Where are the Business Leaders?

The news are filled these days with banks, automakers and other major companies that are having financial difficulties.  Many of these difficulties are directly due to poor decisions by the managers and executive/financial boards of those organizations.

A recent CNN business headline was that amusement/theme park giant Six Flags was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy “in an effort to shed $1.8 billion in debt.”

Six Flags President and CEO Mark Shapiro further said in the same article that:

…the company actually performed well in 2008, attracting 25 million visitors and making $275 million…

But apparently things aren’t as rosy as the Six Flags leadership would have you believe.  This website states that:

Six Flags has lost money every year of this decade. Its shares, which closed at 19 cents on Tuesday, will be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange on April 20.

But what struck me most in the CNN story is the statement made by the President and CEO of Six Flags:

In an online letter to employees, President and CEO Mark Shapiro said Six Flags inherited a $2.4 billion debt load that “cannot be refinanced in these financial markets.”


How does a company “inherit” debt?  Did someone die and leave it to them?!

According to the article on Financial Times (FT.com):

Mark Shapiro, chief executive, characterised the bankruptcy filing as “cleaning up the past” by restructuring the debt load built up by the company’s former management, which was ejected in late 2005 after a shareholder revolt led by Daniel Snyder, owner of the Washington Redskins, and backed by Bill Gates’ Cascade Investments.

So the previous management team allegedly created the problem, which was “inherited” by the current management team who couldn’t improve upon the situation.

Now the current President and CEO is going with the, “It’s not my fault; I’ve run the company for years; couldn’t fix what ailed it, but it’s the previous guy’s fault.”

Short term I’ll let them use that excuse and blame the other guy.

But over three years after “inheriting” the problem, at some point doesn’t it become the current management teams’ problem if they fail to address or fix it?  How long do you get to blame the other guy?  And how long does it take to address problems within an organization?

Mr. Shapiro wasn’t forced to take the President and CEO job at Six Flags.  He took the job willingly and then when he failed to fix what ailed the company, he blamed the previous leadership.

That’s not leadership, and it’s certainly not accepting responsibility for the leadership position he accepted.

There’s a reason these organizations are in trouble if they have leaders of that caliber.  Leaders accept responsibilty for an organization’s successes and failures, as they’re the ones who set policy and make decisions that guide those organizations.

This entire story struck a chord with me because I work for the FAA and we have the same sort of “leaders.”

FAA management likes to come up with rules and policies that don’t make sense.  And often they try to blame others as the source of those rules and policies, especially when they’re indefensible.

And just like Six Flag’s Mr. Shapiro, our managers don’t really accept responsiblity for much of anything.

(This is another long one, so grab a drink and settle in if you choose to continue…)

On Labor Day in 2006 the FAA imposed work rules (IWRs) on the controllers.  Part of the new work rules made it much more difficult for the union to negotiate policies at a local level which in turn meant that the managers at those facilities pretty much got to institute whatever policies and procedures they wanted without opposition, no matter how silly or misguided they were.

Even before the IWRs were in place years ago our managers decided that during the “midshift” (from midnight to 5 AM) the three controllers that had been assigned that shift to work weren’t all needed anymore.  They instead decided they needed an extra controller on the evening shift (the night shift proceeding the midshift).

Since we don’t have lots of extra controllers lying around, they decided to simply move one of the controllers off the midshift to the evening shift.

Mind you, there wasn’t really any research done on whether or not this was a good idea; they just simply decided they were going to do it because they had a staffing shortage they wanted to fix on another shift.

My union, NATCA, protested this move as during the midshift we run skeletal staffing, and the support staff for controllers that is there during all other times is notably absent during those shifts (including controllers in the respective facility traffic management units that manage traffic flow across the country).  Also, there is a single manager/supervisor on the midshift for all the areas instead of one for each area like during other hours.

This means that controllers are pretty much on their own on the midshift.  The support staff that is there during the rest of the day is absent, being replaced by a single manager who sits over a hundred feet away from the area where the radar scopes are located and is thereby pretty disconnected from what the controllers are doing.

For those reasons the union believed it was “better to be safe than sorry” and prudent to have a third controller available should they be needed to help (in other words for safety reasons).

But management didn’t believe this was necessary.  So they simply reduced the staffing to two controllers on the midshift, regardless of the opposition from the union representative.

And after the staffing was reduced I worked several midshifts where we were deluged with lots of aircraft all deviating off their filed routes through the one gap/hole in the several hundred mile long line of thunderstorms with both of the controllers plugged in working for hours.  The traffic was complex enough and busy enough that there is no way they would allow controllers during other non-midshift hours to work under the same conditions.

But on the midshift the rules don’t apply.

Granted, most of the time the third controller wasn’t necessary.  But a few midshifts it would have been nice to have a third person to give us options to deal with the traffic loads.  Call it a plan “B”.

The way air traffic controllers work is that they formulate plans to separate and sequence aircraft and try to make those plans work to get the job done.  Plan “A” is the first plan controllers use.

But sometimes the original plan doesn’t come together as planned.  Because air traffic control is a highly dynamic job, controllers are trained to always be thinking of alternate plans.  And they learn to recognize when a plan isn’t working and when to switch to an alternate plan to get the job done.  Our alternate plans to work traffic (our “Plan ‘B'”s) are almost always developing in the backs of our minds.

