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87,000 Ways To Save American Airlines

A plea to CEO Tom Horton to turn American Airlines employees into believers, proselytizers, and champions--and fix up the airline's finances in the process.
Tom Horton, president of AMR Corp. and American Airlines, speaks during a joint news conference with Japan Airlines Corp.
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"We will have to make very tough and sometimes unpopular decisions that will impact people's lives."

—An internal letter to employees from Tom Horton, CEO of AMR Corporation, American Airlines' parent company on 12/15/11

Dear Tom,

You think American Airlines employees were frightened and scared for their employment before?

Ugh. What a weak leadership statement. That's the kind of inspiration that would make me crazy if I were an American Airlines employee. That would get me stood up two yards short of the goal line.

Now before you get to thinking that I don't know you, there are a few facts to establish. I have more than 4,000,000 miles and lifetime platinum status on your airline. I met my wife on an American Airlines flight.  She flew for you for 12 years as a flight attendant. (Yes, it really happens. And no, the story hasn't been optioned for a Hallmark Channel movie. Yet.)  

And still, I sit here and wonder…

With the opportunity to remake American Airlines right in front of you, what are you really going to do about changing it?

As you restructure during bankruptcy, I know we'll see substantial coverage of your plans for cost cutting, layoffs, renegotiated labor contracts, employee benefit plan changes, fleet updates, and new fuel purchasing programs.

Tom, realize that those are all things your customers don't actually touch. Be aware that the money tied up in those transactions is almost as important as the commitment you need to make, a commitment that won't get the headlines but is an ingrained part of your company and relationships with customers.

That commitment is to culture. Commit to culture for your employees and, to steal a line from Tony Hsieh of Zappos.com, empower them to delight a customer.  Make a dazzling effort from the helm of the corporation to turn your employees into American Airlines believers, proselytizers, and champions.

Because when it's all said and done, you and all of your competitors are in the same business with the same tools and services. It's your 87,000 people that can be the difference.

Why do I say this? Because when I fly your competitors like Southwest and Virgin Airways, it isn't hard to notice the difference in the morale and the smiles of the employees. Those are airlines that are committed to culture. And this was before you declared bankruptcy. How many smiles are there in AMR headquarters and on American flights right now?

Now, I understand that you run a public company, and you have to face fiduciary pressures and answer to quarterly projections. You know what? Investing in your people will create ROI that WILL drive financial success. 

Buy copies of the book Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose. It will show you how and why to focus on employees first.  Sleep with it under your pillow. Mail it to your board of directors to argue the economics of creating a workforce that's willing to go to the mattresses for you. Look at your competitors and see which ones are succeeding or directly moving into your territory and ask yourself, "What are they doing that we could do better?" (You don't need a knight or compass to figure this out.)

You have a chance to be bold again. To start making decisions that will light a fire inside of your employees instead of under them. To dedicate your business to the hearts and souls that make it go and turn your workforce into smiling, shiny-happy-customer-pleasing people (the ones R.E.M. sang about 20 years ago).

Here's my offer. Come to my office in Bedford, Texas. We're just down the street from you. I'll walk you step-by-step through how you can do it. E-mail me. Call me. Send up a smoke signal. Tweet me (@paulspiegelman). I'll give you my time. Free of charge. I'll even spring for lunch.

Tom, there are two kinds of birds that evoke "emerging" to me. The mythological Phoenix is legendary for rising up from its own ashes to gloriously take flight. The chicken mindlessly pecks at its shell and then scavenges along until something bigger, stronger, or more agile comes and makes it dinner. 

What kind of bird do you want American Airlines to be?

Sincerely,

Paul Spiegelman

IMAGE: Bloomberg via Getty Images
Last updated: Jan 3, 2012

PAUL SPIEGELMAN | Columnist | CEO of BerylHealth

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. You can read more at PaulSpiegelman.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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