On the Tarmac

In my early 20s I was making a trip home, flying from Chicago's O'Hare International Airport on a little commuter jet to downstate Illinois. O'Hare at that time was the busiest airport in the world, and even today remains number two. It can be an intimidating place for the young and the uninitiated. My late morning flight was departing from one of those cluster areas on the lower level, where passengers on all the short flights leave through the same door.

I was passing the time reading a book and when my flight was called. In a bit of a trance, I stuck the book in my purse, got in line, and boarded. It was strange because the flight seemed oversold. They couldn't figure it out. I overheard the flight attendant say that one person would have to use the jump seat.

As we taxied quickly to the runway, the pilot came onto the PA. "Good morning ladies and gentlemen. We will be on our way in about two minutes. The tower has informed us we are third in line. Should be a nice smooth ride to Fort Wayne, Indiana."

Half listening, I wasn't sure I'd heard correctly, but I thought, "What did he say? Indiana? Where?" My heart started pounding, my mind racing. I said out loud to no one in particular, "Did he say Fort Wayne?" Everyone looked at me kinda puzzled, like they were thinking, "What's the problem?" It was one of those moments when everything is unfolding like a movie in slow motion.

Back then, they didn't lock the cockpit doors. In fact, little planes didn't have doors; you could actually see the pilot and copilot. I briefly calculated what would be worse, the humiliation of running up to ask them to stop before we took off, or the nightmare of landing and calling my mom to inform her that she would have to drive a couple of hours to pick me up.

I unbuckled my seat belt and jogged to the front. "I'm on the wrong plane," I shouted over the noise. The flight attendant, already seated and strapped in for takeoff, looked quizzical; the copilot turned around and stared. "I'm on the wrong plane," I repeated so he could read my lips. All I remember next is walking back and sitting back down in my seat, mortified, as the plane slowed, did a 180, and taxied back to the gate. The walk of shame past passengers to disembark was excruciating. I never wanted to experience that again.

Today, every time the pilot jokingly welcomes people on board and says something like, "Morning ladies and gentlemen, if you are not on your way to (Dallas, Texas, New York's LaGuardia, etc.) you need to let us know," I secretly look around and wonder, could it happen to anyone else?" In all the years, and all the flights I've taken, I've never seen it. I think there are at least three reasons. First, computerized scanners read your ticket and confirm you're on the right plane. Second, assigned seating ensures you that you are in the right place. Third, the crew announcement confirms it with an audible.

I was reminded of this story the other day when one of our consultants was talking about a client with two teams that need to get their projects on track. They are high stakes and very visible strategic initiatives. Our consultant is going to use our Bates Leadership GPS system to help them more clearly define their destination and create a communication roadmap to keep people on track. It's just too easy, lacking this, for a team to think they are going to Fort Wayne, and instead, end up in Fort Worth, or Firenze, or Indianapolis. As a leader, if you don't have frequent, clear communications with your team, you may waste hours hopping into the car to pick them up and drive them back to the right place.

Think of yourself as an aviator. You're responsible not only for knowing how to fly the plane (the strategy)--but also for making sure your passengers are heading to the correct destination (communication). Create the flight plan, and then make sure you find many ways to remind people where the plane is heading.

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