Improved Leadership. Competitive Advantage.

Newsletter Signup:

As part of their everyday operating life, the clients we deal with must learn to live with regulators and auditors. Clients that interface poorly with auditors often face more administrative burden and, certainly, more intense oversight. Conversely, organizations that engage and partner with auditors, regulators, and watchdogs in a purposeful and constructive manner tend to be left alone more and are given greater operating freedom. We want to take just a minute to revisit assumptions (something that ELP does quite well!) to re-think the interplay between organizations and external stakeholders.

Importantly, leaders can choose how they want to frame up our collective orientations towards auditors or regulators. And we've, generally, been witness to three distinctive approaches. Notably, organizations and the managers that lead them can adopt a hostile and defensive approach towards visitors. Many weak organizations embrace this perspective. In this lexicon, we hear phrases such as, "who do they think they are that they can tell us what to do?" and "this is our house, and they can't come in here and talk to us this way," or "we don't do anything wrong, so this is a waste." This is a destructive path. Organizations with a hostile orientation towards regulators or visitors foster a sense of animosity, and both parties tend to dig their heels in. Our experience tells us that both parties spend incredible amounts of energy; organizations put up higher and higher walls, while regulators spin their wheels trying to take bricks down. We find this approach wasteful and inefficient across both parties. We also find that it destroys morale, as tension is the name of the game here.

The next approach is just the opposite. Here, the focus is on impressing our visitors. The ultimate goal is to present a picture of perfection (or near perfection) where the regulators will just leave us alone. Under this scenario, great efforts are spent trying to "look good" or to "shine bright". Predictably, there are some dark-sides to this orientation. One of the chief issues is that managers and employees are tempted to only share the good and to avoid—at almost all costs—the bad. We know of one case several years ago where an Army Company Commander mandated that new, white binders be purchased for the unit's Armory—the place where all weapons are stored. The Commander shared that, hopefully, the shiny binders would give a good impression to such an extent that the auditors wouldn't dig any deeper to reveal the deep problems they had in their chain-of-custody of the unit's weaponry. The Commander was right—the gloss was bright enough to mask some deep deficiencies that were only revealed several years later. The problem with this approach, then, is two-fold. First, it focuses our efforts on the superficial at the expense of the meaningful—assembling binders as opposed to drafting new procedures. Second, there's an ethical component to this. "Looking good" without "being good" can be particularly dangerous—especially in high-risk/high-hazard industries.

The third approach is the best approach, as it is the balanced approach. Specifically, it means changing our entire orientation towards regulators or visitors. Instead of looking at them as enemies (approach 1) or friends to impress (approach 2), the best organizations look at visitors as valuable resources from whom they may learn. What exactly does this look like? Actually, there are hybrid elements of both approaches above. Make no mistake, it is okay—if not advisable--to clean up a bit before visitors arrive. Just like in our own homes, we will clean, sweep, and fluff the pillows a bit before our in-laws or friends come in. It also means, however, taking the lead with the auditors and exhibiting some control over the agenda. We know of one senior manager who invites the regulators up to his office as soon as they walk through the gate. He shares a couple of organizational wins and performance areas that he's proud of. Then he shares two or three weak areas targeted for improvement for which he's looking for specific input to that end. Finally, he gives them his mobile number in case they need any resources or need an obstacle removed. To us, this orientation is the most potent. It shows a mix of organizational self-esteem (the wins), but, most importantly, a willingness to learn in a focused way (guiding the regulators to some specific areas).

Since most, if not all, of our readership deals with regulators, we encourage you to develop a healthy and balanced approach to visitors. At ELP, this is one area where we earn our keep. To learn more and to get some world-class coaching on how to properly interface with external agencies or visitors, please drop Robin Bichy a line at robin@elpadvantage.com.

In the pantheon of great organizations, we all know of Southwest. Social media, thousands of news articles, even Harvard business case studies all point out what we already know—Southwest is to the airline industry as Apple is to tech firms. Southwest stands proud in an industry known for its competitive brutality around costs, fees, and labor relations. About a month ago, we saw firsthand what makes Southwest superior.

It was a 65 minute flight from Providence, Rhode Island to Baltimore. The flight got off to a bumpy start, and the beverage service—always hurried due to the shortened time window—was even more behind than normal. Two rows to our front was a Southwest pilot who was deadheading. Deadheading refers to pilots or crew who are being repositioned as part of their assigned trip. Usually, they do nothing but ride as if they were a normal passenger…not in this case.

Seeing that the flight attendants were behind and under distress in the effort to provide 150 drinks and snacks with about 30 minutes to go in the flight, the pilot acted. He got up. He grabbed the peanuts and pretzels, and the pilot jumped in on that duty. He helped the flight attendants deliver drinks and even picked up a bag to collect trash. For most of the flight, he traded in his pilot wings for the duties of a flight attendant. What possibly could we learn here? Quite a bit, we believe.

