I was recently flying Virgin America on my way home from NYC. I usually check my watch just as the gates are about to close, to see if we’re leaving on time and the next phase countdown for the journey. In this instance, as I looked down, there was no watch.
This watch was the very first “big” present my now-husband, then-boyfriend ever gave me, and I figured out pretty fast that it must still be back at the security checkpoint. I first thought to myself, “there’s no way” to solve this problem and was about to rehearse the line in my head to explain to my husband about this loss. Which is when it occurred to me that the story wasn’t right if I said that I realized it right before the plane took off. I figured my husband would think I hadn’t tried hard enough to get it back and that seemed just … wrong.
And, so I at least wanted to ask for help (knowing full well the odds of actually getting this situation solved for were next to nothing because there are so many rules involved). I first went to head steward and ultimately to the pilot to ask if they could help me out. The pilot listened to me explain the story of the watch and how we were approaching our 10-year-wedding anniversary and how it was the longest relationship I’ve ever had, and I didn’t want to lose this thing before the anniversary.
The pilot listened to my little paragraph of story, and my plea. And then he said that he’d been married “for way longer than that”, smiled at me in an impish way, and just said, “run!”. To which, I did.
By the time I covered the half a mile or so to security, they knew who the running-lady was and what she was coming to get because some behind-the-scenes people had phoned ahead. I got a nice bit of fitness on the way back to the plane, too, because I knew my bag and everything was on that flight. And, as I returned, the pilot and staff led the entire plane full of people to clap for the “fast run”. By then, most now knew who had delayed their departure and why. I got some high fives, but also some dirty looks from people. I turned red, and sat down while the plane took off.
But the story doesn’t end there. After a few minutes, I logged onto Twitter and thanked the handle of @virginamerica and the CEO @richardbranson and in short 140-character bursts shared the story. The person manning @VirginAmerica wrote right back and it was clearly a social exchange of me asking for help, then getting it, and me appreciating them. I had made a mistake that was independent of Virgin, and in my authentic owning of my story, I didn’t get treated as a number or a case file, I got treated as a person.
Now, United had the opposite response when they lost a 10-year-old at the airport, and the person who ended up solving the situation had to go off-duty in her role at United, to return to the situation as a mom. She could do more as an ordinary citizen than she could as an employee. Think about that one for a minute. It becomes clear as you understand both stories, one organization insists that policies are bigger than people, that procedure trumps intelligence, and that caring isn’t part-n-parcel of the package.
Because so many of us travel, we can easy to see the humanness or lack-thereof in airline stories. In this case, Virgin did right and United did less so.
But the lesson applies for all of us. All of us get measured by how we relate to people. It’s no longer about “that brand” it’s about who at that brand took responsibility and acted responsibility and in a real way. In other words, we are measured by how social we are. This shifts act away from policies and simple mindless act of following them, but about people who represent the whole organization in simple acts, using their best judgment and care.
Leaders will often say to me that they give control to those that they believe can take it on. And people share stories left and right about how they deliver when they believe something great is expected of them. These are actually just two sides of one coin – trust. We often make trust about the people – as in, “I trust that person or this person to deliver” but trust can also be built into a fabric of a place – from why we’re there to who we choose to be on the team to what we choose to work on. We can design our organizations through and through to create connections. Everyone can make judgments on behalf of a company in a way that aligns everyone to the shared whole. This is going to be the new-normal expectation for organizations and the people in it to thrive.
I have a whole chapter in the new #socialera book about the shift from “capturing” customers to connecting with them. And another on how shared purpose can serve as that alignment system beyond hiring people to do specific jobs.
But Virgin did all of that just by … doing it. Like a Virgin.