worldwide admiration. (Tom Hanks played him in the film retelling of this harrowing story.)
After a short back and forth with the air traffic controller, the captain says: “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.” Wald points out that at no time during the interchange with air traffic control did the captain ever use the word “emergency.”
In an interview with Katie Couric for 60 Minutes, Sully said: “It was the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling I’ve ever felt in my life. I knew immediately it was very bad.” She asked Sully if his first thought was how they were going to get out of the situation, Captain Sullenberger replied: “No. My initial reaction was one of disbelief.”
But he never showed it.
Aviate, Navigate, Communicate – this easy-to-remember crisis management protocol is fundamental for all pilots but something that I had never heard of until recently on a podcast interview with Sully.
It means: Keep the airplane flying; figure out how to get where you need to go; and tell those who need to know where you’re going. This deceptively simple mantra helped Sully maintain his leadership and poise in a moment of extreme crisis. And made me think: This is exactly what any business owner needs to do to successfully exit their business.
Whether you're hoping to sell your business to an outsider or transition it to your employees or family members, planning for a succession is essential. Learning how to aviate, navigate, and communicate can help ensure that your exit is as successful as Sully's landing on the Hudson River.
In many ways, planning for your business exit can be likened to an aviation crisis. Both require effective leadership and planning, knowledge of risks and potential challenges, and effective communication with stakeholders at the right time.
For exiting business owners this translates to:
Keep your company growing and profitable without taking your eyes off your goals.
Aviate is about keeping your business growing by setting goals, assessing risks, and developing strategies that will maximize value when you finally decide to sell or transfer ownership. You need to consider how external factors such as economic conditions or regulatory policies could impact the success of your exit strategy. By staying up-to-date with market trends and updates, you can more accurately assess what needs to be done before taking flight with your exit. Successful aviation requires consistency and discipline so that you can monitor progress and make any necessary changes along the way.
Calculate where you want to go, determine your future trajectory, and make a plan for how you’re going to get there.
This includes identifying key stakeholders such as customers, employees, and vendors who can help you build your business’s reputation and value, as well as ensure a smooth transition when it is time to move on from the company. It also includes determining your personal long-term goals, figuring out how much money you will need, how much your business is worth, and who you want to sell to.
Effective communication is essential for any successful transition out of a business at the optimal time for all stakeholders.
You’ll need to be open and honest with your trusted advisors to ensure that they can help you as needed. You’ll also need to develop a plan for communicating with other stakeholders such as key employees, customers, partners, etc. Successful communication involves establishing clear expectations that all parties involved must understand before taking the next step forward in the process.
For Sully, this was critical. In the recordings from the fateful flight, you can hear that after he tells the air traffic controller they will be landing in the Hudson, the controller asks him to repeat what he has said (i.e., “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”). But he does not respond. At that moment for him, the next critical steps were to communicate with his crew and all the passengers on board in order to set their expectations and ensure their safety.
We know how his crisis ended that day – he safely landed the plane on the river and saved everyone on board. It’s an almost too-good-to-be true, Hollywood-type ending. However, it shows us that preparation, training, and experience goes a long way toward making miracles happen. Achieving success during your business exit requires commitment, discipline, resilience, and dedication to developing a comprehensive exit plan long before your takeoff day arrives. Start now to prepare for a smooth transition out of your business!