17 Feb Your team is smarter than you think
“An individual without information cannot take responsibility; an individual who is given information cannot help but take responsibility.”
“Imagine that there is a loose panel in the passenger compartment of the New York to Los Angeles airplane. The panel has a sharp, protruding edge that has torn the stockings of a passenger who reports it to the nearest flight attendant. The flight attendant can’t repair the panel herself because she doesn’t have the proper tools. She needs help. The only thing she knows to do is file a report that will end up in an office somewhere. But the office contains only a telephone and intercom; no tools. Meanwhile, our flight attendant has delegated the problem upward in the company. To her way of thinking, she has done her job. Late that afternoon, the report will be sent to a corresponding level of another department. A half hour later, it is placed on the desk of someone in the technical department. The technician isn’t sure whether or not he can fix the problem. But he needn’t worry. By now the plane is flying 31,000 feet over Dubuque. The technician scribbles a directive on the now dog-eared form: ‘Repair when possible.’ And it will be repaired – 10 pairs of torn stockings later.”
So begins Jan Carlzon’s book ‘Moments of Truth.’ In June 1974, at the age of 32, Jan was made president of Vingresor, a package tour operator which was a subsidiary of SAS (Scandinavian Airline Systems). The firm was not doing well at this point.
Like many executives, Jan started by acting the way he thought a boss should act: issuing edicts and instructions about what was to be done. Perhaps unsurprisingly he soon earned the nickname within the company of ‘Ego Boy’.
Luckily for him, one of his managers was able to make him see sense and to stop trying to be someone he wasn’t. As a result he was able to successfully transition from being an executive to being a leader, which meant asking his employees to participate actively in the company’s future.
After his success at turning Vingresor around, in 1978 he was made president of Linjeflyg, Sweden’s domestic airline, which was also in trouble. This time his approach was completely different. He gathered all the staff members of the company together and told them the following:
“This company is not doing well. It’s losing money and suffering from many problems. As the new president, I don’t know a thing about Linjeflyg. I can’t save this company alone. The only chance for Linjeflyg to survive is if you help me – assume responsibility yourselves, share your ideas and experiences so we have more to work with. I have some ideas of my own, and we will probably be able to use them. But most important, you are the ones who must help me, not the other way round.”
Given a stake in the future success of the airline, the employees rose to the challenge. The business was transformed from a product-oriented company (a ‘producer’ of flights) to a service-oriented company where every aspect of the business was viewed through the lens of the end customer.
In spite of massive reductions in fares and without any increase in staff numbers, in the first year of Carlzon’s presidency revenues increased by 25% and passenger numbers by 44%. He subsequently went on to become president of SAS, Sweden’s flagship national airline which, along with the entire airline industry, was also in trouble at the time. He turned that business around too.
Early on in his book Carlzon relates the following story:
“Rudy Peterson was an American businessman staying at the Grand Hotel in Stockholm. One day he left the hotel and headed for Arlanda airport, north of Stockholm, to accompany a colleague on a Scandinavian Airlines flight to Copenhagen. The trip was only for the day, but it was important.
When he arrived at the airport, he realised he had left his ticket back at the hotel. He had set it down on the bureau to don his overcoat and had forgotten to pick it up.
Everyone knows you can’t board an airplane without a ticket, so Rudy Peterson had already resigned himself to missing the flight and his business meeting in Copenhagen. But when he explained his dilemma to the ticket agent, he got a pleasant surprise.
“Don’t worry, Mr Peterson,” she said with a smile. “Here is your boarding card. I’ll insert a temporary ticket in here. If you just tell me your room number at the Grand Hotel and your destination in Copenhagen, I will take care of the rest.”
While Rudy and his colleague waited in the passenger lounge, the ticket agent dialled the hotel. A bellhop checked the room and found the ticket – exactly where Mr Peterson had said it would be. The ticket agent then sent an SAS limo to retrieve it from the hotel and bring it directly to her. As it happened, they moved so quickly that the ticket arrived before the Copenhagen flight departed. No one was more surprised than Rudy Peterson when the flight attendant approached him and said calmly, “Mr Peterson? Here’s your ticket.”
Carlzon could never have achieved his success alone, something which he openly admits in his book. No matter how charismatic a ‘leader’ might be, it is the team effort which produces the results and will drive the business forward. As Carlzon himself says:
“A leader is not appointed because he knows everything and can make every decision. He is appointed to bring together the knowledge that is available and then create the prerequisites of the work to be done. He creates the systems that enable him to delegate responsibility for day to day operations.”
Like Carlzon, I never cease to be amazed at the great ideas our team contributes to how we do what we do. By simply encouraging them to always put the clients first, by giving them a voice to know that if they make suggestions they will be listened to and by giving them the autonomy to do the right thing without needing to first pass everything up and down the management chain, they have stepped up to the plate and Bloomsbury Wealth is a better firm as a result.
“Giving someone the freedom to take responsibility releases resources that would otherwise remain concealed.”