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   Vol. 18 No. 70
Thursday October 31, 2019
Paths of Glory - Leadership Series
Rick Elieson

     “While you are reading a book, it is also reading you,” purportedly words once spoken by Hans Christian Anderson have come to mind.
     Take the case of Richard Elieson, who has served as President of American Airlines Cargo for the past three and a half years.
     We have spoken often about things, usually at a trade show, or even as we did recently during a short interview/meeting inside American Cargo’s new Penthouse Suite of offices at the gleaming new Skyview 8 headquarters building in Fort Worth, Texas.
     Usually it’s a battery of questions and answers as the interview goes on.
     But in this case what you are about to read addresses only one question.
     I asked Rick “What are the most important attributes of a leader?”
     His answer was direct, to the point and voluminous enough to serve as a course outline for advanced air cargo management.
     Rarely, as a reporter, do we experience this sort of volume and depth and fervor emerge from a business interview.
     We are moved, and at the same time inspired by these words and thoughts, to continue our pursuit of the leadership series in FlyingTypers.

What are the most important attributes of a leader?

     For many years I have made a practice of trying to identify leadership qualities in the people around me. I don’t mean this in a judgmental or critical way, but I’ve looked for habits and practices that I might emulate and from which I will grow. I don’t want to have to learn everything first-hand through my own trial and error process. I’ve found that if you’re willing to look, there are wonderful teachers all around (even if unwittingly) and there are a great many leadership attributes that I have come to admire. Attributes like passion, authenticity, humility and a vision rank high on my list. Of course, so does good communication skills and good managerial skills. I think of leadership and management as quite distinct, but I appreciate the need for both and don’t believe either can be neglected if an organization is to thrive.
     Over the years, I have been fortunate to associate with effective leaders with differing levels of those qualities. None of them perfect individuals, but always striving to become better themselves – add that to my list – and desirous to lift and make those around them better. This means I’ve had a long list of mentors in my life.
     As the American Airlines Cargo team, we emphasize five leadership principles in particular. We don’t generally talk about them in any particular order (one isn’t more important than another), but in my mind, there is a logical sequence or momentum to them.

First Is Caring

Jennifer Stelling     Specifically, caring about your fellow team members. And more to the point, helping them to feel cared for. It isn’t enough for me to sit quietly and think kind thoughts about my colleagues. Potential energy needs to be put into motion in order to unlock its value. One of the ways we do this at American is through a recognition platform that Jennifer Stelling, our Director of Marketing and Engagement has championed for use across our team. It isn’t top down, but rather peer-to-peer. With a little modification, Jennifer came up with a way for us to use it for contracted employees too.
     Recently when I wanted to thank some team members for their dedication and for the long hours they are putting in, she encouraged me to record a personalized video on my phone for each person and text it to them individually, rather than sending an email.
     Eleven videos that took me about one minute each to record. It may seem small, but we try very hard to be inclusive and treat third party employees the same as any other team member. That is the kind of thoughtful approach to caring that is infectious and I’m proud to say permeates and perpetuates a family-like culture of caring among our team.

Second Is Collaboration

     When you like your colleagues and truly value their input, you are more likely to include them and collaborate. So, if you are aligned in your cause (your purpose and your understanding of its relative urgency), you care about each other and you appreciate the contribution of your fellow team members, then it quite naturally turns into great collaboration. None of us have a monopoly on the best ideas. I don’t know if I’ve ever had the best idea in the room. But I’ve contributed to some brilliant ones, and I’ve implemented many. I can say with confidence that the proudest accomplishments in my career, crowning achievements if you will, are ideas that originated with someone else.      
     Many examples immediately spring to mind.
     One thing that social science and design thinking has taught us is that ideas get better when you share them. Roger Samways, our VP of Global Sales, is a fantastic collaborator. It isn’t because his ideas are terrible! But he genuinely enjoys including others in his ideation and decision-making processes. The result is not only that initiatives become more thoughtful and robust, but they are more successful because all of the people responsible for implementation become involved and invested along the way. I know American is not the only gigantic company where this is helpful – it must be true at forwarders and other carriers too. The internal support we get from across the broader American Airlines, the talent we’re able to attract, and the opportunities that we uncover are dramatically improved because of Roger’s strength as a collaborator.

