Dain Dunston

The Language of Leadership

Dain Dunston

Archive for December, 2013

Flight or Fight: Airlines Put the Squeeze on Passenger Space

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jp-SMOOSH-articleLargeIf you’re traveling over the Holidays, I wish you luck and an intense level of acceptance of things beyond your control. If you’re a very frequent flyer and the weather’s not too bad, you may either have the chance to get an upgrade or you may have some good strategies to help you endure your three hours in the air. I personally favor what I call “the Junior Upgrade,” which is the exit row window seat on the three seat side. I often fly with no one in the middle and there’s a good deal more legroom than First Class (not that I turn down an upgrade when it’s offered). And American, which I usually fly, now offers extra legroom seats in the first few rows of Coach which are plenty comfortable and available only to elite level frequent flyers.

But for most travelers, flying is getting worse, not better. According to the New York Times article today, airlines are working hard to fit more rows in the plane so they car raise revenues on each flight.

To gain a little more space, airlines are turning to a new generation of seats that use lighter materials and less padding, moving the magazine pocket above the tray table and even reducing or eliminating the recline in seats. Some are even reducing the number of galleys and bathrooms.

Southwest, the nation’s largest domestic carrier, is installing seats with less cushion and thinner materials — a svelte model known in the business as “slim-line.” It also is reducing the maximum recline to two inches from three. These new seats allow Southwest to add another row, or six seats, to every flight — and add $200 million a year in newfound revenue.

One result is that passengers are getting a little testy with each other.

On a flight from Washington to Frankfurt last year, Odysseas Papadimitriou, the chief executive of WalletHub.com, a personal finance social network, was challenged by a tall passenger seated behind him when he reclined his seat. “He was like, ‘Hey, watch it, buddy. I don’t fit here with you reclining the seat,’ ” he said.

Mr. Papadimitriou called the flight attendant to mediate the dispute and eventually tilted his seat back, but the price he paid to recline was a fitful night’s sleep, as the other passenger grumbled and pushed against the back of his seat for the rest of the flight.

I really only know of one solution and that relates back to my opening comment about acceptance. If you’re flying on coach in a terrible seat, you have two choices: you can rage about it or you can accept it and get on with your (somewhat cramped life). I have a process I call “getting small.” I make sure I have water, some protein and something to read. Then I insert myself into the seat and imagine my 6’4″ frame shrinking to a kid’s size and imagine my needs doing the same. Then I ignore everything else until I get to stand up again.

Or you can try comedy. I once was flying on an airline I on which I had no clout and as I approached the row where my middle seat was located, I saw to my dismay that I was seated between two 300 pound brothers, both wearing Oshkosh overalls. I saw I had only one option and I took it. I squeezed into place and started cracking jokes, making myself the ham in an 800 pound sandwich. Whatever works to lessen the pain.

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Mary Barra: A New Driver at GM

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marybarraSome of you know that my first speech writing work was at General Motors in the 1980s. Don Runkle, then the Chief Engineer at the CPC Division (Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada) was trying to start a revolution of the car guys there and help Chevrolet get it’s brand mojo back. So I’ve been a close follower (and often a critic) of the leadership at GM over the years.

With yesterday’s announcement that Mary Barra will take the top job at GM, I’ve got reason to be enthusiastic about GM. Although I haven’t worked with her, here are three reasons why I think Ms. Barra may be a great choice at GM.

She’s a woman.

Women make 60% of car buying decisions in the U.S. and have an influential voice in 80% of the buying decisions. So a woman CEO at a car company makes sense. She may have a better connection to the way the majority of her customers think than did any of her predecessors. Even the supposedly macho Hummer 2 attracted female buyers in large numbers and, for once, GM got the message, aiming most of their advertising at mothers. Remember the ad featuring the families with their Hummers circled around a campfire, or the one with the mom dropping her middle school son off at school in front of a tough looking gang of boys, who gave him respect for him mom’s Hummer? The message was clear: driving a Hummer will make you and your family more secure. They even tried a battle-of-the-sexes tagline on: “Threaten men in a whole new way.”

But Barra doesn’t have to threaten anybody. She needs to lead a lean and customer focused organization that truly understands the customer base. When I started out in sales back in the Sixties and Seventies, the language of sales training and management was all round conquest and domination of the customer. When the young women of my generation started entering the workforce, one important door that opened for them was in sales, and they changed the conversation. Out went sales assault and in came a culture of collaborative, consultative selling.

We’re now in an era where the same sense of collaboration and consultation is paying off at the highest levels of leadership and we need more women in top roles to help refine that model. Like Ginny Rometti at IBM, Mary Barra will be ideally placed to do that at GM.

She’s an HR leader.

She ran GM’s global HR organization from 2009 to 2011, after having held a long string of leadership positions (including a plant manager post). In the last decade, the HR track has moved to the front of great ways to get the top job. In an industry that has been plagued for decades with people problems, having a strong understanding of what the people of GM need is a plus. GM has made fantastic progress in the past few years as it emerged from bankruptcy but she’s going to need the commitment of every single employee to keep that progress going and turn GM into a company that can compete with Toyota or VW Group to take back the leading position in the auto industry.

She’s lived through the insanity of employees sabotaging production, of plant management sabotaging process improvement and of top management focusing on internal issues instead of customers. Now that GM’s been taken to the woodshed, maybe there’s an opening for a collaborative culture that puts employees first so that they, in turn, will get excited about putting customers first.

She’s an engineer.

Barra started at GM as co-op student at the General Motors Institute and graduated with a degree in electrical engineering. Her most recent job was as head of Global Product Development and Global Purchasing and Supply Chain. I’m hoping she’s a genius at process innovation because GM needs her to be brilliant at bringing innovation to the product design and development processes and bringing innovation to the production processes. She’ll need to build a culture of quick-to-market thinking with products that customers really crave.

Until the last few years, with a very few exceptions, the products coming out of GM since the 1960s have been monuments to mediocrity. And even then, GM had a great deal of trouble producing even mediocre vehicles to minimum levels of acceptable quality. Thus the loss of half their market share. If GM is to succeed, they have to stop competing on mediocrity and start competing and winning at the highest levels of product innovation and quality. Cadillac has to be able to out-design and out-engineer Bentley, Mercedes, BMW, Range Rover and Audi and out-sell them in Europe and China. Buick needs to establish a mid-market quality and performance niche that competes against similar products from Jaguar, VW Group and Nissan. Chevrolet needs to grab the old Pontiac tag line and build some excitement into the lower end of the market with, again, an unwavering focus on quality and innovation. And GMC needs to build trucks and utility vehicles that are truly “professional grade” and the first choice of the “git ‘er done” crowd and not just badge-engineered Chevy trucks. Anything less than playing to be the very best spells disaster for GM. They’ve got a lot of serious brand building to do and a lot of bridges to mend with customers around the world, and with employees, too.

That takes us back to the first point: she’s a woman. And not, let me stress, a woman in a man’s world. She’s a woman in the world and she has a chance to show us not what she can do, but what the men and women of GM can do. They just paid off their government bailout money yesterday and they have an open road ahead of them. If she can build a culture of collaboration and quality at General Motors, she can lead a global resurgence of American manufacturing.

Let’s wish her luck.

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