Sometimes, the universe conspires to make a point – and it does so with a clarity that borders on the incredible. In my case, the universe recently put two parallel experiences in front of me that perfectly captured the power and importance of communication for leaders. I can assure you that these two stories will now be a permanent part of my training on communication!
The first story took place two weeks ago, when my wife and I were on a flight from Dallas to Louisville. We had boarded the plane and were on the runway waiting to take off. A Texas-sized storm hit out of nowhere with heavy winds and the threat of a tornado. As our plane rocked and shook with the ferocity of the storm, we watched as the roof of a nearby building peeled off and blew away.
As quickly as the storm came, it passed – but, in its wake, it left the terminal and control tower without power. Our pilot took it upon himself to communicate with us every ten or fifteen minutes with updates as to what was being done to restore power in the terminal and what was being done to get the plane back to the gate so that we could get off and stretch our legs while the airport crew sorted things out. He was marvelous: he was fully transparent with what he knew and did not know, and he was willing to take questions as he walked up and down the aisle in the plane reassuring passengers.
We returned to the terminal two hours later after power was restored. The staff in the terminal were just as open with information as the pilot was: they kept us up to date on what they were doing to get us back on board and on our way. The total delay was four hours, yet all the passengers were in a positive mood and very appreciative of how the pilot and staff handled things. As a result, we all felt good when we arrived in Louisville four hours late.
Fast forward one week, and I found myself again waiting in an airport. The flight was delayed because of a mechanical problem with the jet bridge, yet not one staff person said anything to us for a full hour. They communicated with us only when we began to insist that we get some information about the delay and what was being done. By that time, most of us had figured out the problem since we could look out the window of the terminal and see the mechanics trying desperately to get the jet bridge to move over to the plane! The information the staff shared was minimal; nothing was communicated about what they were doing to get us in the air … just a few mumbled words about the mechanical problem. To top it all off, many of us received texts from the airline telling us the flight was delayed because of trouble loading the bags. This was laughable, since we could see the real problem for ourselves.
As the minutes ticked by, passengers began to get more angry and gathered in small groups to share their frustration and relate past experiences when airlines had treated them badly. I finally approached the pilot for our flight, who was waiting in the terminal with the rest of us. I asked him to be an advocate for the passengers by seeking additional and better quality information. He looked me in the eye and said: “I just want to fly the plane. I am sorry we are delayed, but I really cannot help. I don’t do customer service.”
Ultimately, when we boarded, all the passengers were angry and declaring their commitment to avoid this airline whenever possible (even though the airline had nothing to do with the actual problem).
Consider the remarkable contrast. The first pilot took full ownership for the satisfaction of his passengers. As a result of his great communication – and despite a four-hour delay – he took off with an understanding and supportive group of customers.
The second pilot could not be bothered to communicate with his passengers at all. He took off two hours late with a plane full of angry customers who were loudly complaining about their bad experience and actively recruiting others to join in their grumbles.
As a leader in business, people look to you for guidance – especially when situations are less than ideal. As these two stories show, great communication makes a real difference in how you, your people, and your business will come out on the other side of your next challenge.