Business Professor Identifies Key Behaviors That Set Superior Aviation and Aerospace Leaders Apart

Associate Professor Linda M. Pittenger has pinpointed the No. 1 behavioral competency that separates top-performing aviation and aerospace leaders: passion.

Is there a silver bullet for aviation and aerospace organizations in search of superior performing leaders? Maybe not, but one Embry-Riddle researcher is helping narrow the field by identifying the behaviors that distinguish top performers.

Linda M. Pittenger, associate professor at the College of Business at Embry- Riddle Aeronautical University’s Worldwide Campus, has identified several “behavioral competencies” that distinguish superior performers in aviation and aerospace leadership roles.

No. 1 on the list? Passion.

“Superior performing leaders exhibited passion for their work, enthusiasm for their peers and subordinates, and excitement for the aviation and aerospace industry, while average performing leaders did not,” Pittenger says. “Superior performing leaders shared a deep commitment to their work and an obsession-like love for the aviation and/or aerospace industry.”

In her qualitative research study, Leadership Metamorphosis: Behavioral Competencies that Distinguish Superior Performing Leaders in Aviation and Aerospace, Pittenger also uncovered that superior performing leaders take the time to build relationships at all levels of the organization and also with key external influencers.

“For example, superior performing leaders relate well to their followers and are often seen as ‘one of them,’” she says. “They form close bonds with peers and those senior to them who can provide them with resources and opportunities. They develop and nurture a network of industry relationships who expose them to emerging trends and/or can provide solutions to technical or organizational issues.”

Pittenger’s findings are the result of a rigorous and systematic analysis of data collected from 112 one-hour, semi-structured interviews with average and superior performing leaders at Southwest Airlines, United Airlines, JetBlue, Northrop Grumman, Rolls-Royce/American Airlines (formerly Texas Aero Engine Services), Bell Helicopter, FedEx and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.

The study’s findings supported the prevailing conceptual model guiding the research, which recognized that job performance may be affected by a specific set or combination of behavioral competencies influenced by job demands, interpersonal relationships and organizational climate.

From C-Suite to Academia

Pittenger first became interested in behavioral competencies when she was chief information officer at AT&T.

“I wanted to know which behaviors differentiated the most effective leaders. If I knew the unique behaviors, I could hire, develop and promote for those behaviors. After developing and implementing a behavioral competency model in my organization, I witnessed improved employee satisfaction and increased engagement and performance,” she says. “This inspired me to dig deeper. I was hooked on behavioral competencies.”

After leaving AT&T to start her own business, Pittenger used behavioral competencies as the foundation for all hiring decisions and talent management. The company was profitable in nine months, and she sold it four years later to a Fortune 100 company.

Pittenger’s career path has taken her from Wall Street to academia, where she now blends her professional experiences with her academic skills to define her research initiatives. Citing reports that identify lack of leadership talent as a No. 1 concern for executives, she is expanding her research focus to understand what behavioral competencies drive successful leaders in digital business and the business of innovation.

Pittenger finds that executives often don’t achieve the improvements they seek because they settle for “off-the-shelf” consultant advice, rather than invest in initiatives, such as research based solutions that support their culture and align with the organization’s mission, vision and strategic plan.

“Behaviors are more predictive of performance than IQ, and there is so much that can be and should be done in organizations to increase leadership effectiveness, especially the performance of those in key roles,” she says. “The C-Suite should prioritize building a strategic people plan. They need to pay attention to and gain an understanding of which behaviors differentiate superior performers in critical roles such as leadership, project management and technology. Doing so will most certainly result in improved performance.”

Cracking the Code of Top Performance: The Methodology

How exactly do you pinpoint behaviors that translate to leadership? First, Linda M. Pittenger, associate professor at the College of Business at Embry-Riddle’s Worldwide Campus, identified superior performers on the basis of having achieved the highest possible performance appraisal/review rating, while average performers were selected on the basis of appraisals documenting average or fully met objectives. The performance status of each participant, however, was not revealed to the researcher until the analysis stage of the research.

Next, a strict interview protocol was developed and used. All interviews were recorded, and respondents were asked to recall and narrate recent specific events reflecting perceptions of effectiveness. The transcribed interviews were rigorously coded to identify fragments of text with potential significance. A codebook was then developed to convert open-ended responses and behaviors into a set of quantified variables, forming the findings.

Passion and relationship- building emerged as two of the behavioral competencies of superior performing aviation and aerospace leaders. Additional findings will be included in research articles that are pending publication in academic and industry journals.