#UNITED, Culture, and Why Companies Will be Forcibly Dragged Off the Face of the Earth

kickingandscreaming

The United Airlines debacle is something to celebrate, just as was the Comcast “hellish” customer service call – because of what it means.

It means that corporations that, in a bygone era, had the advantage of “you need what we have, so too bad” will be forced to change, or they will die. It also means that newer upstarts will have a chance to come in and do well by behaving better – for example, refer to Southwest Airlines’ “employees first” philosophy.

Ultimately, it means that business will become more human. Translation: Corporate culture is everything.

We now live in the Conscious Economy, where actions and intentions are connected. Where customers make buying decisions based upon whether they feel you “give a darn.” Where, as I recently offered in a talk to a Colorado business group, executives must lead with love and trust. (Fetch the tar and feathers, Mabel, this maverick used the “L-word” in a business context!)

Get the Memo: Your “policy”, your Standard Operating Procedures, your excuses for callous, rules-driven behavior are now irrelevant.

There are a lot of books about how management can change to be more “connected”. But it’s important to understand that the epicenter of corporate culture isn’t management. It lives with the employees who are closest to the customer. These team members need to have autonomy to make decisions, always starting with the question “What’s the right thing to do?” or perhaps “What if I was in the customer’s shoes?”

The customer is not “always right.” But they are always human.

While management needs to foster a healthy culture, and certainly can’t just try to overlay a BS “positivity” to a rotten culture (they’ll be found out), the employees on the ground who affect the customer experience in any way need to believe that management has their back, and in turn, that management wants them to have the customer’s back.

I’m often asked, “How does management keep that attitude from costing the company?” My gut response is to ask, how much has NOT acting “human” cost United, Comcast, or the countless disconnected boutique owners on Main Street America?

But the real answer is, “That’s easy.” Have your geeky Finance people come in and train your front-line staff how to read your company financial reports. Yes, the same ones investors and management use to drive decisions. Then explain how incentives, refund guidelines, and customer satisfaction tie to their compensation trajectory. We’ve done this at Yippiekiyay (with those “lazy, entitled millennials” on staff, no less!)… and have seen morale, productivity, and profit skyrocket. Start treating all stakeholders (yes, even millennials) like “superheroes” – or at least, responsible adults – and they’ll start acting like it.

Start treating staff like “superheroes,” and they’ll start acting like it.

(Don’t worry, the ones that don’t will politely excuse themselves.)

This doesn’t mean going around pretending everything is hunky-dory. Startups and growth companies are by nature a sh*t-show. For example, my COO John West and I had a disagreement last week that devolved into shouting. Pressure will do that. No big deal, because as always, we allowed what we agree on – 100% integrity in helping our staff and customers have the greatest experience possible – to prevail. If we disagree about something that affects staff, we do something “crazy” – we ask them to participate in resolving the issue. And voila! Problem solved. Every. Single. Time.

Contrast that with United’s response to their PR nightmare – more blame-shifting and “CYA” behavior – only making things worse. Maybe United’s management needs to go read “Start with Why” by Simon Sinek, and then go into the woods and eat some ego-stripping psychedelic mushrooms to get some insight. Anything is better than losing $1B in shareholder value. I have the feeling the CEO may have time to do all that and more, very soon.

Now, this isn’t about “rights,” or right vs. wrong in the situation with United. The airline was clearly within its “rights.” It’s time to shed that kind “us vs. them” thinking and seek a win-win. For example, if United employees had the decision-making authority to increase the bribe for passengers until someone volunteered to give up a seat, everyone would have left with a positive experience.

That empowered “win-win” belief among Yippiekiyay staff, our democratized management style, and our focus on corporate culture is why our customers are very happy, and why others will have a hard time competing. In fact, I dare them to adopt our view. It’s not for the faint of heart.

However, that is the choice: Fix the corporate culture, get real, and start caring, or be consigned, as Reagan said of Communism, to the “ash heap of history”.

My bet on the outcome at United? Policies will be revised. Heads will roll. Little will change. And when the sun comes up tomorrow, I will be joined by air traveler converts like me, who aspire to only fly Southwest – because of their radical belief that their staff and customers are … human.

 

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