This one’s been brewing for a while, and Startup Weekend was a catalyst to get it written.
I am generally not a fan of carefully constructed analogies that are a bit of a stretch, but I’ll make an exception this time.
Here’s my pitch: an ideal company is like an airplane crew.
I can feel you cringing already.
Let’s start with the pilot. He may not do everything, but s/he’s the person everyone sees as the leader in charge. You want a pilot with an air of confidence and professionalism who knows what they are doing. They should look and act the part. You want to meet the pilot when you board the plane, and you want to see that the rest of the crew respect the Pilot and enjoy working with her/him. When things go wrong, you want the pilot to take responsibility, not duck and cover and pass the buck.
Then there’s the co-pilot. A good co-pilot can do pretty much everything the pilot does, but they’re not the actual pilot. If your pilot gets into trouble, needs a break, or takes a vacation, your co-pilot can keep everything running just fine. They understand how the plane is supposed to fly, where it’s going and how to get there. They can make decisions and execute them, as and when they need to.
You probably have a navigator. Without the navigator, you’ve got two folks that can fly a plane and nowhere to go. Flying without a destination doesn’t help a whole lot. The navigator isn’t a pilot, and probably can’t fly the plane (although they might be able to work the auto-pilot for a little while) but without them, you’re going nowhere. The navigator might be your CTO, or maybe you have some other kind of visionary on-board who’s not the CEO…
The flight crew take the lead from the pilot and co-pilot. They work with the passengers and do a hundred things that the pilot doesn’t even think about, without which nothing would work. But they look to the pilot for overall direction and guidance. They interact with the co-pilot too. They know who the navigator is, and what the navigator does.
The senior crew members interact directly with the pilot and manage their teams. Ideally, they operate autonomously within the general guidelines laid out by the pilot, and exercise good judgment on when to bring something to the pilot’s attention. The passengers are catered to by a competent and courteous crew who are generally concerned about their wellbeing.
That’s how it should be in a perfect world. But as anyone who’s flown lately knows that’s a far cry from how most flights operate. And it’s the same with many businesses.
There’s the pilot that’s just doing it until they can retire. The pilot that treats everyone badly because they are the pilot.
Or the co-pilot that’s still pissed about not being chosen as the pilot. The one that knows they can do a better job than the pilot.
Or the navigator that became a navigator because they failed some vision or physical test… they’re good at their job, but miserable and convinced they really should be a pilot.
There’s the crew member that signed up to meet a wealthy spouse and cash out quick. The crew member that hates their job but won’t go find a new one and subsequently spends their whole day venting their anger on passengers through shitty service… Or the ones that hide in the back of the plane and avoid the passenger call lights.
You have crew that delight in enforcing every stupid little rule, some of which they make up. The seatbelt enforcer that wakes a passenger up just to make sure their seatbelt is on (even though there’s no turbulence or other reason for it). The soda nazi that gives everyone two ice cubes and one-half of the can of soda. The ones that won’t clean the bathroom because it’s gross/not my job/they did it last time.
You’ve got crew members from other flights or airlines that are getting a free ride on your flight. They just can’t help but demand a little more attention, or make a few suggestions, or insist you deal with their extra luggage, hold up the plane etc etc etc.
There are crew that got reassigned and just can’t stand that they were going to Milan and are now going to Akron, OH. And others who already worked a long day and got pushed in to the front lines again.
At the end of the day, a lot rests on the pilot. But if you have a great pilot and a crappy crew, the passengers will still be unhappy. And if the passengers aren’t happy, what’s the point?
If the pilot is crappy, it’s worse. What crew is going to continue to work with a crappy pilot? And if your navigator is plotting a route to Tahiti but you’re supposed to go to L.A., there’s a whole different set of problems to deal with.
When you look at your company, do you know who the pilot is? Do you trust them? Who’s the navigator? Do you know where you’re going? Are the crew’s roles well defined?
And above all, are the passengers happy?