Third Is Development

     We can always improve, right? However, the effort to do so often gets sidelined because we’re too busy doing our day job. When my father was my age, he went back to school to earn a PhD. He already had degrees from Caltech and Harvard. What was more education going to do for him? I have grown up with his example of lifelong learning. Not to get existential on you, but I am convinced that when you stop growing, you start dying. One of the interesting things about deepening or broadening your knowledge is that it not only makes you smarter, but when you flex your mind in new ways or examine old problems in a new context – and then share what you’re learning – it improves the way in which you interact with others.
Chris Isaac      Great leaders do more than continue to learn and improve, they also recognize that core to their responsibility is helping others do the same. Recently, Chris Isaac, our Managing Director of Revenue Management, introduced a learning platform to the team. He had seen it elsewhere and championed its implementation and adoption. With a click, it gives you the ability to share interesting articles, videos or podcast with others on the team. If you follow Chris on this social-learning platform, you can see what he’s reading, watching and learning. I can see that he recently read a Harvard Business Review article about writing more thoughtful out-of-office messages, watched a TED talk about innovation, took a class on disrupting everyday biases, and read an email from Elon Musk describing his thoughts about management philosophy. Extend that across a team of thousands, each sharing their thoughts and insights about what they’re learning and you’ll find a rich experience that can be consumed in bite sized chunks whenever you’re ready.

The Fourth Is Results

     Results matter, and getting stuff done is a hallmark of great leadership. We have a lot of cool initiatives underway at American Airlines Cargo, but none of them matter if you are not living up to your commitments of today. If you haven’t seen the Academy Award winning documentary Free Solo, about the ascent of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, go watch it and then come back and finish reading this. I spent a week with the director a few years ago, so I am assuredly biased, but I love the film. At one stage, Alex Honnold (the object and star of the film) is practicing an insane move to get across the most difficult portion of the climb. With the smallest of toe holds, he has to push up against a small indention just large enough for this thumb, and then trade places with his other thumb while he kicks his leg out to find another hold. I should mention that he does all of this 1500 feet off the ground without a rope. When watching this portion of the film, you have to remind yourself to breath.
     What I find most interesting, is that while it is the most difficult section, it is not the portion of the climb that he practiced the most. Maybe it is like the wise golfer who knows to spend more time practicing her putting, but the portion of the climb that Alex focused on the most was a section at the beginning, only 500 feet into the climb. The lesson is that if you fall off the mountain at 500 feet you are just as dead as if you fall at 1500 feet.
Tim Paliganoff     You cannot afford to be so distracted by what lies ahead that you neglect the problem at hand – that only ends in disaster. You must master the challenges in front of you right now. I have two leaders who exemplify this trait. David Vance, our VP of Operations, and Tim Paliganoff, (right) the Director of Customer Care.
     There is an inseparable relationship between how hard we work for something and how much we value it. The harder we work, the more we care about it. And the more we care about something, the harder we are willing to work for it. Said another way, you care most about the people you serve the most.
     It may sound like circular logic, but I prefer to think of it as a virtuous cycle. I don’t know where the cycle begins, but I know how much these two teams care about our customers and I see how hard they work day-after-day, without know what tomorrow will bring, to meet our customers’ needs.
     The result is that our operational performance is on a record setting rampage. We have quite literally, never operated as well as we are right now. How? It is an accumulation of the aforementioned qualities: Caring, Collaboration and Development. They come together to work as a team with a collective ownership to GSD (get stuff done). It is inspiring for the entire team at a time when there are so many other distractions and demands on their energy to see the fundamentals so well cared for. We take immense pride in the operational achievements.

The Final Attribute Is Future

     I was a Boy Scout, so being prepared is deeply engrained in my psyche. The comforting news is that I don’t have to predict the future in order to prepare for it. Once upon a time, the companies with the smartest people or the greatest access to resources were the most successful. In the modern economy, that simply isn’t true anymore. Start-ups appear out of seemingly nowhere and with next to nothing disrupt established markets all the time.      The most resilient companies, the enduring companies that are successful over the long haul, are the companies that are the most adaptive and the most attuned to customer needs. Technology is at the core, but it isn’t the focus. Technology is an enabler, while people and process are – must be – at the center of your long-term strategy.
Jessica Tyler     Jessica Tyler is the VP of Strategy and Development at American Airlines Cargo and she has an incredible passion for people. I watched her present to a group of executives earlier this week, including the CEO, CIO, CFO, etc. about a massive technology project. In actuality, she spoke very little about the technology and a great deal about the way in which we are going to affect people’s lives; team members and customers alike. With responsibility for long term platform and business model development as well as the execution of today’s technology imperatives, she remains steadfastly focused on people.
     That focus is what is defining our future and the way in which we will evolve and adapt to the needs of the market. No project, however futuristic, remains abstract when you are able to see it in those terms.
     That is a very long explanation and may appear self-indulgent, but I hoped to avoid platitudes and show you rather than tell you about the attributes that I admire and which we are working hard to incorporate into our company culture. The truth is that each of these leaders exhibit all five of the leadership attributes mentioned, but I described them in the way I did because I want to make one final point about diversity.
     We are at our best when we recognize, appreciate and leverage the unique strengths that each of us brings to the table as opposed to trying to accomplish feats alone or to force others to conform. People have always liked me better after meeting my wife, they think I’m funnier after seeing me with my friends, and they only see how capable I am when they get to know my team.
     However you choose to slice it, we are better together, and we are happier when we are focused on the happiness of others.
     I love being part of such a great team.

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