Do Not Confuse Limited Resources & Bad Leadership

Ryan den Rooijen
Ryan den Rooijen

Airports. Few places share its ability to make or break your holiday experience. Anyone who doubted this will have been rudely disabused of that notion during the travel chaos last summer. Given I am the glass-half-full type, suffering through Miami airport at least provided me with inspiration for this post. After all, just because COVID-19 had an economic impact on the airline industry, does this mean every experience should be poor?

When our family landed in Florida a few weeks ago, we were faced by a complete shambles. Initially, there was absolutely no clarity on where to go, with passport holders, tourists, and even flight staff herded into one queue. When we asked the staff how long we would roughly have to wait – or how long the line was – we were told that they had no clue. Most staff members could not even point me to the nearest bathroom to change our two year-old.

While we know labour shortages have been a major issue facing airports, it is far too convenient to pin our experiences on this sole issue. Yet many organisations do something similar. The moment they deliver poor financial results or a mediocre customer experience, they point to their available resources and say, "see, we were never set up for success in the first place." They hope people will confuse poor leadership with limited budgets.

Budgets, especially involving staff, are rarely black and white. Photo by Ivan Tsaregorodtsev.

The last few years have seen a glut of easy money, and many organisations got used to fuelling their growth with heaps of capital. Call this "brute-force customer experience." Why bother training staff when you can just hire ten of them to do the job of one? When money suddenly dries up and you are forced to justify your pathetic performance, it is all too easy to say: "see, everything was working fine before. If only our budgets had not been cut..."

This is where leadership comes in. From strategy to tactics, understanding how to prioritise and where to focus resources is key. While leadership might involve explaining the impact of deprioritising initiatives, leadership is never conditional on what resources are available. The essence of strategy is prioritisation. Yet there is a reason many people are managers and few are leaders – because the latter requires using your own initiative.

Back to the dismal customer experience at Miami airport. How much effort would it be to separate people into passport holders vs. tourists vs. flight crew etc. on arrival to prevent people from needlessly waiting? How much money to recruit staff who can remember where the nearest bathroom or baby changing facility is? How much time to create simple signs – not even digital at first! – that say "roughly one hour wait from this point?"

This cool pedestrian bridge is one of MIA's only redeeming features. Photo by Daniel Lee.

What is interesting is that so much of this comes down to attitude, both of staff as well as their leaders. The extremes of apathy and arrogance are particularly corrosive when organisations are under pressure – financial or otherwise. After all, apathy leads to acquiescence – it cannot be changed – while arrogance leads one to ignorance – it should not be changed. Just one example of this is the question of recruitment with limited budgets.

On the one extreme, the attitude is "we cannot hire the best, so what is the point" whereas on the other extreme the attitude is "our people are already good enough, so why change?" In the case of Miami airport, who knows? What is clear is that even a few graduates on an internship stipend could hardly fail to improve matters. Florida is not alone in this – many managers choose to blame their budgets when it comes to poor customer experience.

Particularly as organisations kick off the budget process for 2023, decision-makers needs to keep in mind that while finances are important, there are many critical levers that determine success. As a matter of fact, occasionally having too big a budget or too little financial oversight can cripple an organisation to the extent that they merely role-play their mission, as opposed to delivering genuine impact. While ledgers matter, leaders matter more.

– Ryan

Ryan den Rooijen

Now Chief Ecommerce Officer; formerly Chief Data Officer.