Last week, the NAACP Issued a National Travel Advisory for American Airlines.

"... recent incidents involve troublesome conduct by American Airlines and they suggest a corporate culture of racial insensitivity and possible racial bias on the part of American Airlines.  Among these incidents:

·        An African-American man was required to relinquish his purchased seats aboard a flight from Washington, D.C. to Raleigh-Durham, merely because he responded to disrespectful and discriminatory comments directed toward him by two unruly white passengers;

·        Despite having previously booked first-class tickets for herself and a traveling companion, an African-American woman's seating assignment was switched to the coach section at the ticket counter, while her white companion remained assigned to a first-class seat;

·        On a flight bound for New York from Miami, the pilot directed that an African-American woman be removed from the flight when she complained to the gate agent about having her seating assignment changed without her consent; and

·        An African-American woman and her infant child were removed from a flight from Atlanta to New York City when the woman (incidentally a Harvard Law School student) asked that her stroller be retrieved from checked baggage before she would disembark."

American Airline's CEO Doug Parker said in a memo to staff that the company was "disappointed" to hear about the NAACP warning and that the airline has reached out to the NAACP to meet with them.  This is definitely a necessary step.  However, it's not enough to shift the culture at AA.

What can be done to truly change the company culture at the airline?  Here are some initial thoughts as derived from my latest leadership book:

1.      Set The Standard For Change:  Give people the reason to change.  In AA's case, changing to a more inclusive culture is a competitive imperative.  Change behavior of the NAACP is going to call for a boycott.  Let's spend resources on making things better at the firm and avoid the future cost of managing an emerging PR nightmare.

2.      Build A Central Group of Leaders:  Cultivate staff that is sincerely interested in driving change.  The best candidates are the ones with existing track records for successfully tackling big, hairy, challenging projects because shifting an entire corporate culture is a big, hairy undertaking.  Bring into the fold less experienced, but, similarly energetic folks to ensure that the core grows and has reach.

3.      Tackle Leverage Points: Once the leaders are ready, unleash them.  Have them go after places where you know there may be issues.  For AA, the customer service personnel at the gates could be a place to start.  Making a change there can be seen by the customer and may be as simple as providing online courses for those working the gates.

4.      Pave the Way for Early Adopters:  Building on early successes is the only way to continually drive greater change.   Be sure that executive sponsorship is secured for all major change initiatives.  Charge the sponsors with knocking out organizational road blocks and coaching teams towards the successful implementation of changes.

5.      Change the Entrenched Infrastructure As You Go: In time and with success, the leadership team should begin to shift its focus from one-off change towards the developing of new governance models that serve to reinforce desired behavior.   They must be open to changing policies and operating procedures that serve to perpetuate old behaviors which enable unintentional bias (i.e., the favorable or unfavorable attitudes that affect our unconscious assessment of others).   After all, customer service delivery should be independent of race, creed and sexual orientation etc.

To close, there's no easy formula for culture change.  Though there are some "next practices," like the ones outlined above that can form the start of true cultural transformation.  If your organization has a need for cultural change, please reach out to me directly.  I am happy to help.