Lessons from Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill – a review

The following post was written seven years ago when GM was having some issues that did not get communicated upward and were left to fester. This is not an uncommon problem, nor is knowing about problems and choosing not to act.

I have written before that organizations take on the personality of its leaders. Earlier this week, CEO Mary Barra of General Motors (GM), reported on the findings of an internal audit of why they did not have an earlier recall when problems arose on some cars. Many heard a lot of blame down the ladder, but we did not hear much about culpability at the top. The key question asked, but not answered, is why did people not share their concerns with management that something was amiss? The unstated answer is it is in the culture of the organization, where people at the top did not want to hear of failings or heads would roll. An analyst who covers the car industry noted there was a modus operandi of “don’t mess with the launch of new line.”

I have written before about two leaders, Captain Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill, who was the CEO who turned around Alcoa and later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. They have some good lessons that GM should emulate  going forward. Sullenberger was the right person at the right time as captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that he safely landed in the Hudson River. He not only studied accidents for airlines, he was on task forces to go to crash sites and help ascertain why the planes went down. So, he knew from his research and experience, what he needed to do to safely land in the Hudson.

He also knew what GM failed to remember. He was the leader of the crew, but he understood all to well that each member of the team has a role in the safety of the flight, including the flight tower personnel. His research showed that many accidents occurred because navigators and co-pilots did not feel comfortable offering input to the pilot or tower. A couple of examples might help. A plane crashed in Japan, because the co-pilot had to acquiesce to the pilot due to seniority. In this case, the co-pilot was on record as being correct that the plane was off course, but the pilot’s judgment could not be overturned. In another, the Brazilian flight crew of a doomed flight did not have confidence to disagree with an American flight tower and the plane crashed.

Sullenberger was aware of other examples that had been noted and improved over time. But, what he did every time he had a new flight crew (even one new member), was get them all together to get to know them and encourage them to speak up if they saw something amiss. Anything, even if small. He noted in his book, what gave him great comfort during these few seconds on Flight 1549, was he could hear everyone doing their job. He got quick advice from the tower, his co-pilot and navigator. He shared his thoughts quickly and made sure everyone knew what was going to transpire. When he concluded that getting nearby Teterboro Airport was not possible, he offered up and concluded, “it looks like we will be in the Hudson” which allowed rescue crews to be alerted.

O’Neill joined Alcoa which was struggling. And, his first public comments were “we are going to make Alcoa the safest company possible.” This was an odd mission to start out with and many analysts were not impressed. One analyst told his investors to sell Alcoa stock, which he later added, was the worst advice he had ever given. O’Neill knew that the only thing he could get management and union leaders to agree on was safety. So, that is where he started. He also knew that for safety to be important, managers had to talk to floor personnel to understand better the problems, so that a plan to fix them could be developed. So, communication got better up and down the line. The empowered employees starting sharing ideas on how to improve not only safety, but process as well. The company performance and stock price took off.

Both Sullenberger and O’Neill knew that they were part of a team. They also knew the best ideas can come from anywhere, but especially from those closest to the action. So, it is not only vital, but imperative, that management create a culture where ideas can be shared. Otherwise, you would be flying in the dark. It should be noted at the same time GM was having these troubles, they missed a huge market opportunity. Why? Because they were not listening.

GM piloted the first electric car called the EV-1 in California in the early 2000’s. They did not sell them or market them, but a cult-like following was growing as people who wanted to make a difference started leasing them by the thousands. Eventually, the EV-1 was killed as the result of an alleged collusive effort chronicled in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which can be accessed by the link below. The drivers wanted to buy the cars, but GM collected them and shredded them. They wanted no evidence. The Board of Directors of GM asked why the EV-1 pilot was being shelved at the same time they were building Hummers, and management said this is the direction America car buyers want. Hummers are no longer made as they were gas guzzlers.

Here in 2014, GM could have been the predominant player in the electric car market, which will grow as more power stations and better batteries become available. Yet, they chose a short-lived strategy, made other bad decisions and had to be bailed out and only now are seeing the failure of not having an open culture to communication. The lesson that was not said by Barra is we did not have an environment where people could offer input and we would listen to them. She needs to talk to Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill and set a more open path for the future. It is not ironic, that both are known for safety. And, communication.

Sully and Ben – right people at right time

Seeing a man in leadership who does not value or have the patience for studying issues highlights those who do and execute that knowledge in times of crisis. In recent memory, two heroic events bear witness to such people – Sully Sullenberger and Ben Bernanke.

Sullenberger is the more recognizable name as the pilot who safely landed a jet plane in the Hudson River. Dealing with a rare double bird strike shortly after take-off his calm, learned presence helped him evaluate options, then choose the best path, but still a dangerous one.

