Thursday, 13 April 2017

United...the problem was not in Chicago!

Regardless of the scope of responsibility that you hold in your position of leadership, the culture of your company, your division, your team flows from your example. People naturally look to the leader to set the example and to define either in words or deeds – ideally both – the kind of culture that is acceptable and therefore expected.

So what are we to say about United Airlines and the recent incident in which a paying passenger was ‘escorted’ from the plane and ‘re-accommodated’? Most of you have seen the video.  

If not, check out this link

This was followed by a message from the CEO.  See

What were these people thinking?  How could a culture exist that suggested to ground staff that this was an acceptable response to an over booking problem created by United’s own systems.

My finger points to the top.  Airlines have consistently squeezed the paying public by charging for virtually every extra.  First it was baggage; then seat selection; then meals.  They re-worked planes to provide less legroom and thereby more seats. All of this points to a culture that says that the passenger is nothing more than a pigeon waiting to be plucked and when the last dollar has been shaken out of their pockets, 
maybe they will be allowed to fly.

Three important errors emanated from the top.

In his first response, the CEO takes no responsibility for the regrettable incident.  The fact of the matter is that the first response should have been his apology for allowing the culture in the company to deteriorate to the point where no employee came forward to say ‘STOP’ the madness.  The people were only parroting the same type of behaviour that the executive office had been communicating for years.  Why should we be surprised that the staff acted in lock step with the example that had been ingrained 
from the top?

Secondly he blamed the passenger and praised his staff.

No amount of apologies; no amount of money; no amount of discipline is going to undo the damage.  The videos and the internal responses are out in the internet for the ages.  The case is so obviously bad it does not even warrant a Harvard Business Review analysis. 

Finally, the CEO acted arrogantly by believing that he could contain the issue without professional assistance.  By the time that damage control experts were deployed it was too late.

How have your actions helped to define the type of culture that you want and expect in your sphere of responsibility?  Clearly United did not think through the consequences and now it is too late.  Have you neglected this critical component of your duties?  It is almost never too late to change.  And it starts with you!

If the culture is poor it falls on your shoulders.  Start by defining what it should be and then apologise for your failure to properly nurture and model that culture.

Next, make it a priority.  As seen in the United example, failure can cost into the hundreds of millions of dollars.  I cannot think of any situation in which the cost to implement a proper culture would run anywhere near this expense.

Finally, recognize that this cannot be a onetime event.  Culture is not an act; it is an ingrained behaviour and response.

I understand and appreciate that there is a bottom line focus driving most organizations.  But it cannot be achieved by throwing away millions by failing to practice proper business fundamentals.

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