There was a collective groan when the airline check-in person announced our flight would be delayed. Travel-weary passengers shook our heads and hoped for the best but became increasingly dispirited as a second and third delay were declared.
I’d just spent some quality time visiting my mom who lives nearly a thousand miles away and was flying out of Quad Cities International Airport near Moline in Illinois back to my home in Colorado Springs.
Don’t let the name of the airport fool you. It boasts “International” as part of its title simply because it’s an official port of entry for cargo. There are no out-of-the-country passenger flights. There aren’t all that many domestic flights. And on this particular day the prospect of my flight ever happening looked increasingly dismal.
As a culture change consultant, I travel a lot visiting clients coast-to-coast and know all too well that flight delays and cancellations have become all too common.
Fortunately (or unfortunately) experience had me prepared. I weighed up my options. Trusting my gut rather than the airline’s empty promises I decided that being a road warrior literally meant taking to the road instead of the not-so-friendly skies. After securing a rental car before other passengers opted for the same course of action, I set off towards I-80, knowing there was a minimum thirteen-hour drive ahead of me.
It turned out to be a smart move. The long day behind the wheel was peaceful compared with the craziness I’d left behind at the airport. The unplanned bonus was that it gave me hours of uninterrupted thinking time as I crossed Iowa and Nebraska into Colorado. It enabled me to mentally review projects and solve a few thorny issues. It was a highly productive use of my time. It also proved to be the right move from the travel perspective. The flight I’d booked eventually departed ten hours late—only to be rerouted to Little Rock, Arkansas, a long way from home. By taking charge of the situation I arrived home faster than leaving my fate in the hands of the airline.
There are business leadership lessons from this adventure that every CEO should consider.
First, don’t stick rooted to a particular plan when something goes off track. Look for alternatives, carefully consider the pros and cons, and act. Agile leadership is an essential skill in today’s ever-evolving and rapidly changing business landscape. Be prepared to respond quickly and effectively to the unexpected. Proactively think about the kinds of challenges that will come your way and how you can handle them. War game and role play crisis situations.
When agility is visibly embedded in a positive workplace culture, employees have confidence in their leaders’ ability to lead them through the toughest of times. And there are sound business benefits.
An Aberdeen Strategy and Research survey of more than 400 businesses, for instance, showed that when organizations displayed agility in dealing with their customers, there was:
- 2.2x greater annual increase in satisfaction rating.
- 3.6x greater annual increase in customer retention rates.
- 48% more year on year growth in annual revenue.
- 2.4x greater increase in customer lifetime value.
- 80% greater increase in profit margins.
On the subject of corporate agility, I agree with Omer Minkara, Aberdeen vice president and principal analyst, who says that agile businesses “are not only creating happier customers but generating operational efficiency and driving better financial outcomes.”
And as far as my personal display of agility goes, switching from a plane to a car may not have been the toughest of decisions to make but it sure beat sitting in a crowded airport for hours!
Hour after hour on the open road freed my mind to ponder all manner of issues. There were multiple projects for a variety of clients that needed to be thought through and action plans formulated. This rare block of “open” time also gave me an opportunity to reflect on the overall direction of my business. It was time incredibly well spent.
In today’s working environment we tend to bounce from Zoom call to Zoom call and don’t take enough time to just sit, think, and evaluate. It gets worse the higher you climb up the corporate leader. At every new rung you attain additional responsibility, and more individuals want more access, and you’re invited to ever more meetings either in-person or online.
One meeting you must put on your calendar is a meeting with yourself. Schedule an hour here and there to do nothing but think. Even if it’s just once a week. Insist on an hour of solitude without any kind of interruption being permitted—unless the building is on fire. You may even feel guilty at first, but the rewards are worth it.
When he was running Microsoft Bill Gates had what he called a “Think Week.” Twice a year he went off to a clapboard cabin hidden in a Pacific Northwest forest. While there he reviewed proposals for new projects and investments and spent “big picture” thinking time. Work during one “think week” reportedly led to the creation of Internet Explorer.
Of course we all can’t afford to take weeks away from the daily leadership of our businesses, but we can afford an hour a week.
Challenge = Opportunity
In my latest book Culture Ignited: 5 Disciplines for Adaptive Leadership I have a chapter titled “Turn Crisis Into Opportunity.” While a much-delayed flight was not a crisis by any reckoning it was certainly a challenge that became an opportunity.
The saying “Never let a good crisis go to waste” has been attributed to Sir Winston Churchill (among others) and regardless of who deserves the credit it is a maxim that holds true. And I would take it a stage further: Don’t let a good challenge go to waste. Yes, you need to react and often in real-time as problems arise but don’t forget to set some time aside to think—and think long-term. Why did the challenge occur in the first place? How good was your response? How did members of your team perform? How agile were you? What will you do differently if a similar challenge occurs in the future?
If you already have thinking time on your calendar so much the better. You don’t need a 13-hour car journey!
Written by Jason Richmond.
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