Successful Personal Development TAKE A FRESH LOOK AT YOUR LIFE AND CAREER

In this course, we investigate Personal Development from the perspective of selection, training, education, coaching and mentoring. In the world of aviation, we are all subjected to all of these at some point throughout our career, whether it’s initial selection for an airline (or the Services) or an application for a senior position. The fundamental tenet is the same – we need the knowledge, skills and attitudes for personal development. We also need self-awareness and the honest input from friends, peers and superiors in order to successfully fulfil our potential.

Sean Reynolds

Aquila Jet Training asked Expert Network member Sean Reynolds to discuss his thoughts on successful personal development. Sean is a recently retired RAF officer with an impressive track record. Now turning his skills to the multidisciplinary world of healthcare and industry, he has substantial insight into the world of resilience and high performance.

We want to be successful in our chosen career and would like to think we are liked, trusted and respected by those we come into professional contact with.

But it is not a given.

Trust and respect are hard-won and very easy to lose. Being popular is not always consistent with being effective. If you are going to be a leader (and as a pilot, make no mistake that you are), you will need many personal skills and the ability to apply them.

The trouble is that we are not born with innate skills that are developed and sophisticated from the start. We have to learn them and practice them so that they can be applied seamlessly when the situation dictates.

As you will see from the Aquila course, ‘How we learn’ (coming soon), we have been educated according to a taxonomy which hasn’t really changed for years. If we are to progress beyond the basic levels of remembering and understanding, we need to continue to learn and develop. To be regarded as an expert, you must be at the top of the taxonomy; capable of evaluating ideas, of being creative, where you can argue and develop your knowledge.

If we are to be successful in terms of Personal Development, we must understand the concept of how we are selected, trained and educated for the job we were hired for. We must also understand how that process develops with interaction through coaching and mentorship – not just the giving but also the receiving of criticism and advice.

''Select for potential, train for certainty, educate for uncertainty, coach for performance and mentor for development.

This is the notion that I have developed over 35 years of teaching, coaching and mentoring people from all walks of life from the military and civil aviation to business and healthcare.''

Selection is the first and, arguably, the trickiest hurdle. The view from the outside looking in, the fear of the unknown, is daunting. We have a need for information, understanding, and the ‘edge’ over the other applicants you know are there, but can’t always see. Whether your perspective is as a young graduate looking for your first flying job, or a senior trainer looking for a Head of Training position, the sense of being an outsider can be powerful.

The thing that all recruiters are looking for primarily is talent and potential. No one expects the finished article.

At this career stage, there is opportunity to develop habit-making techniques and behaviour which is likely to benefit us in future. In Aquila’s ‘Coping with Sudden Change’ course, the lesson on habits provides a useful baseline as to how habits develop. Whether the habit is developing behaviours which impress your boss or develop trust amongst your colleagues, the pattern and process will be similar.

''Not everyone is good at everything. But some people show more potential for certain roles and responsibilities. The trick is to try and see something in the person that can be developed. That is what the RAF tries to do in its selection process. It looks for the candle that can be lit rather than just the vessel that can be filled. It also looks for potential resilience.''

The NHS London Leadership Academy has described talent management as; ‘maximising the potential of individuals ..to meet current and future demands’. There must be observable evidence of your potential to grow both within the current role and beyond by your ambition and willingness to be challenged; and performance to demonstrate that you are capable of development.

From a personal development perspective, it will be your job to demonstrate the identifiable traits of talent. Looking at your past performance, experience, expertise and behaviour is relevant, and at a higher level, potential will confer an ability to operate in more senior or complex roles in the future.

Performance is demonstrated by a combination of behaviour (and demonstration of those behaviours) and your track record (is there evidence that you have performed well over time?).

Potential is demonstrated by a combination of ambition (where do you want to be?) and challenge, the willingness to go beyond your comfort zone and if so, how far?

High potential must combine all four elements of performance and potential. You must develop and demonstrate these skills and attitudes in order to be successful at the selection stage.


