AMERICAN AIRLINES’ LATEST FIASCO: DON’T BLAME THE EMPLOYEES

Sam Silverstein Blog

A lack of accountability always starts with leadership.

You may have seen the recent news story about the American Airlines flight that went horribly wrong for a Kentucky youth group.

A pastor leading a group of forty teenagers on a mission to help children in Mexico showed up at the airport with plenty of time to spare to make their flight. They were two hours early. But when they got to the front of the line at the check-in counter, things went haywire. One American Airlines employee insisted to another employee that the best way to check this group into the flight was to process all forty passenger tickets, and then to process all forty bags. This unorthodox advice, which I can’t imagine was the proper operational procedure, launched a cascading sequence of errors that resulted in the kids and their pastor spending over ninety minutes at the counter, trying to get themselves and their bags checked in!

Once everyone and their bags were finally taken care of, the group made a mad dash for security and then ran for their gate … but when they got to their gate, the American Airlines employee on duty told them that the doors had closed.

They were three minutes late, and they would not be allowed on the plane.

The kids and their pastor begged. They pleaded. They explained what had happened back at the counter. None of it mattered. The woman on duty wouldn’t open the door. That plane took off withoutforty of its passengers!

How does something like that happen? Good question.

The kids couldn’t book another flight until the next day. They had worked hard and raised $1,500 to go on this trip … but they ended up missing two days of it, and incurring additional bills for hotels and meals that they didn’t expect — all because of a series of poor decisions from a series of American Airlines employees.

This story went viral quickly, as well it should have. But we mustn’t miss the point. This was not really a story about employees.

It would be too easy for us to focus on the outcomes:  that ninety-minute check-in delay, or the image of the gate attendant knowingthat forty of her passengers were missing (as she must have known), and choosing not to open up the gate and let them in, even after the kids explained what had happened. And it would be too easy for us to assign blame to the employees who seem to have produced those outcomes.

If we blamed them, we would be missing the point. This was actually a failure of culture, which means it was a failure of leadership.

Here is what I mean. The leadership of a great organization has an obligation to make a special kind of commitment to its employees, a commitment that they can always feel safe in asking for help when they need it, and always feel comfortable enough in their work environment to know they will never be penalized for asking for help. It is obvious [1] that that wasn’t happening here… and that, right now American is not living up to that commitment. As a result, its customers and its employees are suffering.

It’s clear from the various accounts of the incident that oneoverworked front-line employee was left to do the vast majority of the work in checking in this very large group. She either didn’t know how to do her job properly, which would be a training failure, or she didn’t have the tools and support she needed to do it properly. Add to that the very real possibility that she may not have felt safe enough to ask a colleague or a manager for the help she obviously needed. I suspect is she was afraid to ask. Don’t blame her for that. Blame the leadership that let her down.

What about the employee who looked at those forty kids and their pastor and told them that, because they were three minutes late, they couldn’t get on their flight? My bet is she either didn’t know how common it is to hold a flight for a large group (hint: it’s verycommon), or she was afraid to suggest something along those lines to the flight crew. The first situation would be a failure of training; the second would be a failure to provide a workplace where people feel safe enough to speak up about how they can do the job better. Both are failures of leadership. Again: Don’t blame her. Blame the leadership that let her down.

This was not really a customer service failure. And it was not an isolated incident, either. It was yet another symptom of a systemic cultural problem at American, a pattern in which employees fail to develop accountability toward customers… because leadersfail to demonstrate consistent accountability to their employees. The accountable leader is always committed to create a safe environment where employees can thrive.

This was a leadership failure. Specifically, it was a failure of culture. If you want to make sure that kind of failure doesn’t happen in your organization, make a personal commitment to your team to give them a working environment where they feel safe enough to ask for help when they need it, secure in the knowledge they will never be penalized for doing so. Then follow through on that commitment. Accountable leaders build accountable organizations!

TRUTH ISN’T TRUTH? REALLY?

Sam Silverstein Blog

Facts are not in the eye of the beholder. Accountability and truth go together.

Recently, former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, in defending the White House’s current legal strategy during a live interview, made an extraordinary assertion: “Truth isn’t truth.” His point, if you can call it that, was that there are always multiple possible explanations for any event, and that when two different accounts of an event exist, there is literally no way for anyone to determine what actually happened.

This argument stopped me cold, and I hope it stopped you cold, too.

I don’t care what your politics are. I don’t care what you think about the man in the White House. I don’t care whether you think presidents should be interviewed under oath or you think they shouldn’t. Facts are not in the eye of the beholder.

