Training rigour differentiates companies during tough times

When it comes to aviation miracles, perhaps none can match United Airlines' Flight 232 flying from Denver to Chicago on 10 July 1989. An hour into the flight, the DC 10's tail engine exploded. A fatigued metal component had sheared off and crashed into the engine blades, wrecking it and damaging all three independent hydraulic control systems. This type of accident is classified as a 'catastrophic failure' for its extreme rarity and missing fallback option to save the plane.

Within seconds, the pilots lost all control of the ailerons, flaps and other parts, and the aircraft went into a uncontrolled dive to the right, almost turning it on its wing-tips. What happened over the next 45 minutes until its emergency landing in Sioux City airport is considered a master-class in collaborative problem-solving under severe circumstances.

As Captain Al Haynes, co-pilot Bill Records and flight engineer Dvorak battled the plane's plummet, they were joined in the cockpit by an off-duty flight instructor Denny Fitch. Between these four in the cockpit and five professionals at Sioux City's air traffic control, this plane with no functioning controls was part feathered and part wrestled to the ground, saving 184 lives (including all four pilots). Of the 112 passengers who perished, 45 died after the crash landing because of smoke inhalation rather than the crash itself. The US National Transportation Safety Board later re-modelled it by putting different experienced crews in simulators 28 times, and the plane crashed in all without reaching Sioux City. In his book Culture Code, Daniel Coyle observes that the crew of Flight 232 succeeded not because of individual skills, but because they coalesced their skills into a higher intelligence.

How did they do that?

Captain Haynes credited this miracle to five factors: luck, communication, preparation, execution and cooperation. Notwithstanding the impact of luck, it was a daylight crash; Sioux airport was away from populated areas, allowing the plane to furrow into cornfields, etc; Haynes attributed the success to United's intense training, especially its Crew Resource Management (CRM) programme. This training simulates crises as realistically as can be, including subjecting participants to physical and emotional fatigue. It also focuses on participants' cognitive and interpersonal skills, rather than just the technical knowledge needed to operate equipment or perform a function. Pilots, armed forces, crack medical units, elite athletic teams and other high-performance units spend a substantial portion of their careers in realistic training.

Corporates might have something to learn from that. In most companies, leadership training, especially at senior strategic levels, usually gets more lip- service than attention. Many leaders consider themselves too senior to spend time on it, and most firms outsource training to business schools for modules on specific competencies, rather than run sustained internal programmes.

There are five benchmarks to measure an organization's seriousness about training (and staying ahead).

First, the time, resources and intensity dedicated to training. In most firms, this is about two weeks a year per leader; training budgets are meagre and the training itself lacks rigour.

Second, the positioning of learning and development in the hierarchy. Once again, most corporates bury it deep down in the HR function, often away from the strategic leadership's sight. Third, the time that an organization's CXOs and strategic leaders spend on teaching. How hands-on are they in training efforts? Fourth, the organization's mechanisms to institutionalize its training. Does it have a leadership academy with career programmes, or does it rely on sporadic 'flavour of the month' interventions? While most organizations run programmes for entry level employees, few institutionalize strategic level leadership training.

And lastly, how fiercely does the organization capture and disseminate its very own knowledge? Does it have after-action reports, use experienced leaders as instructors and develop an organizational history? Or does it let valuable knowledge fitter away? These five benchmarks indicate an organization's resilience, and as they can determine its success, they demand top attention.

Just as a comparison, In most armed forces, the training command is equated with combat commands, headed by a commander who has a seat at the high table. An officer spends half or more of his career undergoing training that is so rigorous that loss of life is not infrequent. Instructors in the armed forces are operational leaders, 'practitioner teachers' who have been there, done that, and are feted within the organization. Instructional tenures are essential stints in hierarchical ascendancy, thus ensuring that all learning is institutionalized.

Obviously the roles and stakes of corporates are different from the armed forces, however such standards serve as a good benchmark. As Captain Haynes pointed out, one of the main reasons that the flight had 184 survivors, beyond training, was the presence of a US national guard unit stationed near the airport that swung into action for a rescue.

Ironically, the CRM programme started by United Airlines was itself the result of a previous flight crash suffered by the carrier, back in 1978. This is yet another lesson that corporates might want to take. They must not wait for an actual crash to step up their emphasis on training and leadership development

Raghu Raman is the founding CEO of the National Intelligence Grid and bestselling author of Everyman's War