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The Federal Coach

Leadership from 30,000 feet

Wayne Clough
Randy Babbitt is the administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Babbitt began his aviation career as a pilot, flying 25 years for Eastern Airlines. A skilled negotiator, he also served as president and CEO for U.S. Air Line Pilots Association, the world's largest professional organization of airline pilots.

What do you consider to be a critical event--either educational or experiential--to your becoming the leader you are today?

What developed over time was the importance that you can't stand alone. A leader certainly has to pilot the direction, but it's got to be a direction that's seen and absorbed by having everybody on board. I've worked hard everywhere I've been to make sure that we have a collaborative environment--I want everybody to have a voice in what we do. Doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to agree, but I like the input. You make better decisions from a broader array of information.

How do you surface ideas and problems at the FAA?

There's a variety of techniques that I like to use. I meet with my management, and I also have small meetings with a select group of them to get broad input. I've also spent a lot of time in the field and, whenever I can, I have brown-bag lunches where I sit down [with] 15 to 18 people, and I listen. I learn a great deal from hearing their perceptions of what we're doing.

We've instituted an Idea Hub, which is a very clever process that allows any employee to cut right around the red tape or the typical ways that an employee would surface an idea. This allows you to escalate things on your own in front of your peers and eventually in front of management through a short series of steps. We're in the process of changing one of our major internal communications tools based on an employee who said, "I don't think we're using the best system." Literally hundreds of employees echoed in, and we said, "You're right."

What are the biggest day-to-day management challenges that you're trying to overcome, and what are you doing to overcome those issues?

I was presented with the confrontation that FAA was not the best place to work in the federal government. In trying to understand why, I realized that we had to undertake a very serious culture change and become more collaborative. We've done a number of outreach efforts, and we now have collaboration teams.

A lot of times, we have changes come to us; maybe it's a new piece of technology [or] somebody has found a better way to do something at a facility. So these changes drop into essentially three areas: local, regional or national issues. These issues might change some things, so let's put a collaboration team [together to] resolve it. They go into the meetings with whatever the issue is, and if we don't get an agreement in a reasonable period of time, the next step is to bring in supervisors and union representatives. Today, we have yet to escalate anything beyond the first step because people really want to be in control of their own destiny. Give people the right information and they're going to make the right decisions.

How are you engaging your employees around the FAA's mission and work?

At the start and end of day, we're about one thing and one thing only: safety. Our mission is to provide the safest air transportation system in the world, and we want to be the platinum standard of that. We want every country to look at the FAA to see how to run an air traffic control system or how a federal aviation authority should operate. That's what we're trying to achieve. To that end, we want our employees to be able to point out anything that they see is less than contributing to safety. If it's unsafe, not smart, not efficient, tell us about it without fear of reprisal. Tell us, and we're going to work together to fix it.

By Tom Fox

 |  October 27, 2010; 12:01 AM ET |  Category:  View from the Top Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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