The minute we start pretending they are, or staying silent while someone else does, we are in deep trouble.

So let’s be very clear on this point: The truth does exist.

Things either happen or they don’t. We either did something or we didn’t. Someone’s explanation for his own behavior either holds water or it doesn’t.

We’re not talking about philosophy here. In the workplace, in our relationships, in our government, we have a duty to proceed from objective facts. We do not determine the truth by committee or by whim or by fiat. In matters such as Mr. Giuliani was discussing, there is only one truth. And it can be determined.

Without truth, you cannot have accountability.

Deception is grey. The truth is black and white. Deception and accountability can NEVER coexist.

People lie to try and protect themselves. People deceive in order to manipulate and try to personally gain something. Deception takes lying to a deeper level, often by omitting facts.

It is our responsibility to check the facts and to stand up to untruth and deception. Following deception blindly, when we know better, is negligence on our part.

Deception is usually premeditated, measured, planned and maliciously deployed. And we each have a moral obligation to notice it and call it out when it happens.

It just did. On a big scale. And what Mr. Giuliani just did should serve as a teaching moment for all leaders and prospective leaders.

Here’s the takeaway. Accountable leaders do not stray from the truth. They build relationships with their people based on what they say being the absolute truth. Period.

When the relationship is based on the truth, you have an accountable leader, and a dependable leader. The team knows they can count on the leader for the truth … and they want to be accountable in return. That’s the kind of leadership we should all be striving to support.

TROUBLE IN TURKEY: HAVE YOU RECESSION-PROOFED YOUR TEAM?

Sam Silverstein Blog

The recession-proofing step too many leaders overlook.

There’s a lot of talk now going around now about whether the world economy is going to plunge into another recession because of the possibility of major loan defaults in Turkey.

Here’s a prediction: Whether or not there is a recession, your organization will thrive over the next few years … if you as the leader recession-proof your team by making and keeping your own personal commitment to the right values.

MOST LEADERS OVERLOOK THIS

You as leader will either define and model the values that do the most to strengthen your team and protect your organization from external challenges like an economic downturn … or you won’t define and model those values. If you do, I predict your ship will pass safely through any and every storm. Unfortunately, most leaders overlook this responsibility.

You, as an accountable leader, cannot tolerate any action that goes against your values. Your values, as lived on a day-to-day basis, are what will tell everyone in your organization how they will act, what kinds of decisions they will make, and what kinds of results they must produce, whether they are facing a huge opportunity or a huge challenge. And the very best time for you to define and reinforce the right values is now … before there is a major crisis for your team to respond to.

It is only your own personal commitment to identify and live the right values – in your personal life first, and then extending into your professional life — that enables you to inspire the people you lead to live by those same values, during both good times and bad. To make it through the tough times, you must do what most leaders don’t … by identifying and living the right values, day in and day out. Identifying those values and committing to everyone on your team that you will live and protect them, each and every day, is at the very core of being an accountable leader.

WHAT DO YOU REALLY CONTROL?

If you really want to recession-proof your team, focus on the things you can control, not the things you can’t control.

You and I can’t control what’s happening in Turkey, or the valuation of any international currency, or how European banks will respond to challenges they may face, or what the global economy does six months from now. We can only control what we do. We can only control the commitments we make … the commitments we choose to keep … and the relationships we build as a result of those commitments. We can only control our own actions in building up and sustaining those relationships. That’s all. But that’s enough.

Now is the time — before the next recession hits, whether that’s early next year or a decade from now — to assume full responsibility for what we truly can affect in our own organization. Heading that list of things we can affect should be our personal commitment to our core values, and our communication about those values. As accountable leaders, that’s what we need to be focused on, and help others to focus on.

Let’s face it. When things start to go awry, it’s easy for people to slip up. But if our people know exactly what our values are, if we have been consistently teaching and living and modeling those values for them, then our people will be prepared for tough times when they come. They will know that if they make decisions based on those values, they will always be making better decisions.

I have seen it time and time again. If the values are created properly, and if they are meaningful for the organisation, the organization makes it through periods of major challenge – and emerges from those dark periods even stronger.

Our values are worth making a priority, for ourselves and our organization. They are our legacy, and our compass during hard times. They are what we will be known for. The right values enable us to make a better set of decisions.

IS IT A VALUE OR IS IT A POLICY?

There is a big difference between a policy in an organization and a value. I once had a client that wanted some help articulating their values and establishing those values inside their organization, so that they would have the organizational culture that they really desired. We facilitated this process, and as we sat around the table and talked with the company’s leadership about its values, there came a point when the president of the company said that community service was a core value of theirs. He went on to say that it was so much of a value that in the company’s policy manual it stated that all employees could have up to two days off, with pay, to perform community service.

