The Allegheny County Airport Authority ignites under Cassotis’ leadership

Her goal has been to get people on board with getting back to a leadership position in the industry. That meant helping them to see what it would take and to understand why things had to work differently.

“When I walked in here, I was not joined by a whole lot of people on the staff who really believed we could go after as much as I thought we could go after,” Cassotis says.

One thing that helped was being an outsider.

She also used that outsider status to change perceptions about the city when airline executives asked why she made the move. It’s a long sales cycle, she says, but the first step is changing the focus from “Pittsburgh? Really?” to “OK, I’m listening. What do you have to tell us?”

Education was necessary closer to home, too. Many thought the reason why new airlines weren’t coming was costs.

Cassotis says that’s a myth, because you could put airport costs at zero and you wouldn’t see more service. Airlines do not serve airports based on costs; they serve airports based on a market and its fit into their network.

If the hub isn’t coming back and airport costs are not the issue, it becomes a matter of going after service that serves this community — filling seats on the plane. She says that information was a rallying cry.

Reorganize for buy-in

In order to position for growth and leverage the right partnerships, you need organizational buy-in.

To ensure everyone sang from the same hymn sheet, Cassotis stayed transparent about what she thought was possible and what it would take to get there.

“Everybody has to believe it, or else I’ve got a big problem where I’m the only one and everyone else is just paying me lip service,” she says.

She fosters that transparency, for example, with a weekly CEO message that staff can listen to and by interacting on Twitter.

She’s also expanded the direct reports to the CEO, so she can guide components that needed focus, in order to foster growth, and can interact with a cross-section of employee groups.

More touch points didn’t bottleneck the organization because Cassotis had to make sure everyone knew what was going on.

“I was the only convert at the beginning; they had to hear it from me,” she says. “Then once you get 10, 15, 20 people believing in you, that starts to spread.”

In addition, the authority created a new vision and developed a set of tactics for how to get there.

With a tight focus, it’s easier to let your employees know: If it falls into X categories, you’ll pay attention because it’s part of the ultimate goal of getting back to a leading position and facilitating economic prosperity in the region. Otherwise, it’s good to talk about, but it’s not something you’re going to do right now.

“We have instituted a wide-ranging and two-way conversation with employees so that we’re fostering creative ideas and innovation, and we really are operating in a highly-effective manner,” she says.

“It’s the kind of stuff that, when you hear people say it, you think, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’” Cassotis says. “But, boy, it’s amazing when you can actually see a difference and a shift in what people believe is possible.”

All about the people

If you don’t know people, you don’t know business, Cassotis says. Pay attention to people; pay attention to what they need. Find out what they want out of their work.

To revitalize the organization, get your people excited through two-way engagement and transparency. Change takes more work, so the commitment is critical.

“I’m around, and I listen, even when it’s not always comfortable,” she says. “There are things I can’t fix immediately, or things that don’t make it on to the priority list, but people know why.”