On my way home from a business trip, I struck up a conversation with a ticket agent. We got on the topic of some recent unpopular decisions the airline had made concerning seating and ticketing. I was giving the agent my thoughts on the matter—I wasn't happy about these moves, and she wasn't surprised.
"The thing is," she said, "they never even asked us about what we thought about the policy. We're the ones on the front lines, the ones dealing with weary travelers every day. In all my years, I've never been asked about my opinion about anything." She continued, "It's my job to take care of customers. But every time they pull something like this it limits my ability to do what they pay me to do: keep you flying our airline and not someone else's. I'm just a number; I do what they tell me. I suppose that's what it's like working for any large company."
Despite her enormous influence on the customer experience, the ticket agent's opinion was never solicited by the organization's leadership—or even, for that matter, the marketing unit. Her attitude toward upper management was "us versus them." She felt undervalued and replaceable. While she believed that she played an important role as an ambassador for the company, within the company she felt insignificant, invisible. She felt powerless to effect any change whatsoever.
Nonetheless, the ticket agent—who had a long tenure with the airline—made it clear that she loved her company and wanted to see it do better by its employees and customers. She pleaded with me to write the airline and protest some of its new policies: "As a loyal customer, maybe they'll listen to you." I had actually had a similar conversation about six months before with a different gate agent about yet another of the airline's unpopular edicts.
Based on what the gate agents told me, I understood that they wanted to create for their customers the best possible experience of this airline—and because of their position on the front lines, they were uniquely positioned to do so. They wanted to be proud of the product they were delivering. They wanted to be a factor in the airline's success. But they felt they could only contribute within defined parameters: carrying out company policy as dictated from above. (The airline I'm referring to isn't Southwest. As we will see in chapter 10, I likely would have had a very different conversation with a Southwest ticket agent.)
Yes, it was sad that these gate agents felt they had to resort to recruiting customers to take up their causes—not only because of what it said about their company's accountability, but also what it said about their own. True, the ticket agents might have felt they had no other recourse than to complain to customers, but was this the best way to effect change? Or should they have tried harder to find more appropriate ways to help the airline right itself? For that is what it means to be part of building an Accountable Organization: being an active stakeholder, not a passive placeholder. Being a true stakeholder doesn't mean just being a beneficiary—it requires action, stepping forward, and claiming one's responsibility as well as one's due. For if ownership of our choices and actions is the hall-mark of personal accountability, it is also key to being a true stakeholder in a company. And in Accountable Organizations, meaningful ownership and responsibility is both facilitated by management and sought by employees.