A Source of Stability Amidst a Torrent of Change
By Tony Kern, Ed.D
Chief Executive Officer, Convergent Performance
Our industry is on the bow wave of some of the greatest change in the last 50 years. Tens of thousands of new pilots and maintenance professionals are entering the workforce each year; NextGen Airspace is coming online; automation continues to evolve at an ever-increasing pace; and, oh yeah, after this holiday season, nearly 700,000 new UAS (drones) will be in the hands of hobbyists. Challenging times, indeed. What is needed to navigate this whitewater is a source of stability upon which we can anchor. Something that can preserve our safety, culture and values during this great sea change. Luckily, it is already here; we just haven’t noticed.
As I’ve wandered about the aviation universe over the past three decades, I have had the great pleasure to work with scores of different organizations. Some military, some government service, many private sector, some big, and some small. As I engage with this panorama of flight operations, I will hear, almost without exception, about the brightest stars and the foulest villains their respective organizations have encountered in their recent history. I suspect it is a part of our white-scarf-and-goggles aviation heritage to have such a great fascination with star performers and rogues.
There is a serious drawback to this mindset, as it tends to cluster our personnel into three categories: heroes, villains, and insignificant others. It is this last, inappropriately labeled category that deserves far more focus, as it represents the most critical aspect of safe and sustainable performance we have. Misnomered insignificant others are the quiet professionals who show up on time, do their jobs within the lines, and shoulder vast workloads without complaint. They are the backbone of every successful aviation organization, yet nobody seems to notice. What’s even more fascinating—and valuable—is that they don’t seem to care that we don’t seem to notice. They are not driven by personal ambition and don’t need their egos stroked to stay fueled. They appear to draw all they need in the way of validation from doing their job consistently well.
In the June 2003 issue of the Harvard Business Review, management gurus Thomas DeLong and Vineeta Vijayaraghavan wrote a now-famous article titled, “Let’s hear it for the B Players”. Following more than 20 years of research, DeLong and Vijayaraghvan “found that companies’ long-term performance—even survival—depends far more on the unsung commitment and contributions of their B players” than on the so-called “A-player” executives or rising stars. “These capable, steady performers are the best supporting actors of the business world.” In the turbulent aviation industry, they may be even more important.
Steady performers can handle change. When the waves of change hit and the boat gets rocked, they show up and go to work. Quiet professionals are typically not interested in job hopping to find a few more dollars or greener grass on the other side of the airfield. So long as the organization honors it commitments, they tend to be loyal and in it for the long haul. This makes them exceptionally valuable for managers and executives who need a stable and reliable workforce in order to advance their organizations in this highly competitive industry. If these folks are so critical, maybe it’s time we valued them a bit more highly, beginning with trying to identify who they are and paying them what they are worth.
According to DeLong and Vijayaraghavan, the defining characteristic of a quiet professional “is their aversion to calling attention to themselves—even when they need to. They are like the proverbial wheel that never squeaks—and, consequently, gets no grease.” Put this in contrast to the typical aviation rogue or rock star, who never misses a chance to be on stage, and you can see how, in medium to large organizations, you might not even know the names of your most valuable human resources.
The final—and most critical—part that quiet professionals play is through the pure power of their example and work ethic. The “B Players” article observes that quiet professionals “are always there as … powerful reminders to high performers obsessed with themselves or as examples to low performers terrified of failure. In that respect, B players counterbalance both ends of the bell curve.” What aviation organization doesn’t need that?
So, if you are an aviation leader, a good starting point would be to make a shortlist of those who might be underappreciated in your organization, seek them out, and thank them for your success. If you are lucky enough to work alongside a quiet professional, study their example of selfless performance and learn from it. Finally, if you are one of the thousands of quiet professionals in our industry, keep up the great work and find a protégé—we’re going to need more of you.
Convergent Performance is uniquely dedicated to reducing human error in high risk environments.
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