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From Global Conference: How Bombardier succeeds by listening to its workforce

3 min read


I attended last week’s Milken Institute Global Conference in Los Angeles. In two sessions, Bombardier executives discussed the company’s leadership and workforce challenges, what it has done in recent years to counteract those problems and its path forward.

Bombardier has a long history of making aerospace and trains that evoke quality and panache, such as its Learjet division. It has been a profitable enterprise based on entrepreneurial attitude and a focus on customers and products. But at some point, the company became fragmented despite strong performance and excellent products. There were silos within the company, a view of of customers as a function rather than the core, and a sense of confusion among employees as to what the company’s mission truly was.

That was years ago. Today, though the company isn’t perfect, it has made great strides in returning its operational focus to customer satisfaction, setting a few clear and employee-driven goals and building the “soft” skills of its managers. How did it do this?

The tale of this success took two forms during the Global Conference. First, CEO Pierre Beaudoin described the turnaround from the C-suite perspective, and the next day, human resources chief John Paul Macdonald looked at the human resources and shop-floor perspectives.

When the company realized it had gotten off track, Beaudoin said, it surveyed its employees. Their clear response: “You keep changing objectives every year.” The company realized it needed a few clear goals that could deliver a consistent message to employees across all departments, as well as to customers and investors.

In recent years, the company has developed a few basic goals that reach across any aspect of operations.

  • Great talent globally
  • Strong financial discipline
  • Being active in managing risk
  • A commitment to corporate social responsibility

The company also saw that it had not developed managers’ people skills, or “soft” abilities, as the airplane maker sometimes focused on the aircraft without considering the passengers — or the employees. It’s important to have managers listen to employees and hear their ideas, Macdonald said, but also for managers to enable employees to work out situations on the shop floor without having to get involved.

“When we went through this focus of focusing just on products … we’d have somebody, who may be a person, an engineer that may be in their mid-to-late 30s, and all of a sudden, they find themselves in charge of about 300 employees, 300 engineers,” said Macdonald. “And the individual says to himself, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know how to talk to these people. I don’t know how to say thank you. I don’t know how to have a difficult conversation with them.’ ”

Management sets the tone, Beaudoin said. If executives want to hear about potential problems, there can’t be “yells and screams” at meetings when those problems are raised, because employees will never bring them up again. It’s about feeling safe to speak up. For managers, it’s about having the right training so they can feel confident in guiding their employees.

Doing so matters to employee happiness and talent retention, Macdonald says. There are three questions in the minds of all employees that companies should always be aware of:

  • Where are we going?
  • What’s my role in getting us there?
  • How am I doing?