Roger Woolsey says you might own your product or service, but your customer owns your reputation. In other words, your company is what your customers think it is. In 2002, when Woolsey acquired Million Air Interlink Inc., what customers saw depended on the location. Woolsey, now the president and CEO of the charter air service company, was transitioning from franchisee to franchisor. As he gained a wide-angle view of Million Air, one thing became apparent above everything else Million Air didn’t have a defined culture, so the Million Air name meant different things to different people, depending on which of the company’s 27 airport-based operations you found yourself at.
“If you had to take a snapshot of what Million Air was in 2002, we were in 27 cities, we had 27 management styles, 27 [profit and loss] statements, 27 cultures, 27 independent ways of hiring, and we really had to reinvent the whole system,” Woolsey says Not only did the system have to change, the very definition of Million Air had to be identified and communicated to airport staffers around the country, and the Million Air pilots who cover the distances in between. Though the company is well established with a 25-year history and $700 million in 2007 revenue, it was virtually like starting from scratch with a brand-new vision.
The solution for Woolsey and his leadership team was formed in five steps define exactly what Million Air’s image should be, design a plan to promote that image, train employees to promote the image, live it daily, then use the new image to grow the company.
Define and design the vision
When Woolsey took over Million Air, he challenged every employee at every location to view the company and the brand through the eyes of the customers.
“We stopped and closed our eyes, and we asked, ‘When someone says Million Air, what do we want then to think and feel? What do we want them to smell and sense?’” Woolsey says.
“‘What is our product?’ That is such a great question that every CEO can ask themselves. A lot of times, what you sell is not what they are buying.”
The answer went beyond the act of flying passengers from one place to another. In the charter jet business, as with any luxury-focused business, the product is an image, along with the results to support that image.
“An example I love is when you go to Home Depot and you buy a quarter-inch drill bit. Are you buying a quarter-inch drill bit or a quarter-inch hole?” he says. “When your people really understand, they realize that customers aren’t buying products or even services. They’re buying results. When you understand what that result is, you can better craft it for them.”
The key to developing that understanding is to keep your employees involved as you define your company’s mission and design a plan of attack. At Million Air, Woolsey used mass communication to get the initial message out.
“As the leader, I had to come to the table with some clear convictions and understanding of where I wanted to take the organization,” he says. “I started out by making phone calls to each location, giving them my ideas of where I was headed and soliciting their input. I then distilled that into written documentation and sent it out in e-mail masses to every single employee. Whether it was the gentleman who mows the grass in Burbank, Calif., the lady who sweeps the floors in New York City, the CFO in Houston, I asked them, ‘Hey, here’s what I’m thinking, where I’m headed, help me clarify that.’”
Woolsey pooled the feedback, decided what he wanted to adopt, what he wanted to disregard and what he wanted to table for further discussion among the company’s leaders.
Employee input is good, but too much information can lead to a case of paralysis by analysis. As much as you might want to give employees their say in crafting the future direction of the company, sooner or later you’re going to have to make something happen.
“In any leadership role, we can overanalyze, we can sometimes solicit too much input,” he says. “At the end of the day, you really have to listen to your gut, use some science and blend it with the input from the people on the front lines, then try to make a decision. Once you make that decision, you have to close your eyes and mash on the gas.”
Implement the vision
Eyeball to eyeball.
Woolsey says that is the most effective way to get employees involved, so when the time came to turn planning into action, Woolsey a licensed pilot did one of his favorite things. He took to the air.
“I literally went to every single location; I looked eyeball to eyeball with every single employee. I think I visited 27 cities in two months,” he says. “Literally every day, I was in a new city, standing before all the employees and really trying to push that passion and vision, trying to get that buy-in.”
Above all else, Woolsey wanted to explain the “why” behind his plan to refocus Million Air’s culture. When employees are used to doing their jobs a certain way, getting them to see the big-picture benefits of changing can be difficult. But the simple act of giving a clearly stated reason can do wonders for their acceptance of the idea.
“That is very important as a human, we all want to know why,” he says. “There was a great study done. They had people on a subway, dressed up, dressed down, young and old, male and female. They got on a subway and asked if they could have a seat. When they tried that, maybe 8 percent gave up their seats.
