The unfolding of a story about lost potential in business…

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I normally stay impartial about the emergence of business scenarios. Yet in the case of this one I feel compelled to wade in with some comments.

The Australian aviation industry - passenger perspective

Yesterday I saw a post by Richard Branson on the Australian aviation industry (see it here). His stance was one that I mostly agreed with - i.e. keep choice in the market and offer a difference.  Perhaps I am biased as I stand back as a passenger with preferences.  I voted years ago with my feet and my points. Whilst not a frequent traveler these days, there was a patch where I stepped up the membership rankings and did enjoy the benefits. I also look forward to more travel in the future.

Yet long before (1970s, 1980’s) Virgin entered the Australian market the only airline I even knew was Qantas.  Being Australian/American I had quite a few trips across the Pacific including the ones that stopped to refuel in Hawaii.  I fondly remember everything about these flights - the attentive service, the beyond friendly flight attendants, the quality of experience, even the Australian wool blankets. For me it was all wonderful. I knew nothing else.  

Then the market evolved. I discovered another airline to cart me and my family back to the States. This was before Virgin entered the market. What got me on that airline? Two things - price and service. I didn’t even care that I was rerouted to another city to get to my destination.  Same applies with Virgin today. I will fly into LA even if my ultimate destination is SF.

So I pay attention to what is happening from both an observer and passenger perspective.

A real life in person Qantas flight attendant

Then this morning I am in my favourite cafe. In walks a beautiful, poised, professional woman. She is dressed in her Qantas flight attendant uniform - all blue, red and bright pink.  The feeling of a fish out of water is strong. Such a sight would normally be in an airport cafe or within in the vicinity of the airport.  She is not alone so I do not interrupt any conversation though tempted.

My immediate reaction is to want to talk to her. She is the face of a company in turmoil yet not the person creating the chaos. She is in the midst of the play, a character whose lines are changing as she speaks. I see her in all her humanity as a person just like me only we have different uniforms so to speak. My heart goes out to her knowing the storm she will be flying through over the next weeks and months. I wish I could hear what she is saying.

Yet she does not speak much.

She is not smiling.
She is not energetic.
She is not herself, it seems.

She is though the epitome of professional presence.

I wondered to myself if she is one of the 5000.

Another Qantas employee on the radio

Contrast this to an earlier caller on a morning talk show about retirement.   The woman calling said she was one of the 5000.  After 26 years of working there was this bittersweet sense.  On one hand it worked for her (and her accountant) financially to go. On the other hand she LOVED working in her job and will miss the work.  Yes she said she loved her work!!!!!!

And what stood out more was her positive attitude. She expressed optimistically that her life wasn’t ending even though many would see this as a step toward retirement.  Instead she would find more to do.  She fully accepted that the path forward would not be easy and have it’s ups and downs. Yet this is not a deterrent. Her resilience and engagement in life was in her voice - strong and wilful despite the circumstances. What stands out though is that this company is losing a person that LOVES her work.

What really happens to the person in career change?

So I wonder what happens to each individual. What happens to the people? A core area of my work is career transition. So I see the individual in every situation. I also am passionate about people being who they are, working authentically and ultimately have careers where they don't even call it work but a contribution and rewarding experience.

I see a lot of people who want to change jobs and who have lost their jobs. The challenge most people face when they sit with me is how do I find a job or do the work I love?  When such people are still employed they are in jobs and / or companies that they no longer enjoy.

And yes for most time does heal the wounds.  People move on. Yet the memory of the forced career change stays and lingers far more than the self created ones.

Here’s what I notice...

When the opportunity for a payout associated with job restructuring comes along some can’t wait to put their hand up.  Others dread the experience and take it to heart as a personal affront. Both are reflections of the individuals and where they are at in their career, not the company, because you can have all reactions in the same company. Likewise people change over time and can effectively disconnect from their work or worse poorly perform. Both might lead to an agreed exit so save face.

Yet job losses are also a reflection of where the company is at.  If a company is not doing well enough to keep, sustain or even grow it’s workforce this is already felt across the business. There will be departments that do well and others that don’t. The market shifts and all of the sudden the work just isn’t there. If the work isn’t there then the team isn’t needed. Simple equation, or is it?

I know because I have been in an Human Resource function when a company merged so I have seen and experienced first hand the range of reactions. Speaking from this personal experience I can vouch for the integrity, objectivity, compassion of human resource professionals who are part of such processes. They are like the doctors and nurses in the emergency room attending to an accident.  

