The Allegheny County Airport Authority ignites under Cassotis’ leadership

 

On Jan. 15, 2015, Christina Cassotis’ first day as CEO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, she got lost. She drove into a parking garage and remembers thinking, “I know I’m not in the right place, and I don’t even know how to get out of here.”

But once she got her bearings, Cassotis went to work and hasn’t slowed down since.

One of her first acts was to meet with leadership. She asked them to put together two one-pagers — one telling her everything she should know about them, and the other saying what they thought she should do.

“I spent a lot of time getting to know the team, touring the facilities, spending time with each board member one-on-one, and then getting right into some key community partnership discussions with organizations I knew I would need,” she says. “That was my first week. It was intense.”

Cassotis says the first six months all she did was work, sleep and commute back to Boston on weekends because her family hadn’t moved yet.

“I knew that I had to set that tone right from the beginning, and we had to establish a pace quickly that we would continue,” she says. “They say, ‘Begin as you intend to go forward.’ I had to begin the way that I wanted us to be running within a year.”

That enthusiasm and drive has pumped new life into the authority’s two airports, which employ more than 450 and operate with about $138 million in annual revenue. Here’s how Cassotis has revitalized the Allegheny County Airport Authority and shed new light on the future.

Right skill set for the job

The board of directors recruited Cassotis to expand the nonstop flights, destinations and seats with a new vision and sense of possibility. She was working at a consulting firm, where she advised airport management on competitiveness and attracting airlines.

“When I got the call for Pittsburgh, I was unsure that it would be a good fit,” she says. “I had only been to Pittsburgh once for a conference.”

After a few interviews, and an opportunity to learn and see more, she changed her mind.

“I was doing my homework, looking at data, looking at the foundations of the economy — where the economy was positioned, how the city was rebounding — and just thought, ‘This is a diamond in the rough here, and I would love to be part of having the airport catch up to where the community is. I would love to do this work,’” Cassotis says.

“Everything just worked. The timing was right. The city is a fantastic place, and the airport needed somebody with my skill set, so it was a good fit.”

She’s never run an airport before, but Cassotis says she’s using skills from two previous professions — bartending and consulting.

“In both cases, you have to learn to deal with different types of people, personalities, in varied cultures, political situations,” she says. “You’ve got to understand context continually, and you have to keep a lot of people happy at the same time.”

The role of an effective CEO is to have a vision or to facilitate a vision, and to get it done, Cassotis says. It’s to lead the team, set the pace and expectations, and then to live them out.

“If you’re going to expect people to work hard, you’d better be willing to work hard,” she says.

Lifting expectations

After U.S. Airways closed its mega-hub, 13 million fewer passengers came through the Pittsburgh airport. Cassotis says the staff spent 10 years cutting costs, hunkering down and figuring out how to operate without a hub carrier.

“Expectations had been managed down,” she says. “My biggest challenge was to lift the lid off, let the light in and say to everybody, ‘Hey, it’s a new day. Let’s do this.’”

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.”

Connect with your people and listen to their thoughts and concerns. If it’s something they’ve already tried that didn’t work, Cassotis says you need to discuss it thoroughly first, because it may be something you do anyway.

“The burden’s on me at the beginning to say, ‘Look, I believe this is possible, and I want you to join me. How can I get you here?’” she says.

As Cassotis got her staff on board, she started receiving emails and notes saying things like: I never thought we could’ve gotten done what we got done in a year, and I now believe everything is possible.

Then, that sentiment spreads outward to the community as employees talk in the grocery store, at the car dealer and on the soccer field, she says.

“The challenge is how do you do it in a sustainable way where you have people truly engaged so they’re not stressed and they’re not exhausted; they’re excited,” Cassotis says.

Her first year, she got the team together, targeted the highest priority areas, and worked to find solutions and facilitate better relationships with airlines. If her staff couldn’t get in touch with her, she wanted them to talk to their colleagues — find a way and address the biggest holes.

“Now, it’s a year later, if we keep going at that pace all the time, we’ll burn people out,” she says.

With five new airlines and more than 20 new nonstop flights that include new cities, Cassotis wants to focus on the next level of challenges, including improving the Allegheny County Airport.

“I feel like we were laying the foundation in ’15, and ’16 is much more about being strategic, being proactive and working smarter,” she says.

 

Takeaways:

  • Set the tone right away; hold yourself to the same standard.
  • Buy-in comes through transparency and two-way engagement.
  • Connections with people are the backbone of business.

 

The Cassotis File:

Name: Christina Cassotis
Title: CEO
Company: Allegheny County Airport Authority

Born: Beverly, Massachusetts
Education: Bachelor’s degree in English from University of Massachusetts, MBA from Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management

What was your first job and what did you learn from it? I have a 13-year-old son who is obsessed with the fact that my very first job was at McDonald’s. And he will frequently ask me, ‘Mom, do you remember when you worked at McDonald’s?’

I say, ‘Honey, that was so many years ago. I really don’t.’

What I learned was that I really like interacting with people. I am extroverted and I am externally motivated, and that was clear to me from that first job. I loved going to work, I really liked my co-workers and I liked dealing with the public.

What’s the best business advice you’ve ever received? I would say the best business advice was the advice I got on becoming a CEO — walking into an organization as a CEO outsider. This was somebody who lectured at Sloan, and who talked about those two one-pagers: Who are you, and what do you think I should do?

It was a shortcut into people and who they are. People show you who they are right up front. It’s a question of how much you listen.

If you got on a plane right now, where would you go? That’s hard, because I love to travel.

Hong Kong. We lived there when I was 3. My brother was born there. And I went back for the first time a year and a half ago, and I would like to go back again. And I love the city; I love cities.

What do you like to do when you’re not working? I love to travel, and when I travel I love to food shop. I love to cook, so I love to see how people relate to food in different cultures. So I love to go into markets and grocery stores; I just find that stuff fascinating.

I read. I bike — cycle. I go to my kid’s basketball games. That’s my life.