What is less known is Sully volunteered to study previous plane crashes to help all pilots and builders of planes. He took the time to know why planes crashed. In particular, he knew what had to be done to keep a plane landing in the water from flipping sideways when one wing touched the water and the other did not. He was the right pilot for the Hudson landing.

Bernanke is less known as the former Chair of the Federal Reserve. His tenure overlapped the housing recession and banking crisis in 2007- 09. Working with Treasury Secretary Hank Paulsen, they developed a plan to stabilize the banks and keep the economy going.

Like Sully. Bernanke studied why the US went into the Great Depression and how it came out. He studied helpful decisions and others that were not so helpful. He was the right person for the right time, a calming, analytical influence.

It should be noted being studious is not the only similarity between the two men. Their calm nature is also a key similarity. Their calmness is infectious and enables others to do their job and offer input. In times of crisis, those who lose their heads, are the ones not to follow.

From the books and news reports I have read or watched, neither of these two traits would be top of mind in describing the President. Aides lament his lack of interest to study and limited attention span. And, mercurial is a more common definition than calming.

I mention this as it seems far too many issues are contentious. A recent survey noted our nation is more stressed. And, this is without a real crisis, which worries me greatly. I have this looming sense the man will pick a fight for ratings.

So, kudos to Sully and Ben. May we learn from your lessons and example. The only thing I have learned from the President is how not to act.

 

Lessons from Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill for GM

I have written before that organizations take on the personality of its leaders. Earlier this week, CEO Mary Barra of General Motors (GM), reported on the findings of an internal audit of why they did not have an earlier recall when problems arose on some cars. Many heard a lot of blame down the ladder, but we did not hear much about culpability at the top. The key question asked, but not answered, is why did people not share their concerns with management that something was amiss? The unstated answer is it is in the culture of the organization, where people at the top did not want to hear of failings or heads would roll. An analyst who covers the car industry noted there was a modus operandi of “don’t mess with the launch of new line.”

I have written before about two leaders, Captain Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill, who was the CEO who turned around Alcoa and later became Secretary of the Treasury under President George W. Bush. They have some good lessons that GM should emulate  going forward. Sullenberger was the right person at the right time as captain of US Airways Flight 1549 that he safely landed in the Hudson River. He not only studied accidents for airlines, he was on task forces to go to crash sites and help ascertain why the planes went down. So, he knew from his research and experience, what he needed to do to safely land in the Hudson.

He also knew what GM failed to remember. He was the leader of the crew, but he understood all to well that each member of the team has a role in the safety of the flight, including the flight tower personnel. His research showed that many accidents occurred because navigators and co-pilots did not feel comfortable offering input to the pilot or tower. A couple of examples might help. A plane crashed in Japan, because the co-pilot had to acquiesce to the pilot due to seniority. In this case, the co-pilot was on record as being correct that the plane was off course, but the pilot’s judgment could not be overturned.

In another, the Brazilian flight crew of a doomed flight did not have confidence to disagree with an American flight tower. They did not feel comfortable in countering the flight tower and the plane crashed. Sullenberger was aware of other examples that had been noted and improved over time. But, what he did every time he had a new flight crew (even one new member), was get them all together to get to know them and encourage them to speak up if they saw something amiss. Anything, even if small. He noted in his book, that what gave him great comfort during these few seconds on Flight 1549, was he could hear everyone doing their job. He got quick advice from the tower, his co-pilot and navigator. He shared his thoughts quickly and made sure everyone knew what was going to transpire. When he concluded that getting nearby Teterboro Airport was not possible, he offered up and concluded, “it looks like we will be in the Hudson” which allowed rescue crews to be alerted.

O’Neill joined Alcoa which was struggling. And, his first public comments were “we are going to make Alcoa the safest company possible.” This was an odd mission to start out with and many analysts were not impressed. One analyst told his investors to sell Alcoa stock, which he later added, was the worst advice he had ever given. O’Neill knew that the only thing he could get management and union leaders to agree on was safety. So, that is where he started. He also knew that for safety to be important, managers had to talk to floor personnel to understand better the problems, so that a plan to fix them could be developed. So, communication got better up and down the line. The empowered employees starting sharing ideas on how to improve not only safety, but process as well. The company performance and stock price took off.

Both Sullenberger and O’Neill knew that they were part of a team. They also knew the best ideas can come from anywhere, but especially from those closest to the action. So, it is not only vital, but imperative, that management create a culture where ideas can be shared. Otherwise, you would be flying in the dark. It should be noted at the same time GM was having these troubles, they missed a huge market opportunity. Why? Because they were not listening.