“But when they said, ‘Pardon me, may I have a seat because I want to sit down,’ it was like 91 or 92 percent gave up their seats. How silly is that if you stop to think? I’d like to have a seat because I want to sit down. But if you’re asking someone to do something and you explain the why, you have a 90 percent chance of being successful.”
Woolsey says communication is always the No. 1 priority when trying to implement an organizational change. To keep messages consistent, Woolsey didn’t vary the message by audience. Pilots, office staff, financial managers, groundskeepers, all heard the same messages from Million Air’s management.
“We have pilots, we have MBAs, we have people fresh out of high school within the walls of our organization,” Woolsey says. “In the beginning, I took a little criticism when I was talking about value equations and strategy. Some of our senior general managers said that Johnny, fresh out of high school, isn’t going to understand and that I’m talking over their heads.
“My opinion was that I was not going to dumb down the organization by treating Johnny that way. I thought Johnny had more snap than that and needed to understand the strategy of the organization. That’s the only way the organization is going to make the strategy come true, and I’m really glad I took that approach. Likewise, sometimes you make things simple and you can take some criticism that things need to be a little more complicated, but I also don’t necessarily think that’s the truth.”
Live the vision
To get his company to live his vision each day, Woolsey borrowed from the world of the airplane cockpit.
Each day, Million Air’s leaders pick one of the company’s 20 core beliefs surrounding its mission, vision and values. The selected belief is written out in a several-paragraph definition, packaged with an example of an employee living the belief at Million Air and then e-mailed to the approximately 1,500 employees nationwide.
Woolsey calls it Million Air’s “Daily Takeoff Briefing,” and says it’s similar to the checklists that pilots have to go through prior to takeoff and landing.
“As a pilot, you do 15 takeoffs and landings every day in the same type of aircraft for the rest of your life,” he says. “You think pilots can’t memorize the 32 switches they have to flip? They can do that with their eyes closed. But they read a checklist every single time because the checklist makes sure they didn’t forget a switch. Occasionally, you’ll read off the list and go, ‘Oh, wow. OK, now it’s on.’ It’s no different for us.”
The e-mail is sent out early each morning so that employees encounter it when they first arrive for the day.
“Whether you’re the CFO, a pilot, mechanic, receptionist, the first thing you do when you come to work each day is pick up our daily takeoff, read about one of these values and how we want to make that come alive today. Or you’ll see an example of someone living those values from one of our locations.”
The ability to keep employees in touch with the rest of the organization is crucial to a culture taking root. By broadcasting examples of the culture in action, Million Air gives its top performers a chance to set the pace for the entire organization.
“We’ve found that this is really a good way to keep your organization alive,” Woolsey says. “It’s better than just having your vision, mission and values on a wall plaque. We talk to our employees about daily communication. It keeps everybody in alignment. It’s like a daily booster shot of our culture, and it prevents leaks.
“If you could walk in to any department store or fast-food chain and ask them to tell you a story of great customer service, then asked them if it has happened at any other location, they probably couldn’t tell you. At Million Air, everyone really feels like they know each other because of these stories.”
Once everyone is living the vision, the next step is to grow by using the vision. Woolsey says the growth portion is an ongoing process and a phase into which Million Air has only recently started moving. The company has 32 franchise locations, compared with 27 when Woolsey’s cultural rebuilding started.
“Once we really felt like we built the organization, the product, service and culture the way we wanted to, then we could take that financially viable way and grow the organization,” he says. “Six years later, we’re just now starting to enter the growth stage.”
But it all started back at step one. Without defining where he wanted to take Million Air from the outset, Woolsey says he would not have arrived in 2009 with a growing company. Or if he did, it likely would have been by chance.
“A lot of organizations seem to live a strategy of, ‘That’s what has worked for us,’” he says. “‘These are the things that didn’t work for us; this is what did work,’ and they sort of land on a strategy by accident. I really thought that if we didn’t define it upfront, if we didn’t try to point everything toward that brand, toward the reputation we wanted, we were just going to get what we got, as opposed to getting what we designed for.”
HOW TO REACH: Million Air Interlink Inc., (888) 589-9059 or www.millionair.com