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Caldwell: Cultural healing in business takes time

SUNDAY, JAN. 30, 2011

New runways, tarmacs, rental car facilities and other improvements will have cost Spokane International Airport more than $100 million by the time the dust settles in 2013. Now, for a sliver of that amount, the airport is investing in its most important asset, its people.

The airport itself is one of the region’s most important economic assets, but employees say confusion about who was in charge, and where the airport was going, rolled morale flatter than the runways.

Crystal Lewis was hired in mid-2010, only to see the director, assistant director and her own supervisor depart. “I had a lot of anxiety,” she says.

Co-worker Bruce Millsap says the airport employs good people, but the organization has been adrift.

So every one of the airport’s 140 employees convened in small groups with Missoula-based facilitator Karen Marsolek to explore the factors that, as she says, suck the energy out of workplaces, or breathe in new.

The “sucks,” posted after one session at the Airport Ramada Inn, include poor communication, no personal growth, and lack of respect, support and teamwork.

Among the “breaths” are the sense of ownership, accountability, challenge, independence and fun.

Marsolek says the complaints of the airport employees are characteristic of those she has encountered at other businesses that have become hardened, where management is unconscious or unresponsive to worker needs, and workers have become accustomed to behaving in ways unhealthy for themselves, their co-workers and the organization.

“I help cultures see themselves, and behave, more like communities,” she says.

Marsolek was hired by interim airport Director Ryland “Skip” Davis, who brought her into Providence Health Care when he was chief executive there. He wanted to assure the values of the Sisters of Providence would be preserved as they became less active in the medical center’s affairs.

At the airport, Davis says, “The culture was confining. The employees did not feel a sense of appreciation.”

He joined the employees for lunch between a morning and afternoon session. “The feedback I got was universally positive,” he says.

Airport board member Jeff Hamilton sat in on one of the sessions, and describes the experience as “absolutely fabulous.”

The employees appreciated his attendance, and the board’s willingness to bring them into the process of hiring a permanent airport director. Their criteria for a new boss match those of the board, he says.

“It’s a positive they’re actually asking us,” said David Buddrius.

Finalists from Aspen, Colo., Lehigh Valley, Pa., and Bangor, Maine, will be in Spokane next week for final interviews.

An Employee Steering Committee that helped explain airport operations to Marsolek will have the opportunity to interview the candidates and make their recommendation.

In the meantime, they will have one last chance to share their thoughts about their work, workplace and change by filling out a confidential survey. And Marsolek will submit a digest of her impressions that will also figure in the way the airport moves forward, Davis says.

She says it may be as long as 18 months before everyone involved with the airport knows whether a new culture takes hold.

“There’s a lot of healing that has to be done,” Lewis says. “Hiring a leader is just the start.”

Bert Caldwell can be reached at bertc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5450.


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