Guest Post: It’s Not About You

I received this message as an email from my aunt, Kim Brown, who is an employee of Ball Publishing in West Chicago, IL.  It was written by Anna Ball, CEO of Ball Seed Company who was at the airport in Tokyo when the earthquake hit.  Her message struck a chord in my heart, and I hope that we can learn from her simple observation, “it’s not about you” instead of requiring something as catastrophic as the earthquake in Japan as a catalyst to force us to learn to work together simply to survive.

“Here are some “lessons” that Jan, Todd and I were observing at the airport.

1)“It’s not about you.”

There was a business leadership article I read a few years ago and the main point the author made was: It’s not about you. (Put the company first and in the end, everyone wins).  I often think about that concept and it came up over and over when we were in Japan. Once we realized how devastating the earthquake was for the people of Japan, it was ridiculous and embarrassing to complain about the very minor inconvenience of being stuck in an airport.  We knew we would eventually get home on a comfortable airplane to wonderful homes and to a country that is better off than any other in the world.  Complaints sound hollow after putting things into perspective.

“It’s not about you.”  More people should keep that in mind when they are voting.  Do people vote for the candidate who will make them better off or one who will make their town, state, or country better off? I recently received an email from someone who had analyzed (exactly) the financial consequences to him personally of Obama’s health care plan.  It had a net positive for this person, so therefore he was urging everyone to support it.   The other night I was at a school district meeting to protest impending installation of night lighting for our local high school – a great expense  for the convenience of a very few students.  One student got up and talked about how he wants lights on the field because currently he “has to take a bus to practice in another place and sometimes the bus is late and I have to wait for 10 minutes – and sometimes it is raining.” Oh dear.  They need to teach the concept of ‘greater good” in high schools. “It’s not about you.”

“Whoso stoppeth his ears at the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard.”  Proverbs 21:11

2) “Indefinite”

Our new favorite word to bash.   The whole time we were in the airport the flight boards with the flights posted were of great interest to everyone as you can imagine.  Everyone wanted to know what was going on – when the airport would reopen, which flights would take off, etc.  Next to most flights it said “Cancelled”. After a while, next to others it said “Delayed.”  But next to ours it said “Indefinite”.  An interesting word. What on earth did indefinite mean? Of course, it meant nothing.  No information, not even a clue.  How frustrating.  Disappointing information is better than no information.  Bad news is better than no news. Not knowing is worse than knowing the worst. We have made this point dealing with customers.  It is always better to tell customers (internal and external) quickly and openly what the situation is than to keep something from them.  Todd talked many times with people from United, trying to get answers.  Some were crunchy, others soggy.  It’s the people who make the difference.  And if you just don’t know, say it.  Be open with information. Communicate, communicate, communicate!

3)  “Tied to technology” – or “Quit fighting it; it’s here to stay.”

We were amazed at how the whole experience was dominated by the fact that almost every person in the airport had a cell phone and a laptop. (We were in the international terminal and probably one third of the passengers were Americans; internet worked even though phone calls usually didn’t for some reason).  After evacuating the airport and standing on the tarmac for a couple of hours, they decided it was safe to go back into the airport to a certain room.  What was the very first thing most of the people did when they went back into the room?  Go directly to a plug along the wall and plug in their phone and laptop!  It was amazing.  Jan is on Facebook so everyone knew in very short time what our situation was.  We got a report on the magnitude of the quake within minutes of the quake that came over someone’s phone. We spent more time on email than anything else the whole time. It was interesting to think what the whole experience would have been like had it happened a few years ago before the ubiquitous smart phone started dominating our behavior.  I won’t comment on whether it would have been better or worse…….I’ll just say it would have been very different. Our behavior is changing dramatically because of technology.

4)     “Just do something”  or “Delta versus United”  or “It’s all about people, not technology.”

When we were stuck in the room for the night with so many people, nobody knew what was going on. Some of the people were originally on flights with United, some Delta and other various other airlines.  Every once in a while a Japanese would get on the loudspeaker and make an announcement that either you couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand because of the heavy accent.  And of course, virtually none of the passengers spoke Japanese.  So nobody knew what was going on. All of a sudden, a man with an American accent, got on the loudspeaker and started making announcements about what was happening – crunchier information than we had been receiving.  Turns out he worked for Delta.  He just decided to take over the microphone and it was a relief to at least know something.  And to feel someone had taken control of things.  Furthermore, he arranged for box lunches to be brought in for all of the Delta passengers.  All of the rest of us – United etc never got any food.  Here was a guy who took initiative!  Just Do It!  We were happy for the Delta passengers but how we wished there had been someone from United who had the same attitude!  Take initiative! (United later redeemed itself through our wise and kind pilot who got on and told us, in so many words: ”it’s not about you” and also told us to watch out for(and avoid, in so many words)  the press at the airport when you get off.  Helped me.   Another example was a young American/Taiwanese University of Illinois student who went out of his way to help an elderly couple get a seat on our plane.

5)     “I love the Japanese” or – as the WSJ said:  “No country in the world was better prepared for an 8.9 earthquake.”

They were prepared – are we? The Japanese are disciplined (they form lines for everything) organized, gracious, polite and selfless.  They did a marvelous job of staying organized and holding the airport together during a very difficult time for them.  I can only imagine how the whole experience would have been different in various other countries.  Actually the whole human race came out pretty good – everyone in the terminal was friendly and stayed in good humor the whole time.  We never saw anyone angry or complaining.  People bonded together and made the best of it, as people tend to do in situations like that.”

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