Over the past decades, aviation businesses have made major investments into state-of-the-art safety and quality management systems, including commitment of substantial financial, technical, organizational, and human resources. Often, these efforts have gone significantly above and beyond the level of minimum regulatory compliance.
In many cases, however, returns on investment in the areas of safety and quality management are significantly lower than they could be. Some aviation businesses inadvertently undermine the effectiveness of their safety and quality management systems by failing to put in place credible signaling mechanisms that highlight their commitment to a positive safety and quality culture.
The present article suggests four ways via which leaders of aviation businesses can champion their commitment to safety and quality within their organizations.
Importance of Signaling
Sometimes, effectiveness of aviation safety and quality management systems is primarily viewed as a function of making available adequate financial, technical, organizational, and human resources. Indeed, without any doubt, under-resourcing is not a viable approach to safety and quality management. However, adequate resourcing should be viewed as a necessary, but by no means as a sufficient, precondition for achieving excellence in aviation safety and quality management.
Implementing and sustaining successful safety and quality management systems is as much contingent on credible leadership commitment as on adequate resourcing. Credible leadership commitment, in turn, is a function of highly visible, consistent, sustained, and thereby effective signaling on the part of the leadership team vis-à-vis its rank-and-file workforce.
Effective signaling is far more than – actually the opposite of – token gestures. Effective signaling works when aviation leaders walk the talk and set the right tone in areas that count. I suggest the following four ways – the “Four Ps” – to champion safety and quality management and to signal in a credible and effective manner commitment to a positive aviation safety and quality culture: Proximity, Priority, Personnel, and Promotion.
Have you ever had the experience of joining an organization in one of its most “important” functional areas, inquiring about your new office, and after a long search locating such at the end of a corridor in the basement of a building at the edge of the corporate campus far away from the C-suite building? If so, what was the first thought that came to mind? “Wow, great to be here! This must be a truly important and powerful function!” Or “What on earth did I get myself into? Why is an “important” group located in mushroom farming territory?”
In most corporate organizations, perceptions of importance and power of a given functional area are subject to the same mantra as the real estate business: Location, location, location. Geographic proximity to the center of power, usually the CEO’s office, matters greatly, both in terms of internal perceptions and in terms of tangible advantages such as greater opportunities for informal face-time at a shared water cooler. In general, the closer a team is located to the C-suite, the higher it ranks in the internal pecking order and status hierarchy. The further it is away from the C-suite, the less important it tends to be perceived.
Locating safety and quality management functions on prime corporate real estate in proximity to the C-suite – at the very least in the same building and ideally on the same floor immediately adjacent to the CEO’s office – is one of the easiest and most visible ways of sending a very strong positive signal regarding an organization’s commitment to safety and quality. Exiling them to mushroom farming territory does the opposite.
Have you ever been part of an organization that has declared itself to be safety driven yet features a regular agenda for leadership team meetings that relegates safety and quality to the last agenda item? And that regularly pushes safety and quality issues to a subsequent meeting while overrunning time slots for other “more important” agenda items?
In most professional contexts, those issues that command the greatest management priority, attention, and time are perceived to be of the highest importance. If discussion of a specific issue always takes center stage at meetings of the senior leadership team, such issue tends to be perceived as important throughout the entire organization. If an issue is either allowed to be crowded out by other matters or only addressed in a cursory pro forma manner, the organization as a whole is unlikely to take serious such issue.
Putting safety and quality at the very top of the agenda of regular senior leadership team meetings – and of lower level team meetings as well for that matter – sends a strong positive message regarding the importance of safety and quality management. Relegation to last position on the agenda as an afterthought of sorts speaks volumes in its own right.
Have you ever worked for an organization of which the safety or quality boss was widely considered to be a weak leader or was seen as being sidelined after having been pushed out of another more important leadership role? If so, what did such HR choice tell you about the value that the organization puts on safety and quality management and about the internal power and influence of the safety and quality management function?
Leadership choices are some of the most important decisions any organization can make. Filling a leadership role with a star performer who is widely respected throughout the organization sends a very strong signal regarding the importance of the function that such star performer is tasked to lead. It also positions this function to exercise power effectively and to get things done within the organization at large. Star performers can come in different types such as recognized early-career high-potentials who are groomed for larger future leadership roles, well-established mid-career stars, or widely admired end-of-career wise women or men.
Choosing a star performer to lead an organization’s safety and quality function sends a clear positive signal regarding its importance. Equally significant, it empowers safety and quality management within the organization and maximizes credibility vis-à-vis key external stakeholders such as regulatory authorities and customers. Putting an underperformer in charge sends an equally clear yet opposite signal.
Have you ever wondered why in a self-proclaimed safety- and quality-driven organization, promotion decisions are made without consideration of a candidate’s commitment to safety and quality? Have you ever wondered why such factors are not an integral part of the organization’s HR system?
An organization that claims a specific set of values as its DNA needs to align its HR standards and procedures accordingly. If promotion practices do not reflect the proclaimed values of an organization such proclamation is likely to be met with incredulity at best. Sustaining a safety- and quality-driven organization without safety and quality orientation as key criteria for assessing employees for promotion – and hiring for that matter – is likely to be impossible. This applies to rank-and-file team members and even more so to members of the leadership team.
A candidate’s commitment to a positive safety and quality culture should be an integral part of the hiring and promotion process of aviation businesses across all functional areas, and not just for the safety and quality management team. Foregoing promotion of an otherwise qualified candidate in the absence of appropriate commitment to safety and quality has positive symbolic – and substantial of course – significance. Prioritizing HR performance indicators other than safety and quality makes a strong, albeit opposite, statement as well.
Despite committing significant financial, technical, organizational, and human resources to safety and quality management systems, many aviation businesses fail to realize the full returns on these investments. In many cases, this shortfall is driven by a lack of appreciation that these investments are a necessary but not a sufficient precondition. Adequate resource allocation needs to be combined with effective and credible signaling that an organization and its leadership are truly safety and quality focused.
The Four Ps – Proximity, Priority, Personnel, and Promotion – are ways for championing a positive safety and quality culture and for signaling leadership commitment to safety and quality management. Locating the safety and quality management team offices right next to the C-suite, giving highest agenda priority to safety and quality issues during leadership team meetings, assigning a star performer to lead safety and quality management, and making dedication to safety and quality a non-negotiable performance indicator for all promotion and hiring decisions sends as clear a signal as possible.
Obviously, aviation business leaders need to beware of the perils of a substance-signaling gap. Loudly championing safety and quality in the absence of genuine managerial commitment and resource allocation is likely to be counter-productive and to engender cynicism. The Four Ps are not a substitute for substance. However, they can be a force multiplier in order to maximize an aviation business’ return on investment in safety and quality.
Dr. Marc Szepan is a Lecturer at the University of Oxford Saïd Business School. Previously, he was a senior executive at Lufthansa. His primary professional experience has been in leading technical and digital aviation businesses in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. He received his doctorate from the University of Oxford.