GM piloted the first electric car called the EV-1 in California in the early 2000’s. They did not sell them or market them, but a cult-like following was growing as people who wanted to make a difference started leasing them by the thousands. Eventually, the EV-1 was killed as the result of an alleged collusive effort chronicled in the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” which can be accessed by the link below.* The drivers wanted to buy the cars, but GM collected them and shred them. They wanted no evidence. The Board of Directors of GM asked why the EV-1 pilot was being shelved at the same time they were building Hummers, and management said this is the direction America car buyers want. Hummers are no longer made as they were gas guzzlers.

Here in 2014, GM could have been the predominant player in the electric car market, which will grow as more power stations and better batteries become available. Yet, they chose a short-lived strategy, made other bad decisions and had to be bailed out and only now are seeing the failure of not having an open culture to communication. The lesson that was not said by Barra is we did not have an environment where people could offer input and we would listen to them. She needs to talk to Sully Sullenberger and Paul O’Neill and set a more open path for the future. It is not ironic, that both are known for safety.

* http://www.whokilledtheelectriccar.com/

 

 

 

 

Ric Elias – a moment of clarity plus action

Last night, I was watching a regional show on business in the Carolinas and one of the featured guests was Ric Elias, the CEO of Red Ventures, a huge success story around helping new business market and sell their products using a customer optimization lens. Some of you may have seen him on a TED Talk last year. Please check him out at http://www.ted.com/talks/ric_elias.html. The purpose of this talk was the moment of clarity he reached as the plane he was on in January 2009 was about to crash-land in the Hudson River. You see, Elias was in Seat 1D on US Airways Flight 1549 piloted by Captain Sully Sullenberger, who had just uttered the words “brace for impact.”

His short TED talk is very moving as he came to terms with three things.

1) Live in the now.  As an example, he said I no longer buy expensive wines, as I would rather buy cheaper wines and drink them with my friends today. Don’t put off tomorrow what you should do today.

2) Avoid negative energy.  His main thrust is we spend so much time arguing over things that really do not matter. He said I realized I needed to worry less about being right and worry more about being happy.

3) Focus on what’s important. Building on these same points, he realized seeing his kids grow up was the most important goal in his life. So, he said my most important job is to be the best dad I can be. Nothing else comes close.

I wanted to keep these short, as I encourage you to click on the link and watch the talk which is short even for a TED talk. But, let me add a few points. These were not just words, he acted upon these words. Words are cheap; actions are valuable.

To his last point, I had a health scare on my 44th birthday. I thought I was having a heart attack walking to a restaurant where my family was to meet me. When I got there before them, I asked for an aspirin and then said you may want to call an ambulance. I did not see my wife until later from a hospital bed. I can assure you when I was in a hospital with wires all attached to me, I did not think about work. I thought about my family and seeing my kids get married, become adults and pursue their dreams. I thought of not seeing my wife again. That was my moment of clarity. I acted on my thoughts just as he did with his, but he made an even bigger platform.

First, he stopped working each day at an earlier time and went home to be with his kids. He lived the work-life balance he preached at Red Ventures, which is annually voted as one of the best places to work. He said he remembered balling like a baby at his daughter’s first grade recital. Being there was the most important task on the agenda of a CEO.

Second, he gave back. He is an immigrant to the US and went to college at Boston College.  Plus, he married a business need for innovative talent, with how many children of illegal immigrants are shortchanged and cannot go to college in the US. So, he started Golden Door Scholars (see www.goldendoorscholars.org) with $1 million in funding. The purpose is to provide more avenues to education for the approximately 1.1 million children under age 18 that are children of illegal and legal immigrants. He said many of these kids are the brightest in their classes and yet cannot go to college. They did not do anything wrong. Red Ventures even offers intern programs to these kids.

Third, his company, as noted above, is a forward thinker. Red Ventures hires, develops and nurtures young kids teaching them to become innovative problem solvers. “We fail constantly,” he says, “but we fail fast and hard. And, we learn even faster.”  Elias’ Red Ventures creates a breeding ground for innovative thought. This is what made America great and this is what we need to do to compete in the new world. He notes with the doubling of computing power every 18 months, the next two iterations will be mind-boggling. We need innovators to understand this and help us capitalize on it.

What I like about Elias’ words is what he has done about them. Moments of clarity should not be wasted by inaction. Otherwise, the opportunity to change for the better may have been wasted as well. Give his TED talk a listen. It might give you a moment of clarity without having to sweat a plane crash. And, if you have a moment of clarity, develop a plan and act on it. Dr. Phil likes to say “the difference between a dream and a goal is a timeline.” I think Elias understand this difference.