In a general sense, training means developing a certain skill or behaviour in a person to complete a certain task effectively. It is based on a practical application, aimed at increasing productivity or safety and will be orientated to achieve specific goals.

''We are trained to do a task. This is what happened when we learnt to walk and talk. The most powerful form of training was, and still is, self-learning. We live our lives by biases and heuristics. Doing things without really thinking about them.

My first flying instructor told me that flying was 90% habit and 10 % panic. If the habit is good, then the panic is easier to handle. Or is it? Do our learned behaviours sometimes catch us out with expectation and confirmation bias!''


Education, on the other hand, means the systematic learning, usually within an organised structure, that imparts a sense of reasoning and judgement. Education is preparation for the long term - the future job - and as such will necessarily require acquisition and application of concepts rather than specific skills.

''Education comes from a range of activities. Experience, curiosity, exposure, responsibility etc but this is often hard won and requires us to constantly challenge ourselves to learn from our and other people’s experiences. It also requires us to do the what if...? 'What would I do if this happened?' 'That seemed to work really well – I will add that to my toolbox.' The military tends to be good at this. No plan survives first contact with the enemy and hence the requirement to what if – in reality this is somewhat similar to threat and error management. It can significantly reduce surprise and startle because you have thought about it.''

"Whereas you train for performance, you educate for understanding."

Training departments within airlines and organisations should understand that training is for the skill based here-and-now but training alone does not necessarily develop a pilot for the challenges ahead. Is it possible to be highly trained but poorly educated, and how does that affect your development potential? It also works the other way around - someone who gained a PhD ten years ago might be described as someone who used to know a lot. We have to continuously update and renew our training to be competent, but we also need to be educated in order to develop expertise.

In an airline, the pace of technological and regulatory change is bewildering. Therefore, training and education must both be developed if we are to remain effective in our role. We must train for performance but educate for understanding.

But that is not to say that training is not important. The training emphasis should be task-orientated and skill-based. Training might make you faster, but you won’t necessarily gain insight.

So, from a personal development perspective, how can we optimise our training whilst developing our learning?

Here’s an interesting graph showing how most airlines impart information. The orange line represents the training to competence approach that pilots will be familiar with. It shows a fixed mindset based on gaining experience by repetition of a task. So, training alone will never elevate you to expert status because there is no incentive to develop. Look now at the green line representing the growth mindset through learning and experimentation. Expert status is possible through continued development that education provides.

Training AND education enable creation and innovation, the higher levels of taxonomy where expertise develops.

How do we integrate learning into training so that we are able to develop our expertise as pilots?

It’s going to take effort! Airlines currently don’t have the time or the resources to take you on a personal journey to expertise, so it may be up to you to take control of it yourself.

Airlines have a performance expectation of you when you are undergoing initial or recurrent training. This performance expectation is based on a level of competency that is acceptable for safe operation and may be quite high whereas the support level may be quite low.

This means that training is often not differentiated – that is to say, it is not specific to the needs of the trainee. It will be compliant with the Regulator (the UK CAA, for example), but it won’t develop the trainees’ expertise because he is not learning; he is not at the top of the taxonomy. Low support will also result in poor knowledge transfer, in fact it might be as low as 15%. So, airlines may not be getting a great Return on Investment (ROI) either.

Compare the other end of the spectrum where you get low support, but your performance expectation is also low. Of course, this is an undesirable place to be from a training perspective as what little input there is has little effect on the trainee.

So, what combination of performance expectation and support would be the ideal, where the airline’s Return on Investment was combined with development of the trainees’ expertise (and of course competence). Surely that would be a perfect solution?

Well in fact, this is where Evidence Based training (EBT) fits in. EBT allows an airline to provide differentiated recurrent training based on real-time needs. High performance expectation with a high level of support. Knowledge transfer will also be higher, in fact up to 80%, because the trainees are learning and developing expertise as they train. (Aquila Jet Training will be providing more training modules on EBT in the future as implementation begins.)


