Want to be profitable? Start with your employees.

8 Feb

Flanagan's image from The Wall Street Journal

Read about Denny Flanagan, and you can’t help but love him. Flanagan, a United Airlines pilot, was featured in an August 28, 2007 story in the Wall Street Journal on page A1, “To a United Pilot, The Friendly Skies Are a Point of Pride; Capt. Flanagan Goes to Bat For His Harried Passengers; Still, Some Online Skeptics.”

Just a few of the perks for Flanagan’s fliers: photos of their pets in the cargo hold, bottles of wine and notes to first-class passengers. Flanagan even makes calls on his cell phone to inquire about connections and reroute misdirected luggage!

Flanagan is described as an “outlier” with United. Sadly, Flanagan is an outlier in most organizations. So how do we create more cultures that create more Flanagans? How to we encourage behavioral change across an organization?

Conversely, why are there so few Flanagans in an organization like United? Is it malaise? Is it familiarity with routine? Is it a lack of strongly stated values or personal principles? Flanagan has a philosophy on how people should be treated: “I just treat everyone like it’s the first flight they’ve ever flown.” If each employee had a value statement like that, would that cause him or her to behave differently?

If the Flanagans of the world – and the anti-Flanagans – could be effectively studied, and their behavior analyzed and codified, perhaps we would know the answer to these questions and could uniformly apply the principles learned to a variety of businesses.

According to “Small Business (A Special Report); Rules of Engagement: Why employers should — and increasingly do — care about creating a great workplace,” a Wall Street Journal article by columnist Sue Shellenbarger, there is a strong relationship between employee attitudes like Flanagan’s and the bottom line.  While there is scant hard data in this article, Shellenbarger quotes a Conference Board study which said there is “’clear and mounting evidence that employee engagement is strongly correlated to’ productivity, profit and revenue growth.” Some engagement mechanisms are cited in Shellenbarger’s story – flex time, fitness facilities, benefits and the like – but the mechanisms can’t be the whole story. It has to come from culture, and from people, not just policies.

And that leads to a fairly simple, commonplace conclusion: It has to come from the top to work. One outlier like Flanagan does not a friendly airline make.

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