You have probably heard of the public relation nightmares of both United Airlines and American Airlines, in the past few weeks. My good friend, Patrick Larkin, wrote a piece titled, “Is Your School Like United Airlines?”, and he compared some of the mistakes with United and challenged if we make some of the same mistakes in a school culture:
A sub-headline from the Wall Street Journal’s article about the recent viral incident aboard a United Airlines plane immediately had me thinking about some of the things we do in schools. The headline about the situation where a United passenger was forcibly removed from his seat for refusing to give it up was the following:
“Airline’s rules-based culture in spotlight after man was dragged off flight by law enforcement.”
As I read through the article a few other lines had me thinking about what we sometimes do in schools. Feel free to substitute school for airlines and students for passengers wherever appropriate:
“Like most Airlines, United Continental Holdings Inc. follows strict rules on every aspect of handling its passengers… “
“Deviating from the rules is frowned upon…”
“Employees followed the policy,” said a person familiar with United’s executive suite.
On Wednesday morning, in an interview with ABC, United CEO Oscar Munoz called the event a “system failure” and said United hasn’t provided its front-line managers and supervisors with “the proper tools, policies, procedures that allow them to use their common sense.”
Policies are not the way we build relationships in education; having wisdom is the way forward. The ability to use common sense when it is called upon. I have always said that if a policy trumps common sense, the policy is stupid. People at all levels of an organization need to be put into situations where they can do the right thing for those that they are serving, as they are the closest ones to the situation.
Something that airline companies need to exemplify and understand is that the flight is not only about the “flight”; it is about the experience. Traveling as much as I do, going through airports and security can be exhausting, and to be treated poorly when you are on the plane (or boarding it) is not something that is welcomed through this process. It feels like you are getting piled upon. Yet the customer is sometimes at the will of the company; options to get from point A to B are limited, especially over a great distance.
So let’s look at the positive…
If you are reading this and are not from Canada, you may not have heard of WestJet. It is a Canadian airline company that is known for exemplary service. In the last year, they have been featured in the news for positive stories, not negative ones. Recently, they were featured for a flight attendant taking care of a crying baby, when the parents were having a rough day. Earlier on in the year, there was news of WestJet buying pizza for customers who were stranded in an airport. The best part of this story is that they weren’t even WestJet customers; they were customers of a rival airline. The employees are known for going over and above to make the experience much more pleasant for travelers.
One of the reasons I believe WestJet separates itself from other companies is that the employees literally have ownership in the company:
An Employee Share Purchase Plan which means that every employee is a potential “owner.” All staff can purchase up to 20 per cent of their gross salary in WestJet shares and the company will match these contributions.
When one employee looks bad, the company looks bad, and the company is the employees. This matters.
This feeling of ownership is crucial not only for companies but for schools as well. When weak teaching and learning is present in one classroom, the entire school feels an impact. This is not only the responsibility of the principal or the superintendent but everyone who works within the school. When we see all students as OUR students, we begin to realize that it is not just the learning that happens in the school that is important, but it is the entire experience that is important. This goes beyond educators as well. How are students treated during breaks? How are they welcomed in the morning? Do all adults understand that their job always starts with students and moves backward from there?
Leaders need to find ways to create opportunities for ownership by all within the school, not just say that ownership and empowerment are important. Until every staff member feels that the experience of school is on everyone, not only one, there is a tremendous amount of work to be done.