Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Hot Air Balloons and Passenger Planes

Some 120 years separate the first hot air balloon flight from the historic 1903 Wright brothers’ aeroplane success.  The fact that commercial passenger flights today are performed using planes rather than air balloons holds many an important analogy for the aspiring strategic communicator.

Consider a weak communication strategy similar to a hot air balloon, taking off in a vertical manner with all employees from bottom to top, with the exception of the leaders in the privileged pilot crew, together with no clear idea of where they are headed.  Yet, they are all on board with the common denominator being their employment agreement and thus their implicit agreement with the direction of the firm.

As the captains hoist the firm to their premeditated heights, they take little time to share their navigational plans with their passengers, their employees.  As such the staff have no idea where they are going or how to help steer this aeronautical structure toward the intended goal.

Business conditions alternate as would cold temperature spikes with sun drenched hours, creating a general sense among the rank and file of being adrift.  The limited supplies on board seem accessible only to those high up in the hierarchy, creating an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ atmosphere.  The staff resort to huddling together in groups of convenience; with those closest to each other and among who shared feelings of dissent are expressed forming the tightest bonds. 

Others are naively happy, hanging over the edge of the gondola like dogs with floppy ears looking out of a speeding car.  They are the down-for-whatever types content to know they will be paid at the end of the trip, no matter what they do or don’t do.

Then there are the scouts and soldiers who extend their services to the leaders, some with authorization and others with sneaky ulterior motives.  They align themselves with their leader of choice and hope they will be duly rewarded once all goes well.

However, despite this support, the leaders are smart to be well aware that their lack of articulation of their strategy or even where they are headed could result in the death of all on board.  Some will be successful and relish in the achievements solely to the relegation of the passengers; crushing the spirit of those who thought they were actually part of a team.

Those who lose will feel the weight of loneliness at the top and depending on their personal strength, will hold up or crumble under the weight of it all.  Meanwhile, regardless of whether they arrive safely or not, staff will get off feeling jaded and will likely ask questions along the lines of ‘where are we now?’, “does this matter” and “what do I do now”.  Most will leave for good at the first chance they get, forever chanting in unison that they ‘never felt led anyway’.

Consider the strong communication strategy akin to the passenger plane.  As each new passenger boards, the smile of the welcoming crew conveys the promise of a wonderful journey ahead.  Tickets and assigned seats, even if delineated by class, promote a sense of belonging and purpose.  The taxiing process is coupled with a briefing session that both heralds a wonderful trip ahead and promotes safety in the event of turbulence or loss of altitude.  All of this serves to reassure each traveller of the goal they are all working toward. 

Early options to shift seating arrangements away from the responsibility of exit doors make for a healthy corporate social contract and in-flight magazines provide important information on corporate and social activities that promote a high sense of community.  Entertainment facilities and recliners subtly say work-life balance matters to all employees at all levels.

Trust is placed in the leader, who pilots the team toward their destination.  Though unseen, the leader’s efforts are experienced equally by every team member.  The confident tone of voice by the pilot during periodic progress updates eliminate panic while simultaneously conjuring images of imminent success.

Even if there are a few bumps during the flight and on the landing, there is a general spirit of unity among all on board.  The cordiality as they board, in their in flight interactions and in orderly approach to disembarking, make them a true unit, regardless of religious postures, attire, race, language or nationality.  So much so that they look forward to doing it again!

Now ask yourself, if your company’s communication strategy a hot air balloon floating as Icarus to the sun or is it an elegant airbus travelling with an enlightened crew and supportive passengers to a designated destination?