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How to Be a Leader in Twenty Minutes: Lessons from a Delayed Flight

July 22nd, 2015

Air travel during the best of times can be a drag– but it’s especially challenging on summer weekends.

I recently endured one of those long, drawn-out delays at an East Coast airport. A broad band of thunderstorms was moving through the southeast and central states, causing both take-off and arrival delays.

I sat in the back row at the gate and watched the passengers booked on the first of three flights to Chicago. The flight was already delayed by forty-five minutes and the new departure time came and went. A lone agent, working two gates simultaneously, had no updates until he announced the inevitable: the first flight to Chicago was cancelled, and the second was delayed.

About a hundred passengers from the two flights mobbed the ticket counter for re-routing, demanding answers. I called the airline’s customer service number and waited until the delayed flight boarded and the re-routed passengers left. The third flight to Chicago was now delayed. I started a new line at the counter.

Another passenger joined me in forming the new line. He introduced himself as Mark, and we shared information on our respective flight alerts to Chicago, and our options for connecting flights once we got there. With the lone agent now loading gate-checked bags onto the plane at the adjacent gate, there was no official information source onsite.

Passengers approached us at the empty gate counter, and Mark shared his airline alerts with them. A line started to form in front of him, and passengers started referring other travelers to Mark for information, even though he had no official role. Mark even announced a gate change alert, and like the Pied Piper, he led passengers to the new gate assignment before it was officially announced.

Mark demonstrated five behaviors that work for more than just messed-up travel plans. They’re good practice for business leaders, too. Here’s what he did:

  • He gathered as much information as he could from his own sources
  • He validated his information against other information sources
  • He calmly shared his information and updates with others
  • He made decisions based on the information he had gathered
  • He took action and called others to the same action

These five behaviors influenced how Mark handled himself, his information and his relationships in a critical situation. As a result, he emerged as a leader in less than twenty minutes, with people he had never met before.

When an unplanned situation arise in an airport, on the job or with a customer, people look for leadership, not management. The first step to managing the problem is leading the people.

Living Your Personal Brand

April 22nd, 2015

Sometimes, setting an example for yourself sets one for others.

I recently accepted an invitation to speak at a business school forum. I typically don’t charge a fee for speaking at student events, but since I would be booking a flight, I asked if travel costs were covered. I was assured that they were, and I purchased a ticket. Then, a week before the event, an administrator apologetically informed me that that there would be no travel reimbursement. Somehow, despite several conversations and email summaries of the arrangements, the students had misunderstood the budget.

On the plus side, this was the first and hopefully only time I have ever encountered this situation. I have to admit that my first reaction was disbelief. Did this business school really expect me to fly 1,500 miles on my own dime to speak for free?

As I moved from indignation to introspection, two questions kept crossing my mind:

  • How can I turn my response into a positive learning moment for everyone involved, including myself?
  • How could I use this situation as an opportunity to live my personal brand?

I’d gotten a good deal on the flight. With a little effort, I could arrange business meetings before and after the event. I could catch up with a longtime friend over dinner that evening. I could also choose to be insulted, turn down the invitation and end my interactions on a polite but unpleasant note. What kind of message would I be sending about my personal brand if I did that?

The next day, I sent a brief email message to the students and the administrator:

The mixed messages were unfortunate and I appreciate your apology. I honor my commitments, and I will honor this one. I look forward to seeing you next week.

During the forum, the administrator apologized again and reimbursed my flight. I had a conversation with another speaker that led to new business for me. Most important, my decision to speak despite the miscommunications allowed me to make a quiet and potentially powerful statement about my personal brand, and perhaps set an example for the future business leaders who attended the forum.

This situation reminded me that, regardless of external circumstances, we always have choices. We can allow our choices to be determined by the decisions and behaviors of others. Or we can make our own, intentional choices, based on what we stand for and what we intrinsically know is the right thing to do. The learning moment for me? It’s easy to find a substitute speaker. But there is no substitute for the integrity of living your personal brand.

Here’s to the Role Models

March 16th, 2015

I recently participated in a networking event for students at Johnson County Community College. This event allowed students to practice introducing themselves to business professionals, engage in conversation for a few minutes, and transition politely to another conversation.

In the course of these conversations, I met a student I’ll call Jana, who was studying fashion merchandising. I asked Jana how she became interested in merchandising, and she told me, “It started with a mistake I made at work.”

She works part-time selling women’s apparel in an upscale department store. One day, she sold the outfit on a mannequin. Rather than leave an undressed mannequin on the sales floor, Jana created a new outfit for the mannequin.

The following week, the regional merchandiser summoned Jana for a meeting. “I thought I was in trouble, that I was going to lose my job,” Jana told me. The merchandiser told Jana that the clothing promoted on mannequins was a corporate decision, but that wasn’t the primary reason for meeting. The items worn by Jana’s mannequin had sold well in the previous week, and the merchandiser thought Jana had talent. The merchandiser told Jana about the fashion merchandising program at the college, and encouraged her to apply. She has continued to mentor and encourage Jana, and wants to hire Jana when she completes her degree.

Jana’s story was the most memorable introduction I heard that day – but what impressed me even more than Jana was the forward-thinking merchandiser. This woman not only recognized Jana’s budding abilities, but also had the courage and confidence in her own abilities to take the intentional step to be a role model and mentor. She set a proactive, professional example for Jana, who hopefully will see herself as a role model for other young women as she progresses in her own career.

Whether we think we are or not, we are each a potential role model and mentor for someone in our business, industry or job function. Here’s to the role models, like the merchandiser, who are paying it forward by mentoring others.