Coaching assumes that you, the individual, are responsible for your own lives and results. By taking responsibility we have power and influence over them. Coaches can help you to understand, develop ideas and to take action, the aim being to achieve the results you want.

Coaching relies on an adult to adult relationship, rather similar to a flat authority gradient you will be familiar with from your HF training where each has their own professional expertise. The aim of coaching is not to advise or to provide the answer, but rather to provide a space to explore options.

''We can all improve our performance by unlocking our true potential. Executive coaching is much sought after. It gives people safe space in which to reflect on where they are, where they want to get to, how they might achieve it, and what obstacles are in the way. This can be easily translated to the cockpit. Flying instructors and trainers should use this as a way of developmental learning but I would suggest that this does not always feel like a safe environment. Many of us learn to self-coach and self -lead ourselves by using reflective tools to analyse how we might improve our performance without being too self-critical. As they say in sport performance coaching – always start by taking the positives!''

The benefits of effective coaching are well reported. People who have received professional coaching are generally self-reliant, they gain better job satisfaction and enjoy effective communication with colleagues. Self-confidence, an important trait in a pilot, is an especially strong benefit of effective coaching.

How much coaching do we receive from our airline? The answer will probably be not that much unless you appear on the training risk file – not a very comfortable place to be.

So how can we motivate ourselves, coach and lead ourselves to success? Luckily, elite sport can provide some answers to this in the form of motivation training.

There are probably 3 main areas where elite sportsmen and women behave in the same way as expert pilots, those at the ‘top of their game’. We will refer to them collectively as top performers.

Cognitive evaluation theory

Intrinsic and extrinsic motivation refer to whether motivation is associated within or outside the professional world in which we are working. Intrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is personally rewarding: essentially, the behaviour is its own reward. Extrinsic motivation refers to behaviour that is driven by external rewards such as money, reputation or grades.

Intrinsic needs focus on a desire to feel personally competent and self-determining. As a result, top performing pilots choose to commit themselves to difficult and demanding goals (such as command courses or training positions). Achievement of these goals enhances the sense of competence and self-determination. In order to achieve success over a long period, top performers will need to feel responsible for their own training and performance.

Extrinsic needs arising from promotion, pay rises and increase in professional reputation within an organisation are valid, especially if the needs are unpleasant but necessary, but they might not provide the necessary goal setting criteria for successful development in the long term because the benefits are less long lasting.

Goal Setting Orientation

This centres on where you are orientated in terms of your goals. There are two types, most people will show traits of both, but with a bias towards one:

Task Orientated: These people make comparisons of their performance based upon improvements to their own performance, using references they have worked out for themselves.

Ego Orientated: These people develop ideas of their own competence based on a comparison of their own ability against that of others.

Sport psychology research has found that ego orientated performers generally experience more anxiety about their competence and subsequent loss of motivation than their task orientated colleagues. Task orientated performers on the other hand experience less anxiety, tend to practice in their free time and exert more effort in order to achieve high rates of performance.

It would seem sensible from an aviation perspective for self-coaching to seek development of task orientation, though in reality, most of us have high ego and goal orientation traits.

Goal Setting Skills

Goal setting skills are an important element of success and are a common coaching technique. Elite sport psychologists have identified three types of goal, the emphasis of each type will help more or less depending on whether you are a task or ego-based performer.

The first are outcome goals, focussed on a particular event, such as winning a competition in the case of a sports performer, perhaps achieving a perfect landing for a pilot. In order to win the ‘prize’ of the outcome goal, the pilot will have had performance goals of setting up the approach efficiently, covering all the threats and flying accurately. He will also have understood the systems involved and the various limitations to be considered as part of his process goals.

In order to achieve high performance, probably all three goals should be set. However, the ego orientated pilot will be more likely to set outcome goals whereas the task orientated pilot will be more focussed on performance and process goals. The chances of success are more loaded towards the pilot who understands the detail of setting up the approach properly, whilst complying with the SOP and limitations, so the likelihood of an outcome goal being met will be more likely if the performance and process goals have been set first. The old adage that, ‘a good landing starts with a good approach’ seems to apply well in this context.

