When corporate culture goes bad

I’ve watched the developments at Ryanair unfold with a combination of incredulity and interest – I have to admit that it isn’t a company I’ve historically had a lot of time for and I’ll do pretty much anything to avoid using their services. The management of their recent issues, however, seems to have taken bad people management to a new, low-level.

If you don’t know the story, on 16 September they announced that they were going to be cancelling about 40-50 flights per day for a period of six weeks to “improve punctuality”, however, they weren’t (couldn’t?) going to tell people which flights in advance. The following day they added to this that they’d, “messed up” the holiday schedules of pilots as a result of changing the holiday year from financial to calendar year.

Then the stories started emerging of a pilot shortage which the company denied (although Norwegian Air say they’ve recruited 140 pilots from Ryanair this year and another airline who hired 40 pilots said 32 came from Ryanair). Instead the company offered their existing pilots a one-off bonus of £12,000 or €12,000 if they agreed to work extra hours, extra days and have low levels of sickness absence. Which didn’t go down well with the existing pilots – who saw it as an attempt to skirt around the real issue. The company responded by saying they were going to cancel part of their pilots’ holidays.

CEO Michael O’Leary said Ryanair had, “”some goodies” to propose to pilots, but added: “If pilots misbehave, that will be the end of the goodies.”

Wow.

Whatever the facts behind the story, the underlying management issues seem pretty clear and are encapsulated by the comments from O’Leary. Ultimately, if you treat employees badly it will come back to bite you at some point – they’re grown up human beings, not children in the primary school playground.

In this case, the issue has come at the cost of an overwhelming operational failure. Ryanair is a provider of flights and they’re unable to provide those flights to customers because their HRM strategy (and PR strategy) has gone woefully wrong. If the employee relations were good and positive, then none of this would have happened.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether the issue is holiday scheduling, pilot numbers or pilot availability. In a well run organisation, the issue would have become apparent, a good conversation would have taken place with employees and a collective solution would have been found. The fact that this has played out in the public clearly suggests this wasn’t the case.

Creating positive company cultures with good employee relations is a fundamental part of successfully running an organisation. It won’t necessarily prevent problems from occurring (the world is not perfect), but it will certainly help to solve them when they arise. I’d wager the problems at Ryanair go deeper than simple technical issues of scheduling and whilst consumers might be quick to forget, I’m not sure the employee base will be able to do the same.

If it walks like a duck

The connection between self belief and outcomes can be one of the most powerful drivers of performance. When an individual or team truly believe in something, they can often deliver results greater than the sum of the parts. That’s why we often seen teams deliver incredible, unexpected outcomes – “against the odds”.

At the same time, the connection can also be one of the biggest inhibitors when we fail to see or listen to the feedback that surrounds us. Not all of our efforts will bear fruit and the ability to realise this, see where we are falling short or can improve and recorrect is critical.

That’s one the beautiful things about creating a team that operates as an open system. Open systems listen to the feedback in the external environment and respond and develop accordingly. They are, to some extents, the epitome of selfless, ego less organisations. It doesn’t mean that there isn’t the need for process or procedure, but that these are constantly developing in relation to the external environment in which they operate.

In the book “Black Box Thinking”, Matthew Syed gives a number of examples of open systems, but the one that struck me the most was the airline industry, where feedback and information is shared across companies and used to deliver improvements industry wide on all aspects of safety. When someone shares something they’ve learnt because of an incident or a near miss, you don’t hear anyone respond, “but that’s not how we do things here” or “we’ve always done it that way”, they listen and learn.

It begs the question, in our organisations how much do we really listen to the feedback that is around us and how willing are we to adapt and respond as a result? Too often we talk about the reasons why things are as they are, or why they’re too hard to change. But wouldn’t a more engaging, energetic and profitable way be to listen and address?

If we see the work that we do it and the way that we do it as an ongoing journey of improvement rather than a fixed deliverable, we can use the feedback that we hear and see as a positive means of continuing on that journey, rather than as a means to critique what we’ve just done. And from that, we will only ever see better results for everyone involved.

Be a high performing team

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of really exceptional teams working in different organisations and in different functions. I’ve been part of some great teams and also some that were really quite dysfunctional. If you’re struggling, or interested in making your team perform better, here are the areas that I’ve seen make a real and sustainable difference.

What are your drivers of strategic value?
Not every organisation is trying to achieve the same and therefore, their demands on your function aren’t going to be the same. Understanding the organisational strategy and the value that you can contribute to delivering that is key to aligning your activities and resource. Keep it simple, keep it focused, keep it understandable.

How well are you currently performing?
This requires a massive dose of self-restraint, the commitment not to justify and a genuine willingness to improve. I’m talking about getting beyond the noise of “they didn’t let me do xy&z” and really examining the performance of the function – seeking feedback from even the biggest critics. Would you pay for the service that you are delivering if you had a choice? Can you clearly articulate the organisational value?

What’s getting in the way and how can you change it?
Most teams will tell you that they’re ridiculously busy and most of them will be telling you the truth. At the same time, most day-to-day activity, process and protocol hasn’t really been looked at for years. If you’re spending too much time and energy on activities that don’t drive strategic value, you’re going to have to stop. That means permission to rip up the rule book and do things differently.

Can you create the right attitude?
You’re going to need to create the right attitude to deliver your agenda – remembering it won’t always be the same approach, depending on the scenario. Too many people confuse an attitude with personality and often you see teams which look like an identikit version of their leader. The best teams, the highest performing teams recognise difference, but they all share the same attitude and appetite to succeed. If you’re going to be successful, you need everyone on board.

Be relentless in your pursuit of the end game
One of the biggest reasons that teams fail to deliver high performance is inconsistency of focus and approach. Consistency, perseverance and relentless drive to deliver against your goals is key. Success doesn’t happen overnight, there will be challenges and moments of doubt. But ultimately, if you’ve got your direction aligned with your organisation, reduced the things that got in the way and have made sure everyone is pointing in the same direction, you’ll see performance start to improve.