Self-Promote (Without Being a Jerk)

With COVID we have a record number of CFIs looking for work. But many CFIs have not learned to “market themselves” since times have been so good for the last 3-5 years. Additionally, many honest educators find self-promotion awkward and distasteful (good for you). Our industry has an epidemic of egos and YouTube experts (only exceeded by the fitness/diet supplement “egosphere“).

But we need to get aviation back flying (and we all need to eat) so every CFI “business” has to learn to promote (tastefully). This blog title is from Bruce Kasanoff’s book (and it is available free online). Here are some ideas on self-promoting (honestly) and getting paid to fly again.

To be successful in any business you have to be noticed – and in some sense, all business is show business. There are, after all, 7.5 billion other humans roaming our planet now. But getting the self-promotion message correct is critical. Totally self-absorbed promotion is not only personally embarrassing and annoying to others, the educational content is also poisoned with ego. The key to promoting successfully and non-offensively is to focus on other people with a solid product that meets their needs. If your business mission is honestly aimed at finding and helping other aviators, you will succeed (and also sleep better at night).

Adam Grant shook the business world in 2013 with his best selling book Give and Take. Grant pointed out (and repeatedly proved in peer-reviewed studies) that those who”give” (wisely) rather than “take,” consistently end up better off in life both financially and in terms of satisfaction and happiness. This may seem non-intuitive but is well supported by research.  There are important qualifications and nuances to avoid burn-out with this strategy – but it opens the door to some interesting points about doing business.

To sell anything, there has to be a “need” – some disparity in capability or resources. Next, that need or disparity must be made known to others with some kind of marketing or publicity (we are assuming an honest business here and not a “manufactured need” that plagues commerce in our culture).  This proposition can be particularly difficult and uncomfortable to frame when the product is you or your services. How do we promote without appearing self-serving and egotistical? If you are performing an honest service, “sales” can occur – with a little help – through testimonials and industry reputation. If you are honest and effective the word spreads pretty fast – but yes, it does take some “encouragement” or promotion.

As an honest CFI, you can feel better about “sales” by understanding that every relationship is at some level a “sales proposition” – but only if by “sales” you mean an honest and potentially mutually beneficial relationship (as in “To Sell is Human“).  As aviation educators, if there is a need – and we indeed sell our time and expertise to fill a gap in skill. knowledge and judgment –  there also must be a stated endpoint where your client reaches the desired proficiency and independence. Ultimately, our goal as an instructor must be to become superfluous or we are fostering dependence and endless need.  We have not succeeded in creating a confident, independent pilots-in-command if we are “always necessary.” We do, unfortunately, see this a lot in aviation; the sage in the right seat, all-knowing and always present. Our job is to get out of the plane!

So there is an incredible paradox built into the educational “sales” paradigm; filling a specific need but the client must grow and transcend the relationship. To solve this enigma, it is essential to have an initial honest agreement between every CFI and every client – lawyers call this a “letter of intent.” This should state clearly in objective terms;  the scope, duration, financial and physical terms of the relationship and the objective standards for success or completion. Otherwise, a CFI can become a lifetime “right-seat-fuzzy forever” to assist on every flight and the learner only achieves “half-baked helper.” The focus should be on your client’s success and independent achievement; make it about them. This is the honest heart of educational self-promotion;  “serve don’t sell.

Many aviation relationships fail precisely because there was no initial honest agreement or intention. Just consider how many students drop out because their training was harder, longer, or more costly than they were initially told  (or not told). Another big fail is when an aviation educator overstates their experience or capabilities instead of honestly referring a client to a better match. If your specialty is not “glass panel” or “tailwheel” (fill in the blank)” another instructor might be a better match if we are honest. The almighty dollar always interferes with accurate self-knowledge (and referrals) here.

There are also in aviation, like in every business, the CFI “snake oil salesperson” promoting their unique techniques or magic safety propositions (misinformation is human). Educators “selling” creative techniques with no support from SOPSs or official industry best practices are a clear warning sign of trouble. Their “magic method” is no different than the “secret supplement” sold by online health promoters. At best they are expensive distractions but at worst they can be clearly dangerous conveying bad habits that are hard to shake later. Our lives as pilots depend on sound knowledge and technique. In aviation (as in life) success requires the same things; time, hard work, and money. And if it is “too good to be true,” in our business, it can get you dead quick.

So watch out for shortcuts, magic methods, and “mandatory strange procedures” – this is self-promotion at it’s worst.  If you encounter an instructor with some highly promoted level of gravitas (lots of experience or hours) “selling” a unique method – and its “my way,  the only right way” – keep walking (or run). Airplanes fly on physics, not hope. Everybody wants your eyeballs ($$) and has a Patreon promotion site. Fly safely out there (and often!)


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About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.


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