What can CEOs learn from Labor Strikes?

Recently, pilots at one of Africa’s largest and most visible airlines, Kenya Airways issued a strike notice. After the expiry of the notice period the pilots did not fly, leading to two days of travel disruption for the airline’s passengers.

The aviation business is very capacity sensitive. Every time an aircraft is not in the air, flying passengers or cargo, the airline loses money. Kenya Airways has been undergoing a period of turbulence and is in the process of being restructured, having delisted from  the Nairobi  Securities Exchange.

The airline, fondly known as KQ, has been plagued by financial difficulties and mostly survives on occasional bailouts from the Government of the Republic of Kenya.

As any CEO will know, operating a struggling business in a unionized environment is a difficult task. When a business is going through a period of turbulence, it suffers cost pressures from two fronts – operational costs and the cost of keeping people happy – salaries, benefits and all.

The business also suffers the pressure to maintain its market reputation and quality of service. As a leader trying to shepherd the business through turbulence, key skills required in your tool set. The first of those skills is effective communication.

Effective communication enables you to set the tone, as to where the business is, where it is going, the challenges along the way and the magnitude of the turbulence your people will face along the way.

Without effective communications, sometimes many things are left unsaid, expectations mismatched between company executives, employees, suppliers, external stakeholders including labor union leaders.

Emotional intelligence allows the CEO to read the intentions of others. This can enables you to more easily pick up on what they’re implying – staff, fellow executives, stakeholders etc –  rather than explicitly stating. In addition to understanding what you and others are experiencing throughout a the period of trying to settle expectations, emotional intelligence can help you advantageously manage and use emotions.

It is also useful to plan ahead and carry everyone along with the vision of your plan. With a plan, it is possible to have discussions with labor unions regarding the state and conditions of the business and where you intend to be in say, 24 months vis-a-vis the demands by your workers that could lead to a labor strike.

As a CEO, there is a case to be made about your effort to create value for others, including your employees. A leader must constantly always answer the question, for the benefit of his followers What’s in it for them – that is, where is the value. To give them adequate reasons to continue believing in you and your proposals and not just trying to anchor what is comfortable for you.

Value is created when a leader can communicate the “bigger picture scenario” effectively to employees and stakeholders. So that they don’t just see your piece of “cake” – your perspective, but visualize the “whole cake” – with both your piece and their piece and other stakeholders in it.

The other vital skill during times of turbulence is reflection, so that your actions are not reflexes based on how you feel about a particular situation from its emotional dimensions but from a point  of reflective evaluation.

Part of the reason labor disputes with employees take an ugly turn is the inability of leaders to negotiate effectively. You cannot negotiate effectively, if you cannot communicate your vision succinctly, with utmost emotional intelligence, as informed by the quest to create win-win or what I refer to above as value creation so that protagonists see the bigger picture – or the whole cake.

That is not to say that in many occasions dealing with labor disputes can be difficult, especially in a scenario such as that of Kenya Airways.

The pilots went back to work eventually following the intervention of the judiciary…but some damage has been done.



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