American Airlines is the largest airline in the world with more than 130,000 employees and a fleet of 1,500 aircraft. At the helm of this corporate giant is Doug Parker.
Parker first became an airline CEO in September 2001 at the age of 39 when he took over the top job at financially troubled America West. Twelve years and two mega-mergers later, he ascended his current position atop the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline.
Nearly two decades into his tenure as CEO, Parker says the most important lesson in management he ever received came by watching Herb Kelleher, the legendary founder and former CEO of Southwest Airlines.
“As a younger CEO at industry meetings, I would just do everything I could to just hang around Herb, just to observe and hope I could get some of it through osmosis,” Parker said of Kelleher who passed away in January at the age of 87. “What I learned in watching Herb was and what I picked up upon fairly early on is what an amazing listener he was.”
According to Parker, Kelleher’s excellence as a listener was usually overshadowed by his charisma and gregarious personality.
“But really if you watch him, every conversation he was in was, he was really engaged, really listening,” the American Airlines CEO said. “And what I realized is that was incredibly important to how he led because he learned and he took it back to his work and it made that company better and stronger.”
“He was in tune with what was happening at all levels of his company. And he really cared about it,” Parker added.
For Parker, listening is an integral skill to success even though it’s not something you’d necessarily pick up in a business school class. It’s something he’s worked on over the years, but the American Airlines boss recognizes he’s still not quite at the Kelleher’s level.
“That skill is one that I’ve had to work really hard on,” he said. “I’m not even close to as good as Herb was at it, but I recognize the value of it.”
According to Parker, it’s also a skill set that some business leaders may find to be counter to their natural inclinations because they feel the need to be the person who is talking and giving direction.
“What you need to do is listen intently to your team and the issues they’re dealing with and then use that to go support them and help them and make sure they have the tools they need,” Parker said. “Because there are teams out there, all they want to do is do exactly what we all want, which is take care of our customers, make the company stronger.”
“You don’t need to tell them that, you need to listen to them about what we’re doing that’s stopping them from doing that and help them do that,” he added.
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