CEO Interviews, Customer/member centricity, Organizational Culture

How NOT to be like the Airline Industry: Developing Customer/Member-Centered Teams and Cultures

Develop Entrepreneurial Leaders

Passengers being dragged out of airplanes, bleeding, or brought to the point of sobbing out loud have dramatized for the public the sorry state of “customer service” in the airline industry. Clearly, the problem does not lie with a few incompetent employees but with entire cultures, practices and systems that are focused on short-term profit rather than their customers’ welfare and, hence, loyalty.

How can you build human-centered organizations and develop staff that can help you drive engagement and growth?

 “Get Your Employees to Think Like Entrepreneurs and Watch Business Boom,” advises Gene Hammett in an article in the Entrepreneur magazine.

He offers three strategies that you can incorporate through new practices, rewards and incentives.

1. You and your team must learn to accept 100 percent responsibility for your success Entrepreneurs do not look for scapegoats to blame or backdoors to retreat to. They do not feel entitled to a paycheck simply because they performed assigned duties or put it the requisite number of hours. Look for ways to hold people accountable for results and reward them for their share in successes.

2. Give up perfection and procrastination.  The foundation of innovation, the author reminds us, is learning from failures. Fearing failure and avoiding risk at all costs blocks experimentation and innovation.

Entrepreneurial approaches to development, such as Design Thinking and Lean Start-Up methodologies, replace conventional planning and product development with a process of learning by doing, starting with the premise that you will not get it right at first try. The idea is that, especially in fast moving markets, you cannot come up with the perfect product or service in abstraction, by trying to anticipate all possible risks and making assumptions about customers’ reactions. Instead of waiting until the “perfect” design is completed on paper, you launch an imperfect concept through a small-scale prototype that you test with a few sample customers and constantly perfect it through their feedback. 


3. Focus on Solutions Rather than Compliance or Sales

                                             Understanding and embodying the spirit of an entrepreneur is about being aware of a variety of perspectives and staying open to new ways of thinking. It is a shift from “It’s not my fault,” to “I will find a way.”

Gene Hammett

The employees involved in the recent incidents at United and American Airlines, were so focused on enforcing policy uniformly, regardless of situations or consequences, that they lost sight of the humanity and personhood of the customers. These incidents would never have taken place if the employees “read” the customer’s personality and needs, took time to listen to them and worked with them to come up with several options for acceptable solutions.  

When your managers and front-line employees make the change from finding an excuse to finding a way, your company will leap forward.

Gene Hammett


Stanford Law School: Developing Problem-Solving Lawyers Who Think like their Clients

Stanford Law School was a leading innovator in refocusing legal education from theory to customer solutions to address a growing gap between legal employers’ needs and expectations and the competencies of new law school graduates.

Legal expertise alone was no longer adequate to address the needs of today’s customers. Additional competencies, especially business and problem-solving skills, were essential. In 2008, Stanford introduced a new curriculum, designed to address this gap and develop the agile, problem-solving lawyer of the future. I had the pleasure of interviewing Stanford’s then Dean, Larry Kramer who gave me an example of the mismatch between academic training and the customers’ needs: 

….A corporate client asks its lawyer about a particular deal and the lawyer says “no, you can’t do this because the law won’t allow it.” Well and good, and the client should be pleased to avoid liability. But when the client turns and asks the lawyer to help figure out a legal way to do the deal, the lawyer will need to know more than just doctrine. The lawyer will need to understand how the deal works, will need to know how to evaluate the risks and benefits, and will need to be able to work with the client to find a solution…I cannot tell you how many people I have spoken to since becoming dean who have said to me something like the following: “The problem with lawyers is that all they ever do is tell me 10 reasons I can’t do what I want. I need lawyers who, after they’ve done that, can help me find a legal way to get it done.’”

Does it sound familiar? I am sure that the airline employees I am referring to, also gave passengers tens of reasons for why they could not adjust or violate the rules.  

Six Strategies for Professional Development from Stanford Law School 

 Yet developing a new type of lawyer was not a matter of “a single skill,” Kramer explained, “much less something that can be taught in a three-week session on problem solving.”  Below are 6 strategies Kramer adopted that could be helpful in instituting a development strategy for your staff and stakeholders


  1. Instead of isolated curriculum improvements and projects, the design process was focused on integrated and systems-based solutions to key areas of dissonance between training and practice.
  2. Key to its development was conceptualizing the university in terms of competencies rather than degrees, products or departments; and understanding where value could be extracted from a range of intellectual assets, to benefit customer outcomes.
  3. He built new capabilities for empathy, enabling students to learn to “think like a client” and see the world from someone else’s perspective.  “Thinking like your clients” became a mantra.
  4. Emphasized the need to understand customers’ business, beyond legal problems, enabling students to take courses outside the school and earn interdisciplinary d egrees.  Already in 2008, 20 joint degree programs in place, encompassing 27 separate joint degrees and several more were planned.
  5. Created laboratory environments for learning “by doing.” Instituted clinical programs and multidisciplinary, team-oriented, problem solving courses to develop problem-solving skills, team work and inter-disciplinary capabilities.  “Rather than pretend to teach students problem solving by lecturing abstractly about methods,” Kramer explains, “these courses bring students and faculty from different disciplines together, assign them actual problems, and require them to work through to a solution.”
  6. Aimed at attracting students who were ambitious, creative, entrepreneurial and who had a good chance at making a difference rather than simply advancing their own careers.