My assistant, Sharon, asked the president how many days off with pay in order to perform community service had actually been recorded the prior year.

After a little thought, and after checking with the bookkeeper, who was in the room, the president acknowledged that the answer was zero!

A silence fell over the room.

I broke it by saying, “Right now, Community Service is a policy for you. Let’s make it a value.”

And that is exactly what we did. Leadership defined exactly what community service was to them, articulated its importance to the rest of organization on a regular basis, and constantly delineated what the upcoming real-time opportunities were for employees to go about living that value, just like the president did in his own life.

Within a few short weeks, we started to hear stories about all of the community service their team members were providing. They were painting houses, helping the elderly, and even “adopting” a homeless family in transition from one part of the country to another to help them get back home.

This is what happens when a policy becomes a value. The team is transformed.

A value must be identified, understood, and lived. You have to see the value showing up in your life or in your organization for it really to be a value. When you start living it, no matter what, it becomes a value. And when you live the right values, guess what you’re doing? You are strengthening your team, making sure your people are ready to respond effectively to anything and everything the world throws their way … and, yes, recession-proofing your business.

The Power of Commitment

Sam Silverstein Blog

I recently gave a speech in Long Beach, California. I arrived early the day before, which meant I had time to enjoy the nice weather, beautiful views, and great food of that fair city. A friend of mine happened to mention that I should visit the Queen Mary cruise ship, a beautiful reminder of an elegant way to travel the world, now retired in Long Beach and used as a hotel. Hearing the ship’s name brought on a strange wave of emotions. Before my friend had finished speaking, I knew I had to go.

A quick online search confirmed that daily tours were available. I walked to the pier.

The tour guide shared various historical tidbits about this famous ship. One was that the Queen Mary, along with the Queen Elizabeth, is credited with shaving between one and one and a half years off of World War II because of the number of soldiers they were able to transport speedily to Europe from Canada, Australia and the United States. Another nugget of information the tour guide passed along was that the last Atlantic crossing before the Queen Mary was converted to a military transport begin on August 30, 1939 in Southhampton, England.

What the tour guide didn’t know was that my grandfather and his family had a role in that final transatlantic sailing.

This was well after the infamous Kristallnacht in Germany, the night windows were shattered, buildings were burned and destroyed, and people were killed. My Grandfather took Kristallnacht as his cue to protect his loved ones. He smuggled his family into Switzerland. Initially was only able to get his wife and two children out of Germany — not himself. After three tries, and using a passport that he had personally forged, he eventually made his way to join them in Switzerland. Then, after significant bargaining, he was able to transport his family across France to Cherbourg where in the summer of 1939, they boarded the Queen Mary and, after a long ocean voyage, came to safety in the United States on the final Atlantic civilian crossing before the vessel was converted to military use.

That’s the ship I was visiting that day in Long Beach. The ship that saved my family’s life.

Whenever I think of accountability, I think about my grandfather.

I look back on what he accomplished nearly eighty years ago and I think, “That’s what real commitment looks like.” He was totally committed to doing whatever he had to do to ensure the safety of his family. He was absolutely locked in on that outcome. There was simply no other alternative to success … which in this case meant getting his family to America. He was committed to leading them to safety, and then to positioning them to achieve their fullest potential and live their lives successfully.

Do you know what else comes to mind when I think of that ship my grandfather made his way onto nearly eight decades ago? Some big questions about business and the power of Commitment. For instance:

  • What would it be like if you felt that your boss, your leader, felt that same level of commitment to you as an employee that my grandfather felt for his family?
  • What would happen if the leader of your organization was just as committed to you as an individual as my grandfather was to his family?
  • What if the leader of your organization was just as locked in to protecting and caring for people as my grandfather was?
  • What if that leader was willing to be 100% committed to your safety, to your growth as a person, and to your success as an employee?
  • Why does that level of commitment have to be limited to the family?
  • Why can’t it be that way in a business?
  • What if the leader of your organization decided there were simply no alternative to giving you what you needed to succeed?
  • What would be possible for you, for your team, for your company, if the leader was 100% committed to each and every one of its employees, at the level my grandfather was committed?
  • What would you commit to accomplish for such a leader?

It is only the commitment from the leader to their people that creates accountability in the leader. That’s what creates the desire to be accountable in the people they lead: 100% commitment from the top. That’s what inspires people to thrive, grow to be their best, and, in the process, help the organization to grow to be its best. Commitment is what makes the greatest journeys possible.