The Importance of Communications in Culture Building
By Marty Parker
High performance leaders today need to be focused on the varied communication needs and styles of their team members and other stakeholders. It comes down to understanding how to stay focused on your message while using the medium that is best suited for your audience.
I recently sat down with Ed Sims, President and CEO at WestJet, to talk about the importance of living your corporate culture in times of crisis and times of celebration. Throughout our time together, the conversation kept coming back to the importance of strong communications.
The interview has been edited for length, but you can listen to the full conversation here.
The culture at WestJet is very well known, certainly in Canada, if not in many other places and it’s a big part of your brand identity. Why has it been so important for culture to be front and center at WestJet?
This is our company. It’s not my company. It’s not Onex’s company. It’s not the Board of Directors’ company. This is our place. And I want every WestJetter, flight attendant, baggage handler, checking agent, pilot, to come to work, believing that they have got the autonomy to make a difference in people’s lives. And it can be something as simple as the pilot making his or her PA at the front of the aircraft, so it’s not a voice from God. It’s actually a person. It can be as simple as that.
Whenever I fly, I operate as a flight attendant. I often feel bad for the people in the back rows because my service is thorough but slow. But it’s really important that everyone in WestJet sees me put on an apron or sees me put on a bump cap and go and work on the aircraft or going to load bags, or we spend time in the contact center. That side of it that you never ever ask someone to do a job you wouldn’t do yourself is in our DNA.
I’ve only been here three and a half years. But there was a very strong sense to me when I first walked onto the campus in 2010, that I was a WestJetter long before I knew what a WestJetter was. That’s something that we work incredibly hard to maintain in our recruitment, in our onboarding and in the way that we bring people into the culture.
Now, as president CEO, what do you see as your role in the culture and particularly in a culture and leading an organization during crisis?
I spent many years of my career in air traffic control and I liken the role of a CEO to being an air traffic controller. You’re there, you’re not the pilot of the plane actually bringing the aircraft home. You’re not the captain on the pitch. You’re the coach off the pitch. An air traffic controller’s role is about creating time around himself or herself.
And I often reflect on spending one night when I was in air traffic control and I was talking to a young female controller. I was watching her manage a 777 arrive into Oakland Airport at the same time as A380. And I’ll never forget. I asked her the question, I said, “Does that bother you that you’ve got a minute to keep those two aircraft separate with 800 people on board?” And she looked at me in a completely matter of fact way, she said, “My only thought is, what do I do with the other 59 seconds?” And that’s a wonderful example for me of the role of a leader is to stay calm. The role of leader is not to slap the table or shout or demonstrate emotion or demonstrate frustration. The role of leader is to epitomize calm and tranquility in a crazy volatile world where I think… Depending on where you live in the world, our population can roughly be divided between the sad and the angry. The leader can’t be either of those, the leader has to remain dispassionate, objective, passionate about the business, but not prone to displaying emotion. And I can tell you that’s an ongoing challenge every single day.
The culture at WestJet, the culture’s really served as an inspiration. And in fact, you’ll often hear WestJet alumni using what they learned working in their new roles, from what they took out of their days at WestJet. It even comes up on occasion when we’re talking with Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Culture nominees who may have come out of WestJet. So how do you explain the way that this very unique, sticky is probably a good word, culture at WestJet has kind of permeated beyond their experiences and what lessons do you think people have been taking away from that?
Yeah, it’s wonderful to hear that. People’s sense of that culture is as vibrant as ever. I was talking this week with the deputy prime minister and finance minister, Minister Freeland. And unbeknownst to me, and maybe I should have known, she was on a WestJet flight this week. What was truly remarkable was, she was listening to the conversation of the flight attendants. And she said, how warmly they spoke about the relationship with the company and how warmly they spoke personally about me. I was stunned, almost emotional to hear that we have that level of connection.
One thing we’ve worked really, really hard within the organization is to reduce spans and layers of control. And I don’t feel that people feel any kind of distance or barrier between me. As I mentioned earlier, when we do a webinar, when we do a blog, people write directly to me and tell me whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent – and being WestJetters, they don’t worry too much about my feelings when I read those emails, but that’s great because it’s very direct feedback. But I guess that culture is perpetuated by always being consistent with the patterns of behavior that they can expect from us.
