Unless you’ve disconnected from the World Wide Web, turned off your TV, and cancelled your newspaper subscription, you’re probably familiar with David Dao. He’s the United Airlines passenger who was forcibly removed from a Chicago-to-Louisville flight.
You may also be familiar with Dave Carroll. He’s a singer/songwriter who rose to fame after United Airlines broke his guitar on a Chicago-to-Omaha flight. The actual incident did not make headlines but his song, "United Breaks Guitars", has over 17 million views on YouTube (check it out here).
Even less known than breaking guitars are two United incidents I experienced within the last couple of years, both taking place at Chicago’s O’Hare airport. While returning from an East Coast consulting project, I had a connection and small layover at O’Hare. Our DFW-bound flight was running a bit late so by the time the plane arrived, the gate area was full of anxious travelers.
When our MD-80 finally arrived, there was no gate agent to move the jet bridge. Two minutes passed. Three. Four. At the five-minute point, I walked a few steps to the next gate where two United agents stood talking. I pointed to our non-moving jet bridge and asked for some help. One agent replied, “It’s not our gate.”
I was stunned. Just several feet away were about 150 passengers (well, we wanted to be passengers) trying to get to Dallas and their only action was to say, “It’s not my gate.” Now, perhaps their union contract prevented them from actually working that gate but I doubt it prevented them from calling someone who could help.
Another “not my job” incident took place last year. Getting to O’Hare well before my departure, I grabbed something to eat and found an empty area in the terminal to do some work. Shortly after sitting down and opening my laptop, I noticed a United employee walking my way. She was obviously on break as she had a book and a soda in hand.
She approached my empty gate area, looked at a Big Gulp cup sitting on the floor as she came within inches of knocking it over, and simply kept walking to an empty chair. Although she did not seem to look at the cup as she left the gate area, she did pass within several feet of this trash. Why didn’t she take the extra five seconds to throw this trash away, making the United gate area a little more inviting? Maybe it wasn’t her gate?
These two “It’s not my job” examples, although quite small, have the same genesis as the two much larger problems of throwing passengers off planes and breaking guitars. In business terms, it’s a lack of accountability.
The United employees mentioned here were not accountable for making great customer experiences. They each had very narrow job descriptions that dictated their actions. So even though these employees could say they were doing their job (although the ramp agents who broke the guitar severely abused their job description), they were not responsible for building an overall good customer experience.
Lack of accountability is one term. Another description is lack of caring. None of these employees cared about me or any other United passenger. They cared about having fun. They cared about taking their break. But they didn’t care for the customers’ belongings, didn’t care if they arrived or departed on time, and didn’t care about the United brand overall.
That’s why we talk about culture so much! A culture of caring or accountability to several key metrics, in these cases on-time departures and satisfied customers, could have prevented these PR disasters. Culture (along with core values) allows all employees to work toward the same goals. Culture helps employees find career success and satisfaction. Culture is unique and gives an organization a competitive advantage that can’t be replicated.
Yes, building and sustaining a healthy corporate culture takes time and effort. It’s something that must be monitored and managed. But the concept is simple:
Corporate culture is the driving force behind corporate success.
Why don’t more companies understand this?
Darren K. Ford
I've enjoyed a great career. Worked in many different industries with great coworkers and customers. I talk to a lot of people while drinking a lot of coffee. I read constantly. From all of this, I have much to say.