In terms of self-coaching, goal setting is effective, provided the goals are realistic and relevant. A high degree of self-awareness is necessary in order to effectively identify ego and task orientated behaviour and the appropriateness of the context.


We hear a great deal about mentoring, but what is it exactly, and can it be positive in our careers in aviation?

''When I arrived on my first helicopter squadron, I was allocated another pilot as a mentor. They were about 18 months ahead of me and so could empathise and pass on numerous top tips during that very formative period of my flying career. I learnt the value of mentorship then and have used and been a mentor almost continuously during my working life. In my last job, as the RAF’s Deputy Commander, I had a group of reverse mentors who were about 25 years younger than me and inhabited many of the front-line roles. They spent time with me and watched me in action. They would then let me know how I had done and kept me honest. I could also go to them for a view to inform my decision making. I also had a couple of critical friends who would be brutally and unconditionally honest with me because they wanted me to succeed. Mentoring has really developed me professionally and personally and the more reference points you have the richer the feedback and advice.''

Mentoring is a system of guidance, structured or semi-structured, whereby a person shares their knowledge, skills and experience to assist others to achieve goals and make progress in their own life and career. A mentor should be present and accessible when needed.

Mentoring pays forward and back. Mentors often have their own mentors – those receiving mentoring will often become mentors themselves. In this way the benefit of good practice and expertise can be spread.

The structure of mentoring is not only about giving advice or passing on of experience, rather it’s a way to motivate and empower, the recipient gaining skills to solve their own issues and set their own goals.

The benefits of mentoring are evident for both parties:

The mentor will find the experience rewarding, and it can benefit the mentor’s own skill and development. The mentor has to develop the right skills in order to provide the right support (a goal in itself).

The mentee will be able to change or achieve goals quicker and more effectively than they might alone. Developing a mentor network can have additional benefits for others as well as the mentee. By acting as a sounding board, a mentor can help with viewpoints, check assumptions, knowledge and beliefs in a safe space.

Mentoring is flexible and dynamic. Very often (as Sean has experienced), a new staff member or recruit will be appointed an induction mentor to help with orientation, procedures and settling in. The arrangement is generally informal in structure and unlikely to be a manager because it should be confidential. Peer mentoring can help with general development and monitoring. The key factor here is about support a well as holding to account ideas and techniques. Development mentoring is often specific to a particular part of a mentee’s life, therefore it is common for very successful people to have several development mentors for different roles. The key concept is about synergy – the multiplication of benefits that a group can bring to solutions, strategies and plans. A development mentor system provides support, motivation and develops self-confidence.

In terms of personal development, mentoring is very effective, though not necessarily easy to find or set up in an airline environment. This is attributable to many factors such as; little contact with your peer group on a day to day basis, roster conflict and geographical location. However, it is worth consideration as you consider your goals and aspirations, both in your career and at home. A good place to start if you are thinking of a coach or mentor is the coaching network (new.coachingnetwork.org.uk).

''My experience tells me that this pathway can and has helped me to better understand how my brain works (we are all different), how to develop good habits, how to understand and empathise with others, how to improve my performance and cope better in high pressure situations and to be brave enough to make the right call. I have also learnt how to always try and take the positives from an experience and to develop my own and my team’s resilience.''

Personal development helps self-awareness, self-esteem and gives you a sense of identity. A personal plan for your own development gives you control, which can reduce anxiety and stress. Knowing your path and the way you plan to get along it is transformational for people who have consciously worked to a set of goals. This is, of course, not a reason to climb over other people to get to the top. The ideas that we discussed in this read are about your personal journey, how others will see you and how you can engage them as you move forward.

At this time of uncertainty more than ever, clear ideas and goals are vital. The friendship and support of peers, colleagues and experts can keep you on a trajectory that is both healthy and constructive.

Your pathway may not yet be clear, it certainly will not be easy. Sometimes the barriers may seem insurmountable. Why not take a look at the video at the end of this talk and afterwards reflect on the climbers’ personal journey.