Not happy, ____?

When jobs go no one is happy unless you are that one who wanted to leave and got the bonus to boot. It is highly emotional. The SARA model is well and truly tested.

I see executives and managers making the choice equally as challenged. Sleepless nights, torn values, distress or denial completely void of all emotion. For people who stay there is also the potential for guilt, frustration and angst having seen their colleagues marched out the door.  The only recourse seems to be to depersonalise and detach thus forsaking expression of humanity and compassion.

So all across the board such situations are not pleasant.

Reality check

Yes I appreciate that workforce adjustments are necessary. I appreciate that we need to respond as market changes occur. I get that business and companies have cycles. Yet the decision making soon becomes a number crunching exercise or political manoeuvre.  What happens when your entire team is brilliant, loves their job and truly are passionate about their work.

What happens if the very people that are going are in fact the ones that could help turn the company around?

There is a disconnect between the people doing the work. There is a disconnect to the people who already know how this business works, the customers, the industry.

Business is like a body

I see a business as a living breathing being. Yes. A business is just like you and me. A business has a personality. A business has a heart. A business has DNA.  Many times you can’t name it or see it but you know it. You just know. A business is forever seeking to establish it’s identity and presence in a unique way just like you and me.

In a business situation you can see all the systems, parts and connect them to what comes in and what goes out. With the human body we take it for granted that all these systems work without us even thinking about them.  This happens in business too.

For example, the overall main sections of a company - e.g. finance, sales etc - are like the different body systems - e.g. endocrine, nervous etc. Then within these sections are departments which are like organs.  I know it is far more complicated. (I studied pre med for three years and later was an auditor instead. So my view of how both the body and a company work is big picture and detailed.)

Thrive, don't just survive

In a business as in the human body you really do need all to work together in the long term to survive and thrive.  Disregard or abuse of a part will lead to non function.  Proactive attention to well being will extend life and keep all parts working together.

When you or I are sick what we do is we identify the part of us that is not well and fix it, right?  So if it is your stomach you might change your diet, take some medicine, rest etc.  The rest of your body during this time ramps up it’s immune system and helps you get better.

Most times the combined effort of our body and other support lead to restored good health.  This is the norm.  However there are times when many parts might fail at the same time and there are not enough resources both within us or outside of us to keep a part functioning.  The fight is harder and longer.  In treating the illness though we are often responding to it happening, not preventing.  

Likewise company cultures arise where there no longer exists a healthy ‘immune system’ to rally around others.

An opinion that I wished would count

Do I have the answer? No.  But I do have an emerging view and opinion.  

If I was running a large company I would step out, consult and discuss how and where the company was going with all affected, not just my inner circle of internal and external advisors.  I would lead by creating a collaborative problem solving approach across all levels with people passionate about the brand and more importantly passionate about the customers we served.  For whilst I would stand in my role as leader with authority I also would recognise that if it were not for the people in the company I would not be a leader.

I would make this collaborative conversation approach a core part of the company culture, not wait until it’s too late.

I would also extend my view of stakeholder beyond shareholder. To me there is so much more to a company. For example add in people (employees, customers and vendors), other partner organisations, communities built around a company. There are connections that exist in our society because of the existence of a business. A business is more than an entity registered to make money. It is a being in its own right made up of many parts.  

I would include these all internal and external stakeholders in the conversation.

Last resort but not too late

Restructuring is the last step a company can take to save itself.  So I trust that the powers that be who make such a decision really consider how it will ultimately create well being in the company going forward.  I also hope that such a decision considers long term implications not just short term.  Is the pain really going to create gain? And I really hope that the people in this or another job loss situation find their way and through the experience are stronger in who they are as people. It is not a stigma to lose a job. Yet when people are so easily expendable then it devalues their contribution.

You see if we keep responding to challenges in business by cutting people we lose engagement as a whole.  We separate rather than come together. We create haves and have not's. We feed fear. We feed security consciousness not innovation. We hold back rather than step forward. There are so many repercussions not just in the business but across communities and society as a whole.  

As a society the cutting creates wounds and then leaves scars where the battles emerged.  

It is only through the collective effort of a all stakeholders involved that we can lift businesses up.

Each company has the opportunity to be an example for others, not just in one industry, but across the board (no pun intended).

So here’s to companies taking a moment in this time of increased pressure and change to look within and remember why you really are in business.  Then hopefully the conversation will emerge and a path towards well-being for all can be created.  


Jenn Shallvey