Engagement, Change and Adversity: Sustaining the Conditions for Choice at Boeing

How does an organization sustain the engagement of employees through a significant period of change, not a change management initiative, a continuous period of evolutionary change lasting say, ten years? That experience is one that has been shared over the last decade by the 70,000 + employees of the Boeing Corporation in the greater Seattle area.

Here in the northwest our relationship with Boeing is up close and personal and if you work there, as a leader or not, you might feel like a fish being followed by a group of wide eyed tourists in a glass bottom boat. We cheer when the news for Boeing is good like it was recently when the company was awarded a large contract and we tremble when the company seems vulnerable as it has during the 787 project.

The trials and tribulations of the Boeing’s 787 project are a journalist’s dream come true because so many things have gone wrong. And with a presence as prominent as Boeing’s is here in the Northwest you can bet that EVERYTHING gets reported on and from many perspectives given the wide diversity of agendas that have some dependency on the company. Almost no news day is complete without something being reported out of Boeing.

Something I have wondered about for a while is how any company can maintain employee engagement during this period of rapid and sustained evolutionary change. Boeing provides plenty of opportunity to consider this question. So Monday when an article appeared in this Monday’s (4/4/11) Seattle Times Business and Technology section profiling one of the key leaders at Boeing it grabbed my attention.

I was hoping for some insight into how Boeing’s senior team has been leading the organization? What have they been doing to keep engagement high, have they even been concerned about it? I am a fan of both Bill Bridges and Dick Axelrod. In his highly regarded book ‘Terms of Engagement’  Axelrod outlines three critical leadership practices that are keys to success in any change management process, such as Boeing has been undergoing for a decade. They are: 

·         Honesty

·         Transparency

·         Trust

It is these practices, Axelrod tells us, that when followed create the conditions in which employees can choose to engage fully while leadership is making big demands on them. How is Boeing’s leadership doing as followers of these practices?

As I was reading this new piece I had Axelrod’s model in mind.  


The article by Dominic Gates, the Times Boeing beat reporter, profiles Nicole Piasecki, Boeing’s vice president of Business Development head of Strategic Analysis for Commercial Airplanes. If you live anywhere, never mind simply the Northwest, and are involved in employee engagement you will find some nuggets here, some to save and some to avoid.

The article, as well as being an executive profile discusses some of the key strategic issues Boeing leadership has and is dealing with as it prepares for competition in spaces in which it has been one of two dominant players for many years

Nicole Piasecki has clearly been on both the receiving end of some pretty big decisions made by others that resulted in negative consequences and also an active participant in making some of these same decisions herself. As Dominic Gates points to in his article…

“…some of Boeing’s strategic moves in the past decade — which Piasecki had a hand in — now look questionable. Boeing’s leadership has conceded that the wholesale outsourcing of work on the Dreamliner (787) program was handled badly. The debacle has trashed the company’s stellar reputation for delivering on time and has cost the company billions of dollars.”

Has Boeing’s leadership completely stepped up to full responsibility for the decisions that led to the 787’s problems? Maybe you should judge for yourself but here is how it was reported by Dominic Gates when he directly asked Piasecki about one such decision…

“Piasecki considered her answer for a long moment, pausing, a conversation that was otherwise a fluid mix of lively, confident answers and occasional playful banter.

Finally she acknowledged, as her boss Jim Albaugh did recently, that Boeing’s leadership at the time was very focused on shrinking in-house assets to boost Wall Street’s assessment of company profitability.”

As I read these words I felt my confidence in Boeing leadership rising and then I read the next sentence…

“Then she briskly moved on, saying she won’t “second-guess decisions that have already been made.”

For my part, and she may not have intended it to be so, I found this response cavalier and I was left deflated. I know Boeing employee’s read this piece and I wondered whether they might have the same impression as I did. Is this the kind of transparency, honesty and trust that provides a foundation for engagement?

So I am now left wondering a) whether Boeing’s leadership is fully prepared to create the conditions for employees to continue to choose to engage at the high levels the company no doubt needs and b) whether those 72,000 + employees working for Boeing in the Seattle area are coming in each day fully engaged or whether they may just not have anyplace else to go?

  •  What about your own leadership? Have you made decisions that went badly? How did you handle these with the people affected?

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