retail news in context, analysis with attitude

by Michael Sansolo

There was a time when the word “sully” meant to vilify or demean something. So it says something special about a person whose actions are able to change the meaning of a word. Now, when people hear “Sully,” they think of heroism ... thanks to a now-retired US Airways pilot.

When we hear “Sully” we should also think of great management. Because while Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger is forever in our memories for successfully landing a stricken passenger plane in the Hudson River, his story is actually about great technique in crisis management.

First, an explanation for this sudden burst of hero worship: A week ago I was given the happy assignment of interviewing Sully on stage at the 2011 Retalix Summit. It was a request Retalix didn’t have to make twice as I was delighted to do it. But that was before I met Sully; now my admiration is even greater.

Sully, who now is making a nice living as a motivational speaker, is the genuine article. He’s self-effacing, measured in his speech and spectacular. He tells the story of how US Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport ran into a flock of Canada Geese about one mile above New York City. He describes the sickening sound of the birds getting sucked through the engines and the even worse sound of those same engines suddenly powering down. And then he recounts the incredible moments when he tried to find a place to land his plane, realizing that the Hudson River was his only option. It was a flight that could have ended in tragedy, yet thanks to Sullenberger all 155 people on board survived.

Of course, he’d argue with that description. As Sully says, the credit goes to ground control, his first officer, the flight crew, the passengers and the Hudson River ferry operators who sped to the downed aircraft and evacuated every last passenger. Spreading out the credit is just one of the lessons from this incredible event. There are many others.

For instance, as Sully explains he had no training for landing a passenger plane in water. In fact, there’s not even a pilot simulation for that procedure. As happens to so many in business, Sully was faced with a situation that no one had ever anticipated. He knew time and gravity were enemies so his first realization was the need to stay calm. Overreacting was a sure path to death.

Sully also had a sound understanding of his situation. He admits to being a big stickler for details well beyond the usual checklist pilots always review. For instance, he always insisted on a complete passenger count even though it never mattered until that famous Hudson River landing.

He also knew his people. Sully met his co-pilot Jeff Skiles only days before the January 2009 flight. He knew that Skiles was experienced, but not in the Airbus 320 they were flying. That critical piece of information meant that Sully was best suited to take control of the plane, which he did quickly and without argument.

He understood that his words had to convey clearly the situation. He recalls that the ground controller recognized that too, skipped the usual questions that follow a distress call and instantly moved to find a landing place in the densely populated New York City area. Likewise, his messages to the passengers had to convey both urgency and calm. As Sully says, the phrase “brace for impact” is simple, direct and gets the job done. There was nothing else to say, nothing else to explain.

But what caught me most was the pilot’s willingness to listen for any source of help. As the plane was only 300 feet above the Hudson, Sully can be heard on the flight recorder asking his crew, “Got any ideas?” Sully says he didn’t expect an answer, but any thought was welcome. There was no time for hierarchy, no time for hubris. It was time for openness and communication.

One last story struck me. Landing the plane correctly in the Hudson took aviation skills that I cannot comprehend. Yet once the plane landed and began to float, Sully and Skiles looked at each other and simultaneously said: “That wasn’t so bad.” Having a sense of humor never hurts either.

Just like that, Sullenberger saved 155 lives and changed the meaning of a word. His lesson is something we shouldn’t easily forget.

Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at . His book, “THE BIG PICTURE: Essential Business Lessons From The Movies,” co-authored with Kevin Coupe, is available by clicking here .
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