Culture ClubThoughts on instilling company culture

Lessons from Boeing’s Bumpy Ride

Flight risks

It’s been a turbulent few years for Boeing as persistent safety and production problems have plagued the aircraft manufacturer. A pair of fatal airliner crashes in 2018 and 2019 led to the grounding of the company’s 737 Max for nearly two years, and the 737 Max 9 was temporarily grounded earlier this year after a door plug blew out during an Alaska Airlines flight. Since then, a string of whistleblowers has spoken out about safety lapses. It’s been a precipitous fall for a company whose stellar safety reputation once spawned the slogan “If it’s not Boeing, I’m not going.”

Cultural exchange

So, what changed? Many inside and outside the aerospace company point to Boeing’s culture, and it’s a cautionary tale for AE firms. After the company’s 1997 merger with McDonnell Douglas, executives from McDonnell Douglas filled Boeing’s top jobs and seemingly shifted the company’s engineering-centric corporate culture to one focused on profitability, cost control, and shareholder value. Accountants, not engineers, started to make the major decisions. “When people say I changed the culture of Boeing, that was the intent, so that it’s run like a business rather than a great engineering firm,” former Boeing CEO Harry Stonecipher has said.

Taking flight

In 2001, Boeing moved its headquarters from its Seattle birthplace to Chicago to give its top 500 executives greater separation from its production plants. “When the headquarters is located in proximity to a principal business,” former CEO Phil Condit said at the time, “the corporate center is inevitably drawn into day-to-day business operations.” The 2,000-mile separation, however, resulted in isolating company leaders in an industry in which walking the shop floor can be essential to decision-making.

Losing altitude

Another post-merger change occurred when Boeing outsourced much of its production to focus on its core competency of assembly. By relying on hundreds upon hundreds of suppliers, the company lowered costs and sped production. However, quality suffered. And with the culture shift, Boeing employees became more reluctant to speak out. Those piloting Boeing lost the trust of both employees and customers. Ironically, the company’s focus on shareholder value had the opposite effect as its stock price has fallen approximately 50% in the past five years.

the next youThe latest on developing next-generation leaders

Building a “Digital Mindset” in Your Future Leaders

Breaking down silos

As the AE industry becomes increasingly digitized and data-driven, technology decisions can no longer be the sole domain of the CIO or IT department. A tech-savvy leadership team is now essential for navigating the unprecedented challenges and lucrative opportunities presented by rapidly changing technologies such as AI, machine learning, and cloud computing. More than three-quarters (77%) of respondents to Harvard Business Publishing’s 2023 Global Leadership Development Study anticipated that tech-savviness and digital adaptability would be crucial leadership skills for meeting their businesses’ needs in the ensuing year.

The 30% rule

University of California Santa Barbara professor Paul Leonardi and Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley argue that top executives need to have “digital mindsets.” In their book The Digital Mindset, they assert that business leaders don’t need to know all the answers when it comes to technology, but they need to have enough working knowledge to ask the right questions. Leonardi and Neeley write that executives should be approximately 30% “fluent” in key technologies so that they can evaluate new opportunities and understand accompanying risks.

Language model

Leonardi compares the 30% guideline to being literate versus fluent in a foreign language. “Research shows that you’ll need about 12,000 words to have mastery of a language and to communicate at a fluent level,” he explained in an interview with AACSB Insights. “But if you just want to be competent enough to work with people who speak a different language, you only need about 4,000 words.”

Technological developments

How do you develop digital mindsets in your future leaders? First, hire and cultivate tech-savvy staff who are curious and enthusiastic about technology and stay abreast of developments, even those outside the AE industry. Get skeptics comfortable with the idea that success in the digital economy requires leaders who have digital mindsets, and offer opportunities for continuous technology training through a robust in-house program that gets up-and-coming leaders speaking the same language as their IT counterparts. 

communications cornerIdeas on connecting with your workforce

Using AI to Streamline Communications

The burden of proof

In case you needed further proof that workers are being inundated by a firehose of communications, knowledge workers surveyed for Grammarly’s 2024 State of Business Communication report spent 88% of their workweek communicating across multiple channels. On a weekly basis, workers spent more than 10 hours in meetings, nearly 6 hours on e-mail, almost 4 hours on text-based chat, and over 3 hours on text messages. In the prior 12 months, 78% of respondents saw increases in frequency and 73% saw increases in the variety of channels for workplace communication. For knowledge workers with hybrid work setups, the average time spent communicating (42 hours per week) now exceeds the conventional workweek.

Feeling unfulfilled

Rather than making staff more efficient, the sheer number of technological communication channels appears to be keeping workers from doing, well, their work. More than half (55%) of workers surveyed for Grammarly’s 2024 State of Business Communication report said the constant flow of communications made it difficult to concentrate on important tasks. In addition, 55% spent excessive time crafting messages or deciphering other’s communications, and 54% found managing work communications challenging.

Technological paradox

What might solve this technology problem? Perhaps technology. Generative AI has the potential to automate repetitive tasks, enhance the quality of written communications, and streamline the process of writing e-mails and reports, composing presentations, and following up on meetings. For those who can use some assistance in getting the creative juices flowing, programs such as ChatGPT can help users brainstorm ideas and craft rough drafts. Grammarly’s 2024 State of Business Communication report found that 72% of those using generative AI were doing so for writing tasks, and business leaders at companies using generative AI estimated saving an average of 9.5 hours a week.

Font of knowledge

ChatGPT can distill pertinent insights from reams of data and process transcripts to produce concise meeting summaries and highlight action items. It can serve as a knowledge management repository providing quick access to company information and training materials, which can be particularly useful when onboarding new employees. Heed the caveats, however, about AI’s risks. Employees should not input sensitive internal communications into publicly available AI tools, and any information derived from AI tools should be independently verified. 

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