Behind the career: James Gaughan

March 4, 2012

Position: The new chief operating officer of Metron Aviation, a provider of air traffic products and services for the aviation industry.

An engineer by trade, James Gaughan entered the air traffic control industry and quickly moved up the ranks. It wasn’t until the Sept. 11 attacks did his career shift entirely to security systems. Seven years in, he rekindled his passion for aviation and reentered the industry where he believes he will be for the rest of his career.

Have you ever run into problems while leading an engineering team?

When I was chief engineer for a program at the Federal Aviation Administration, we had a test where an air traffic control system needed to demonstrate over a period of 72 hours straight that it could run with stability. We had this one problem. At hour number 36, it would encounter a problem and go down for a day and a half. It must’ve occurred 10 to 15 times. Eventually, we finally figured out how to fix the problem. Once we fixed it, it was smooth sailing.

What leadership lessons did you take away from that?

I learned how to keep the team from getting down when the problem kept recurring.

How?

I had a stick and a carrot (laughs). When you get to know someone ,you understand a little bit about what motivates them. Some folks needed a push and some needed to be cajoled along. It was a process for me to understand this. With 2,000 folks, there’s a lot of people at different points in their life. Some had children or sick parents or religious obligations. I had to respect people’s personal lives but at the same time demand commitment to the team. It’s case-by-case. Everyone needed to do their share, so it needed to be fair. But it can’t be equal. You can’t lay out a plan that is the same for everyone.

What is your leadership style?

I put myself on the line — front and center.

Which business books are you reading?

I’ll pick out a biography of a contemporary person every once in a while. I’m reading about Dick Cheney right now because the events do not feel like history. It’s still fairly contemporary.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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