Build an Auto-Pilot Business

by Jordan Steele


Dallas and I spend a lot of time in the plane together during the fall Executive Link run; three sets of chapter meetings in three weeks in three different states. One thing about living in Wyoming, the weather is not always airplane friendly, especially in a small plane, flown by your boss. I am always amazed at how easy it looks for Dallas to navigate the plane, the weather, air traffic control commands, and meanwhile have a conversation with me asking four hundred questions about different topics during the flight. I think it compares right in line to running a business.

First off, let’s go back to the Pareto Principle, or the 80/20 rule. In general terms, 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. At the Ranching for Profit School, we correlate that to spending 20% of your time working ON the business. Find the things that produce value, and spend time there. Then spend the other 80% of the time working IN the business making sure all those things that produce value, actually do produce value. Working in the business cannot be overlooked, but we want to make sure you spend time where it counts the most. 

Back to flying. Depending on the flight time, I bet Dallas is actively flying 20% of the time, and the other 80% the plane is on autopilot. Sounds easy right? What about the takeoff and the landing? Dallas has to get the plane in the air and pointed in the right direction before it can go on autopilot. There is a pre-flight checklist to make sure all the mechanical parts are working correctly, engine fluids are full, and many other little things. They seem like little things, but they all fit in to make the system work (just like ranching)! After the proper elevation and direction to reach our destination, Dallas still needs to get us lined up on the runway and land safely. Landing is a small part of the time, but obviously extremely important. Think of how much time, energy, learning, and relearning has gone into those smooth landings.

Now let’s talk about planning and follow through. Dallas always explains to me what he will do in takeoff and landing depending on the wind speed and direction. I feel there are two purposes for that explanation. One is it does give me comfort knowing what to expect. The other is just more repetition and reinforcement for Dallas knowing how to handle that situation. There was a fantastic teach-to-learn review at our last Ranching for Profit School with a similar example, but in navigating a large overseas ship. Throughout the story the captain safely maneuvered the ship into port with an engine failure, without putting his coffee cup down. The main point was “preparing for what will never happen.” That captain already knew in his mind how to handle that situation, it just happened that he needed to exercise that process today. He then finished up the story relating to how we can approach business just like planning for emergencies; in ranching it could be drought, markets, etc. Life is easy if everything goes as expected, but that’s rarely the case.

As the new year approaches, challenge your business to run without you next year. Any business, self-employed or not, that will fail if one key employee leaves will have a hard time continuing on. Even if you are a “ma and pa” ranch, challenge yourself on what is not possible in your mind. The old saying of “behind every successful rancher is a wife who works in town” can be a good coffee shop joke, but shouldn’t be taken too literally. I don’t want you to work in town to make financial ends meet, I want you to work in town because your ranch business runs on autopilot and you are bored, so you have the time to create value somewhere else too. I heard my rancher friend ask another of our friends “do you run the ranch or does the ranch run you?” I always loved that question, and if you can’t answer it, check out a Ranching for Profit School to meet a group of ag business owners to help you with it.

2 Responses to “Build an Auto-Pilot Business”

December 27, 2023 at 2:10 pm, Mark Townsend said:

Outstanding as always. Great analogies that clarify and motivate. Thanks!


December 28, 2023 at 9:10 pm, Derek Schwanebeck said:



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