Willie no mates
Willie Walsh is having a bad time at BA at the moment, surrounded by fallouts. Not just the recurring ash fallouts from Eyjafjallajoekull but the very public fallouts he is having with his closest mates: Fallouts with government over air tax duty and the third runway at Heathrow; fallouts with his cabin crew over wages and perks; fallouts with the regulator over flight bans; and fallouts with the unions. They are all threatening to lead to ultimate fallouts with his customers and shareholders.
I don’t want to criticise his approach to union negotiations, regulatory affairs and government relations but I do wonder what key messages his bullish standoff position sends out to the wider audience, especially his employees. There is definitely an air of “My business would be better off without all these people getting in my way” Be careful what you wish for Willie.
When you look at what Derek Simpson’s tweeted during negotiations they were pretty innocuous, why did Willie chose to take great issue with them? Was it because he was angry that nobody in his team was monitoring and knocking on the door to warn him what was happening? Or was it because it highlighted that the unions tend to be adept at getting out simple messages in a timely way to their members, and social media tools is allowing them to be even more sophisticated? An employee of another company in the transport sector told us that during a strike in the US they all joined and followed the union’s social media stuff because that was where they got the most up to date information.
Euan Semple holds a more sympathetic view “increasingly there is a gap between those who adopt social media tools and those who don’t. There will always be a gap, what’s importnat is how we deal with it, respecting whatever camp people are in. Just as we shouldn’t rubbish the early adopters (even if they make a few mistakes along the way) we should respect those people who don’t get it, not rub their noses in it but help them to catch up”.
He recalls his experience of meetings at the BBC five years ago where “one half of the room were alluding to extra information, back stories and context that they were aware of due to following online conversations while the other half of the room had no idea what we were talking about. Unlike Unite , the BBC unions were slow to get involved, maybe they had too much to lose by upsetting the cosy dance they had enjoyed for years with HR!”
Changes…turn and face the strain
From an external perspective, if only half of what you read and hear is valid much needs to change. James Harkness believes that “the BA workforce appear isolated from what has gone on in the outside world and particularly the aviation industry since the fallout from 9/11. This recent dispute though has illustrated how far back the airline has fallen.” The strong heritage of the BA brand is not enough to pull them through. “Whilst there will always be a huge fondness for the national carrier that does not necessarily correlate into revenue for the airline. For many passengers there is not the allegiance to BA that there was even a few years ago. The brand has been tarnished and seems to have lost focus. Working for a struggling organisation can only have negative repercussions for employee morale”
James believes Willie Walsh cannot and should not back down. “Willie’s battle with the unions is a legacy issue which the previous leadership had not tackled. He has no choice but to take them on and drive through change, he is right in his view that BA’s future will only be secured with major revisions to perks, pay and working practices. The challenge for Willie going forward is to begin a process of genuine dialogue to ensure he is bringing his people with him. He needs to be aware that this is not some quick-fix campaign or sheep-dip programme but a long term strategic plan to make people at all levels feel they can make a personal contribution to the airlines’ success.
It’s about winning hearts and minds, not court cases
Staff engagement clearly is an issue within BA, winning court orders to ban strikes isn’t exactly winning hearts and minds it just seems to be exacerbating and accentuating poor employee relations. The court cases must be costing an order of magnitude more than the cost of bringing his people along with him. When Unite finally won their appeal he was left with egg on his face and resorted to a belated campaign for employees to boycott the strike, too little too late? That’s not to say BA hasn’t invested heavily in high-profile employee campaigns over the years, it appears the campaigns of the past have failed to make a sustainable difference.
Ian Buckingham believes a large part of BA’s challenge is their seemingly “schizophrenic battle between gargantuan commercial brand status and the perception of being a “de-facto” national institution about which everyone has an opinion”. This is a large challenge for employees who are expected to deliver the customer experience.
Ian is in little doubt that BA employees see their brand significantly different from the view of their leadership. “This has serious repercussions for customers both in terms of what the brand delivers and whether employees will eventually bring the brand to its knees by refusing to “fly the flag” for the brand they don’t believe in or trust anymore”
When staff choose industrial action, it signals a fundamental disconnect between employees and the representation of the brand itself by their leadership. Employee engagement has broken down. “You can rebuild high levels of engagement” says Ian, “but only when you rebuild trust and create a culture of communications focussed more on listening and less on pushing messages, that’s a leadership issue” Does Walsh, and by implication his leadership team, come across as leaders who listen?
The time has come for BA to get to the core of their brand in the context of a fresh Vision; Mission; employee engagement strategy and most importantly a set of values that embraces the challenges of the changing marketplace. Walsh and his colleagues need to re-engage with their staff to define what the BA brand stands for or the increasingly empowered customers will continue to vote with their feet.
He’ll get by with a little help from his friends
Despite the bookmaker’s predictions of an exit before the end of the year, I hope Willie stays and makes the necessary changes, but he needs allies. The unions need to get behind the changes necessary to engage their members and build a strong company in difficult times, the government need to consult with the industry to ensure a level playing field on regulation and taxes, and employees need to remain focussed on the customer, seeing them through the turbulence. This isn’t the right time to be turning their backs on the only guy that can realistically be the true saviour of a great British brand.
Wishing you the “best of British” Willie, good luck.