“He works on the computer.” This would be my mom explaining to a friend or relative what her son did for a living for perhaps the first decade or so of my career. My mom is a sharp lady, but my work just seemed to be generationally foreign to her and to some of the folks with whom she shares news. I explained my work often to my mom. On several occasions I helped clients to transfer their business records from paper to computer-based digital files. At other times I advised clients on how to build and improve strategies for organizing their workforces using documents and presentations… again done via computer. And in yet other instances I developed training courses for new client business systems, traveled around the country to their locations, and taught new users of the systems… all content delivered via computer. In her generation, I guess nobody had to stipulate that the content common to so many different professional pursuits was specifically delivered via paper. “He works on the computer.” Maybe she was right.
“She works on the plane.” My mom was a flight attendant. I don’t need to explain this any further. Just about everybody in 2021 knows what a flight attendant does. A few days ago, I was on the phone with the former flight attendant and she asked me: “What is a culture evangelist?” I paused for a moment before recognizing the title - a title I crafted - from my LinkedIn profile. One of her friends had seen the profile and asked about my work. “I work on the computer.” I was tempted, but I took the bait.
I shared with mom that I help leaders to enable remarkable experiences for people. That most people, both employees and customers, are motivated by their experience. That people who have good experiences tend to be better customers and more productive employees, and that leaders who embrace this insights and take action have big advantages over other leaders. The specific way that I help leaders to do this is by influencing organizational culture. In some scenarios I help leaders to make culture a priority, while with others I help them to make it THE priority.
I was pleasantly surprised when my mom didn’t ask if I did this on the computer. My mom gets customer experience… and employee experience makes a lot of sense to her too. She grew up in what may have been the golden age of flight attendants. Air travel was a big deal back then. People planned travel well in advance and the travel itself was a highlight of the vacation. Many people wore nice or formal clothes, and enjoyed white glove meal service with silver utensils and cloth napkins. It’s a stark difference to today where people travel on planes as if they are Ubers.
There’s a scene in the film Catch Me if You Can where Leo DiCaprio he rolls into the airport flanked by a glamorous team of what then would have been called ‘stewardesses.’ I recognized their outfits immediately because my mom used to where ones just like them. What some people may not know about flight attendants is that their best performances depended on great teamwork. It may not seem as obvious now, but when those teams prepared, staged, and served multiple courses of drinks, snacks, and meals on flights, the interactions between the members of the flight crew, aka ‘the team’, mattered. The team was also highly skilled at dealing with unsavory passengers who were rude and obnoxious to any members of the team, but I’ll save those stories for a future blog.
I asked my mom to think about the best flight attendants she knew and what made each stand out among their peers. She talked about people who knew their stuff. Flight attendants who organized supplies intentionally as they boarded the plane so that they could prepare orders quickly, and about those who were learned to balance unwieldy carts and trays of service items - particularly as their steel carriage hurtled through the air in excess of 500mph. The best ones could do these things while also interacting with people who could be mean or stressed out, and in a way that was consistent with high standard of airline experience in which they were committed to delivering. I think my mom was one of those flight attendants.
I then asked about flight attendants who perhaps didn’t meet the standard. Initially mom found herself describing how they were deficient in the things that had made the good ones good, but then she started to explain how this group often didn’t play well within the team. They didn’t carry their share of the load, didn’t look out for the other flight attendants, and had an attitude about doing the job. When my mom says that somebody ‘has an attitude,’ that is not a good thing.
My mom boarded her first flight as a flight attendant in the late 1950s, and I found it fascinating that she was describing challenges in the same terms that people use today. At the root of organizational challenges were inconsistencies in the culture. When people couldn’t organize the supplies or manage the carts, the team could and would step in and help. But when people couldn’t trust each other, couldn’t function in the team, and couldn’t treat each other with respect, the customer experience became far more difficult to deliver… even when those people could handle the blocking and tackling well.
When she asked what I may have done for her team, I explained that if my team at ChangeSmith were engaged to help flight attendants, we probably wouldn’t be able to offer much in the way of serving in-flight meals or delivering the safety messages. Rather we would work with supervisors and the leaders of the teams to understand with greater precision which specific behaviors made their best flight attendant teams so effective, and we would encourage those behaviors from all flight attendants as frequently and sustainably as possible.
This made sense for my mom. She knew plenty of teams of flight attendants who were darn good at their job, but participated in teams that struggled because people couldn’t get along. She appreciated that a Culture Evangelist was somebody who could help those teams to be better, and to deliver the experience that the airline expected for their customers. And she didn’t even seem to care that we used computers to do it.