Let’s go ahead and put what many would consider a ‘trivial act’ under the microscope to see if we can detect any leadership lessons here. First, as we focus the microscope, we see situational awareness. The pilot was tuned in to what was going on. As a leader or teammate, you can’t ever begin to help if you aren’t dialed into what’s going on. This pilot saw an opportunity, but seeing an opportunity is far removed from acting on it. What we also see here is a leader that runs to the ball. He didn’t need to be asked. He saw an opportunity and, without direction, jumped into action. Third, most see themselves in static roles. For instance, this pilot, like many, could’ve said, “I’m just an individual contributor; it’s not my job to help with that task. Besides, I’m along for the ride, and I surely don’t get paid for handing out peanuts.” This seasoned pilot didn’t see himself as a prima donna. Rather, he saw himself as part of the greater team. Moreover, he displayed the valuable asset of empathy—he saw another teammate in distress, in need of support, and acted decisively.

To be sure, this lesson isn’t as simplistic as it may sound. Of course, the interesting challenge here—especially as it relates to high-hazard/high risk organizations—is to discern when it is appropriate to step out of role to help another. Indeed, in high risk/high hazard organizations it is dangerous, if not downright deadly, to step out of role. When you aren’t in an oversight role, however, and discretionary effort could help a subordinate or a peer, what could possibly hold you back? The Southwest pilot, in this case, knew the answer—nothing. He knew that stepping out of role from a deadheading pilot to that of a flight attendant was not putting the safety of the flying public in jeopardy. He knew he could help without sacrificing the mission.

What truly unlocked the value of this event, to us, was a deeper understanding of how crews are formed and operate in the airline industry. Unlike a crew in a nuclear control room, airline crews hardly, if ever, work the same schedule. In other words, the team is always different as players are rotating in and out. Unbelievably, in this case, he didn’t know the names of the flight attendants that he was helping. He did it, again, simply because he saw a glaring need and thought he could help. The flight attendants and were beaming with appreciation. He made their hard job just a bit easier—and he didn’t have to.

At ELP, we can help you take a step closer to this type of team-first orientation. If you want to go wheels up and see your teamwork rise in elevation, you don’t need to fly Southwest. Instead, just drop Robin a line at robin@elpadvantage.com to learn more.

About three years ago, we witnessed a small but remarkable event. Finishing up a discussion in a nuclear control room, a Reactor Operator knocked on the door. He relayed to the Shift Manager (SM) that he hurried and may have entered some critical parameters wrong in the logs. Indeed, he had and made the corrections. The SM frowned knowing that this would result in a RESET (nuclear term for mistake or recordable deviation from standard). We asked the SM if he would have been caught if he had done nothing, kept his mistake to himself, and just not reported it. The SM thought for a minute and said probably not as the critical parameters were still within boundary limits.

To us, this seemed almost spectacular. A person told the truth when he made a mistake knowing that he would not have been caught. From a cursory read in the papers or from watching television, we know that in American society the default mechanism is not always truth telling. If anything, it seems just the opposite: tell lies to protect yourself. The SM, almost cavalierly, shot back that it was an expectation to tell the truth. He went on to explain that many of his crew members were in the Nuclear Navy, and they just knew better. He assumed that they would always abide by the code and tell the truth no matter what.

We could (but we won’t) bore you with the rest of the details, but some intriguing learning emerged from this conversation. First, an assumption was made—which is fairly ironic, as nuclear leaders never assume anything related to equipment or human performance. There are always double checks, peer checks, and oversight, but, in this case, the SM took it for granted that truth telling was cemented in the DNA of his team. Just a couple of months later, a Chemistry Manager at a large nuclear facility was found to have doctored and falsified some chem logs. Here, clearly, the assumption didn’t quite hold. We urge you never to take ethics and integrity for granted. Second, and in keeping with this spirit, put some strong command emphasis behind it. We know of one leader in the rail industry that devotes the first 15 minutes of his annual management and sales meeting discussing and revisiting their espoused core values.

Periodically during the year, he will start a meeting with the following question: How are we doing living our value of transparency? Or of trust? Third, as leaders we may not be happy when someone brings us bad news, but we must be careful with our body language and our tone as followers are tuned-in to our every movement, our every reaction. In this case, the SM frowned when the Reactor Operator came in to reveal his mistake. It is okay to acknowledge the mistake while rewarding the ethics behind it, for example: “Randy, I’m not happy about this error. We must have better attention to detail, but I like your character and integrity here. Thanks for bringing it up.” Finally, ethics doesn’t equal compliance. Never confuse the two. Compliance means following rules and regulations. It means staying legal. Ethics is personal. It is less about illegal and, instead, focuses on the immoral. While compliance is about meeting the letter of the law, ethics is about meeting the intent and the spirit of the code. Words such as fairness, justice, empathy, and trust aren’t the lexicon of compliance, but they are the essence of ethics. Talk less about compliance. Talk more about ethics.

Remember, ethics doesn’t need to be boring and uninteresting. It can be more. Make it personal. After all, there are good and bad examples all around us. We just need to pay attention and never take it for granted.

Of course, if you ever want an ethics refresher or some good ethics training, you know where to call. The ‘E’ in ELP doesn’t stand for Ethics, but it could. Drop Evan a line at evan@elpadvantage.com to learn more.