November 15, 2011

By Paul Feinberg and Marianna Walther

"I boil leadership down to something that is pretty simple. It's making yourself and your team better every day. If you can do that, you will take your team and yourself a long way."

So said James F. (Jim) Albaugh, executive vice president of The Boeing Company and president and chief executive officer of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, where he is responsible for the company's commercial airplanes programs and services. Albaugh's remarks came at a recent address before the Executive MBA (EMBA) Class of 2012 as part of the EMBA Leadership Speaker Series.

Albaugh, who noted that he never went to business school and learned about leadership on the job, began his career as an engineer, a path he said he chose after earning a "C" on his first history test in college. "In engineering," Albaugh said, "the numbers are what they are. It really comes down to the right assumptions, the right analysis and getting things right. You've got to get it right all the time and that discipline has shaped the outlook I have in business. In engineering there aren't any shortcuts and there aren't any shortcuts in business either."

The talk continued with some of Albaugh's thoughts on current world economic and political conditions. He commented on Boeing's growing international competition in aerospace from such divergent countries as Canada, Brazil, Russia, China and Japan; global issues ranging from energy to terrorism; the interconnected quality of the world economy (i.e. the recent earthquake in Japan); the global economic crisis that caused a loss of confidence in banking and government; shifts in economic and military power as countries like China and India continue their rise.

Inspiring the Organization
Albaugh then laid out four requirements for leadership. Firstly, Albaugh believes in inspiring the organization.

"I think at a company like Boeing, it's easier to get people to be part of a larger mission," Albaugh said. "At Boeing we work on important things ... hard things, things that change the world. It is very gratifying when you see a rocket take off, when you deploy a satellite or when you see a new airplane fly. You have a great sense of pride."

The veteran executive believes that people come to work to support their colleagues, and they don't want to disappoint the people who are on their team. Employees also want to better themselves.

"I think that people come to work every morning because they want to learn and grow. Eighty-thousand people get up in the morning, put on their badge and come through the gate and I want them to be smarter when they leave than when they came," Albaugh said. "'How do you do that? Make sure your teams are about learning."

Albaugh then spoke about his second tenet of leadership, the importance of developing the next generation of leaders. "After you're gone they will forget whether or not you met your business plan but they will remember who you left behind - and those people will be around a long time after you're gone," he said. As his third tenet, Albaugh added how creating an open and honest culture is essential, saying "One of the things I have learned is that on every troubled program I have been involved with, people knew there were issues and for whatever reason they were afraid to bring those issues forward."

Digging deeper into those scenarios, Albaugh said he found that there was a manager who did not create a culture where people felt comfortable coming to him. "I like people on my team who are smarter than me; I like people on my team who will tell me when I am wrong," Albaugh said. "I like people on my team who have better ideas than I do and I expect them to be the same towards their employees."

Having an Environment that Inspires Innovation
Cultivating inspiration is Albaugh's fourth requirement for leadership. He noted that inspiration has been ingrained in Boeing's DNA from 1916 through putting a man on the moon and to the first flight of the 787 Dreamliner. Albaugh then described several "ingredients for inspiration." They include:

  • Everyone in your organization must believe you are going to be the best, that you want the best and there must be a goal that everybody believes in. For Boeing, that's building the most capable airplanes in the market.
  • Your company must be committed to investment, in both people and technology.
  • Create an environment where people feel comfortable bringing their ideas forward. You have to love engineers who have a hundred wild ideas -- but then they have that one brilliant one. Make sure you don't stifle someone like that.
  • Recognize that all the best ideas are not created in your company or even in your country. You must bring the best technology to bear no matter where it comes from.

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