Lessons From Flight 1549

By John Hollon

Feb. 27, 2009

I’ll admit it: I’m fascinated with the story of US Airways Flight 1549, the jet that was heading from New York’s LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte, North Carolina, but ended up landing in the Hudson River instead.

    Part of my interest is that I fly a great deal, so I can identify with what happened to the passengers and crew. But my greater fascination with Flight 1549 is that there are larger-than-life management lessons that can be taken from this January 15 incident—lessons that are worth examining and remembering no matter what field of endeavor you’re in.

    Lesson No. 1: Don’t ever discount the value of experience. Experience can bring smart, time-tested thinking to difficult business problems—the kind of thinking that can help organizations perform better during difficult times. US Airways Capt. Chesley B. Sullenberger III safely landed a jetliner in the Hudson River under the most difficult of circumstances. His ability to rapidly size up the situation, weigh the various options and safely execute a seldom-tried emergency plan is testament to his many years of flight experience. “In many ways, as it turned out, my entire life up to that moment has been a preparation to handle that particular moment,” Sullenberger told Katie Couric on CBS’ 60 Minutes.

    Sullenberger’s experience made the difference in this situation, and this speaks to a larger issue: Experience matters in every organization. There’s great value in people who have solid and relevant experience; they can represent the difference between success and failure. I’m sure the passengers on Flight 1549 appreciate the experience Sullenberger brought to bear when he landed in the Hudson. Would all have ended so well if he had been downsized in a corporate cost-cutting move and replaced with a much cheaper, less-experienced pilot? Who knows, but who wants to take that chance?

    Lesson No. 2: Training is important in good times and bad. Training is a line item that’s easy to whack when budgets get tight, because it’s not always easy to see its immediate payoff. That misses the point, however. Training is about getting people ready to execute and put their training to the test when the organization needs it most.

    The New York Times made this point when it noted an exchange between Michael A.L. Balboni, New York state’s deputy secretary for public safety, and Sullenberger. Balboni said that he shook the pilot’s hand, looked him in the eye and thanked him for a job done brilliantly. Balboni said Sullenberger “said to me, in the most unaffected, humble way, ‘That’s what we’re trained to do.’ No boasting, no emotion, no nothing.”

    Has there ever been a better example of the value of a training program than that? He could have pointed to any number of factors that helped him, but the fact that he pointed to his training (and experience) shows just how critically important it can be. This makes a great case for why organizations should really resist the urge to slash training budgets when times get tough.

    Lesson No. 3: It’s all about the team. If you watched the 60 Minutes segment February 8 with Sullenberger, you noticed that he had his entire flight crew on camera with him. That’s because he has gone out of his way to emphasize that it wasn’t just him, but his entire flight team that was responsible for safely landing Flight 1549. He said that there has been too much about him in the aftermath of the landing, and “not enough about the team.”

    Sullenberger clearly knows that the best success is shared success. He has gone out of his way to make sure that his team is recognized, because organizational success is rarely about an individual. It’s a principle that too few managers understand, but one that we need a lot more of as we all struggle to keep our organizations afloat in these tough times.

    The lessons of Flight 1549 are well worth remembering. In the end, it was solid, well-executed people management practices that made the difference between “miracle” and what could easily have been a disaster.

Workforce Management, February 16, 2009, p. 50Subscribe Now!

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