I mentioned earlier not giving way to displays of emotion, but actually being relatively predictable in the way that we communicate. I have an obligation to my people that they find out about what’s happening in the WestJetter world before they read it in the media. And in these days of social media and how quick Twitter and other forms of social media are to announce new stories that becomes more challenging than ever. And that’s why I have a pattern that I will look to communicate with our leadership team first, so that they feel in control of a new initiative or a new piece of information. And then I share it with our staff before they hear it from the public.
But it really does come down, I think to our frontline cabin crew, our frontline pilots believing that this is their company. And until we privatized last year, 86 per cent of people in the company were active shareholders. I still want them to feel like this is their company. We may have one owner now on Bay street, but in all other respects, the fate and the fortune of this organization is down to WestJetters.
I recently asked WestJetters to write to their local MP, to re-emphasize the role of aviation in Canadians society: 250,000 directly employed jobs, 750,000 indirectly employed jobs, three per cent of GDP. I just said, “These might be good data points that you might want to share with your MP.” I’ve got four and a half thousand active staff, we’ve stood 10,000 down. Five thousand of my people wrote directly to their MP. Now that’s pretty powerful, because it says, this is not just about my self interest and, “Yes, we’re pleased with the wage subsidy.” This is not driven by people saying, “I feel financially disadvantaged.” This is people saying , “How lucky are we in Canada to have two robust national and international airlines? We risk losing that at our peril.” Every single one of my pilots, every single one of my flight attendants, checking agents, mechanics, feel that as powerfully and passionately as I do.
So what are some of the challenges of building and communicating a cohesive culture when your team is so dispersed, not just nationally, but internationally and what have you and your team done to address those challenges?
One of the bigger challenges for us is that we became collectivized three years ago. So three years ago, we didn’t have unions on the premises. And since that time we are now majority collectivized. So I think we’ve got the geographical and time zone communication challenges, but we’ve also got for the majority of WestJetters now with that sense of dual allegiance, that they’ve paid their dues to the union who’s doing an excellent job of representing their interests while they are still WestJetters. It really does. I come back to this word consistency and reliability, but I will deal with the Union leaders and I will say, “I’m going to talk to my staff in this way. You might want to think about how you talk to your members.” One of the things that’s most stunned me during the pandemic has been the extent to which our three external unions, ALPA, QP, and CALDA, have themselves been very much on the front foot lobbying Ottawa to say, “Airlines generally, but WestJetters in particular, need your help and needs intervention.”
So I think in terms of how we work through time zones, how we work through geographical distances, you find what fits, and you find that at times it is the written word that perhaps is more endearing through those time zones or more persistent. And at times it is these one on one conversations and communication.
And I think we’ve been very proactive in harnessing social media, right through from the early stages of the Christmas Miracle campaigns back in 2011 through to today. I’ve got a team who are so alert to cries of distress or cries of concern from guests or from WestJetters on social media. So I think the ability to surface issues at the very early stages as they’re first emanating, or to see that somebody in Grand Prairie … or even somebody in Barbados, somebody in the UK, somebody in Hawaii is passing a comment and making a judgment on the good or the less successful aspects of the operation and the ability to respond quickly to that.
I’ll never forget. When we first launched our 787 services in October 2018, and we were tracking the first bookings. And I looked at the first booking on our Dublin service, first on our Paris, first on our London flights. And I went around to the houses that night. I looked at the first bookings. They all happened to be based in Calgary. So I went around to their houses with little goodie bag. I still run into people in Calgary who say, “Are you the guy who came around to that guy’s house?” And it’s just ensuring that we remember those little gestures and remember to… whether it’s birthdays, whether it’s tragic events in people’s lives.
If you think like a family and families can fall out at times, but if you think and operate like a family, it doesn’t matter whether your family is 14,000 or 4,000, that still governs the way in which you relate and communicate to people.