Boeing Frontiers
July 2003
Volume 02, Issue 03
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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following essay on leadership was adapted from a recent discussion by Dave Swain, executive vice president, chief technology officer and member of the Office of the Chairman, with attendees at the Boeing Leadership Center.

Leadership is my favorite subject. I feel I know a little bit about leadership—some from watching, some from doing.

To me, there are three critical elements to leadership: passion, ownership and skills. The first two I consider the most important.

Passion is what motivates a person inside so much they can't let go. It's when they believe in what they are doing so strongly it gives them huge amounts of commitment, a huge amount of courage, and drives that motor inside, continuously. And no matter how people display it—and some passionate people are quiet and reflective—others see it. People deserve to have passion for their work.

True, a few times I've had to talk myself into being passionate about my job. I started to work in this industry because I had a passion for putting humans in space. That passion got me started, got me through college, and got me working on my first job with excitement.

Eventually, the space shuttle program and I had to separate, the result of some company that's now part of Boeing winning the shuttle contract.

At that time I was asked to move to working on a defense project, something I didn't think I had a passion for. So I had a career discussion with myself. I began to think about my four children, who were just starting to grow, and whether I could stand it if I knew our country didn't have the best equipment and systems to defend itself.

After a week of this kind of thinking I entered my job with huge commitment. I had personalized it.

It turns out it was a terrific job. Every day I'd get up and try to figure out how to make it better and how to be part of creating products that would make a difference. And I helped develop two or three that made a difference, which feels really good to me now.

Number two is ownership. [Boeing Chairman and CEO] Phil Condit often talks about Boeing people behaving as a shareholder would behave.

This resonates with me because I grew up in an environment when we owned our own business—a family farm. If the weather was good, we worked. If the weather was bad we worked doing something else. Part of it was business; part of it was pride.

When I got an assignment to run a Boeing business, I realized the only difference between it and our family farm was there were another 1,800 people, plus their families, involved. If we made the business better it was good for them. If we didn't, it was not good for them.

So I suddenly started viewing all the resources as mine, not just Boeing's or somebody else's I was borrowing that day. I wasn't asking, "What's the budget?" because I can go perform to it. I was trying to make the business better. And I found myself asking different questions: What are the customer issues we have on quality? Why are cycle times so high?

So accepting responsibility for being an owner is a key principle of leadership. As a Boeing employee you have products you deliver, you have customers and you have suppliers. Know the metrics that paint the picture of the business you are entrusted to run, and say, "How can I make these metrics better?" And know the bottom line on quality is ... you.

Think of it as Boeing operating as a collection of 5,000 small companies, all working in unison, learning from one another, sharing best practices and ideas, moving people around, and never reinventing anything. We would be unstoppable.

The third critical element of leadership is skills. I feel the most important skill for a leader, whether a top executive or a team leader on the shop floor, is selecting people. Focus on building the strongest team you can. Ask how will this person, in addition to skills, support this team? What do they bring that's special? Do they come from a different culture? Do they bring past experiences we don't have? You want them to bring something to the team besides just their business skills. Otherwise, how did you make the team better? It's the team results you want to maximize, not the individual's.

Another fundamental on selecting teams is to hire for attitude. Yes, a person has to have a basic skill level to get his or her job done. But when you boil it down, attitude and passion are more important than skills and always will be. Because if people have the attitude and the passion, but are missing a skill, they'll find that skill in about three seconds. Or they'll find somebody who will help them learn it quickly. They'll read at home every night to gain the knowledge they are missing.

Another leadership skill is listening. It's the most critical—and one of the hardest to learn. Great leaders know when to shut up and listen. And they have a way of listening and knowing exactly what people said. They also can sense what people didn't say and can ask the right questions.

This includes listening to the people who work with you, listening to the people who work with them and listening to peers, as well as listening to customers and suppliers. Then, integrating all this data in a way that makes you better at what you do.

Another key skill I call "Where does the credit go." Simply put, if you don't worry about who gets the credit, it's amazing what you can do. Great leaders will see that their team gets the credit, always. In everything they write about and talk about, up the chain and down, it's always about "what their great team did."

Of course there's a counter to this. When things go really badly, great leaders take all the responsibility in public. You may have a team member that needs to take a lot of this responsibility, and if so, have a chat with him or her in private. But in public, you have to say, "This is my team, my responsibility, and I screwed it up." Once your team knows you behave this way, it starts to build amazing things, including a huge amount of trust.

A final skill I'll mention is fundamental coaching. Great coaches know their people so well they know exactly what play they should be in, what the assignments are, when they're getting bored, and when they can redeploy them.

Think about it as taking one of Boeing's core competencies, detailed customer knowledge, and applying it to the people you work with. For if you have detailed knowledge about them—not the prying kind—you can do a heck of a job in making them more passionate about what they do. You can help them get in the right assignments and get the right training. If they've got personal issues, you can help give them some space.

In a way, Boeing is a team sport—the biggest, most complicated team sport in the world—playing in a world with constantly changing rules and meeting difficult challenges. Doing things that haven't been done before. But that's why I like working here—Boeing does challenging things. As leaders, it's up to us to help the people we work with kindle that same passion, pride of ownership and skill, so they really like what they do every day.



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