When we switch to an alternate (Plan “B”) plan, we formulate another Plan “B” to replace it as then our old Plan “B” has become Plan “A”.  But as the air traffic is constantly moving and changing so must our plans to work that traffic.  None of the “plans” we implement or think of are static; they’re constantly changing.  It’s part of the mental gymnastics air traffic controllers do every day.

The only time we don’t formulate a plan “B” is when there are no other options, and it’s generally not comfortable for controllers to know they only have one plan available considering what we do.  It doesn’t happen often, but once in a while the traffic circumstances don’t offer us alternatives, so we simply have to make the first plan work.

But all other times controllers are always formulating alternate plans in their minds should they need them (a  Plan “B”).

On the midshifts when both controllers on the shift were plugged in, there is no Plan “B”.  There are no other options.  We simply had to do the best we could, knowing that if something were to go wrong we would be blamed for our mistake, regardless of the fact we had no other options to deal with the traffic.

So every year after that when it came time to develop the next year’s schedule our union representative would request that the third controller be added back to the mid for safety reasons.  Eventually last year the staffing permitted the addition of a third controller to the midshift during the summers this year when we had the potential for more traffic and bad weather.

But our area manager told our union representative at the time that he was going to mandate two controllers be in the control room working at all times.  I have my own ideas about why the manager made this mandate, but it was arbitrary nonetheless.  No other area in my facility has such draconian staffing requirements.

So the union argues we need a third controller for safety reasons; management agrees to add one, then institutes an absurd staffing policy.  You do the math.

Anyway there wasn’t much the union representative could do about it as “assigning work” is a non-permissive subject so he didn’t contest the new policy.  A non-permissive subject is one that management doesn’t have to negotiate with the union.

Since the FAA imposed its work rules they haven”t negotiated much of anything, even when they should.  So based on that alone it it would be absurd to believe that they would have negotiated this issue.

Fast forward to this year when we actually starting working the three man midshifts again.

At first, there was no direction whatsoever about how many controllers had to be working on position during the midshift.  This was odd because controllers get briefed on every little thing that has nothing to do with our jobs as air traffic controllers, including who the “Civil Servant of the Year” is and when some office staff are going to be on vacation.  That sort of information is considered “mandatory briefing items” that we are required to read.

But there’s apparently a midshift staffing policy that controllers are expected to follow and that’s a big secret.

If anyone asked for guidance from their supervisor (called Front Line Managers: FLMs since the IWRs) they were told the story that the union representative had “agreed” to the policy requiring two of the three on duty be working in the sector.  And apparently because of that everyone was just supposed to know what the policy was and/or apparently that the union representative briefed all the controllers on the policy.

That’s avoiding the fact that the staffing policy was a non-permissive/non-negotiable item that the union didn’t even have the authority to contest, even if they had wanted to.  So it’s irrelevant whether the union representative “agreed” to the policy or not.

Management’s whole approach to the policy was a dodge regardless.  They had developed a policy, hadn’t really briefed anyone on it officially or properly, and if anyone asked about the policy told a fabricated story alleging  that the union representative was responsible for the policy.

The reality was that our “leaders” in the FAA didn’t want to brief controllers on the issue as they knew they would get controllers complaining about it and asking questions they couldn’t answer.  So they avoided the issue, instead choosing to imply that the issue had been negotiated when that was simply not the truth.

Eventually we badgered the FLMs enough that they asked for written guidance from the person who had actually mandated the staffing policy to begin with: our area manager.  And eventually he gave it in a memorandum.

Here it is (dated April 20, 2009).

The amazing thing is that the document is fairly accurate.  Notably the first line of the second paragraph  states:

“For the mid shifts when there are three CPC’s working, Area 5 management is requiring that a minimum of two CPC’s from 2300 local to 0500 local are plugged in to an open sector position.”

Open and shut, right?  “…management is requiring…”

Wrong.  Since controllers didn’t like the policy (we hadn’t had it before when we had three controllers on the midshift years ago, and no other area out of the six in our facility has a similar policy) they complained about it.  The union representatives told those controllers to complain about it to the man who instituted the policy: our area manager.

So they invited the area manager to a team meeting this week where they asked about the midshift staffing policy, and surprise, surprise.  Apparently he was back to the old story that it wasn’t his policy after all and that the policy had been “pseudo-negotiated” with the union representative and that he would have to meet with the union representative again to talk about the issue.

That assertion totally contradicts what it says in the written memorandum he authored that clearly says, “…management is requiring…”

If the manager wants to change the midshift staffing policy he created he simply has to do so.  But he chooses not to, and then publicly and openly blames the other guy (in this case the union) for the policy.

FAA managers hate putting anything in writing.  That’s mostly because they know that if it’s not documented they can deny or contradict what they said later.  Maybe our area manager forgot he wrote that memorandum…

It’s just another “leader” who won’t accept responsibility (just like Mr. Shapiro of Six Flags).

I guess maybe the FAA isrunning like a business…”

And I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that the FAA management “business” mindset mirrors the amusement park management mindset…

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