OPINION

  • Amid times of crisis in corporate South Africa, there are reminders that sometimes you can make a massive difference. 
  • Here’s one small way to make a positive impact.
  • You never know what the payback might be.

Comair has joined the growing number of global airlines voluntarily grounding their Boeing 737-800 Max fleets amidst safety concerns following two similar accidents in six months involving that model of aircraft. Comair had one of the aircraft in service. Another is due for delivery next week and six more are on order. But it’s a signal of concern in an industry that survives on consumer confidence.

In the midst of the crisis comes a well-timed story of how a touch of humility can go a long way to softening a crisis and perhaps one day even saving your bacon.

No matter how important you think you are right now.

Ten-year old Australian Alex Jacquot recently wrote to Alan Joyce, CEO of Australian carrier Qantas, informing him of his plan to start an airline. He said that he was in the early preparation stages for “Oceania Express” and had already made key management appointments from his peer group. He added that he was now moving on to considering heady issues such as routes, catering and aircraft types.

“Please take me seriously,” wrote the boy in his childlike script.

“I like working on my airline. Seeing as it’s school holidays, I have more time to work. But I don’t have anything to do (that I can think of). Do you have any ideas of what I can do? Seeing as you are the CEO of QANTAS, I thought I would ask you.”

He continued to solicit advice on how to manage the extraordinary distances from Australia to its main markets, including the UK, showing real insight into the complexities of managing intercontinental flights.

It would have been be very easy and reasonable for the CEO to ignore the child, perhaps send him a scale model of a Qantas jet and a letter from the PR division wishing him well in his future endeavours.

But that is not what Joyce did.

Joyce did what the boy asked. He treated him seriously, while engaging playfully in a way that the child might only appreciate in years to come.

He started by referring to the child as “Mr Jacquot,” informing him that he was not in the habit of giving advice to competitors, but in a deeply human moment in a corporate world stifled by formality, process and compliance he added: “I, too, was a young boy who was curious about flight and its possibilities." He invited the boy to a meeting to learn more about the complexity of managing passengers over a 25-hour routing from the east of Australia to the UK.

It’s a PR move. Clearly.

Qantas published the correspondence in the hope of getting rave reviews, like this one. But it’s more than that. It’s about wonder and not dismissing the dreams of young people just because they are young.

Perhaps Alan Joyce gets 100 of these sorts of letters a year and perhaps his support staff respond to all of them.

But this one was different somehow. This was Joyce responding to a child who clearly has a fascination and understanding of some of the fundamentals of air transport.

When last did you agree to a meeting with someone you didn’t know, who just needed a helping hand, a touch of motivation or a kind word? When last did you even respond to an email from someone who’d asked you for advice. When last did you reach out to someone in an unsolicited fashion and give them a pep talk because you’d heard they could do with some motivation?

Nearly 40 years after I received a handwritten letter from Gary Player expressing his condolences to me on the death of my mother, I sought him out at Sun City during the Nedbank Golf Challenge to thank him.

He had no recollection of that specific letter, now in a box of treasures in its moth-eaten Cherry Hills Country Club envelope. In 1978 Player was at the height of his golfing powers, yet took the time to say that he’d heard my mother had died and offered some words of inspiration and comfort. He didn’t need to do it. But he did and made a huge impact on the life of a child whose world had been torn apart.

So often as adults we are so caught up in our own everyday self-importance and busy-ness we don’t consider the things that will make a fundamental difference in the lives of others. Sometimes even, they can translate to benefits we could never imagine.

Raymond Ackerman tells the story of how when he was running Checkers for the Greatermans group in the 1960s, he got a call one day from a young Cape Town entrepreneur called Jack Goldin.

Goldin informed Johannesburg-based Ackerman that he was the founder of a small chain of grocers in Cape Town called Pick n Pay and was inspired by the American-style supermarketing.

Ackerman himself was implementing a new business model in South Africa  motivated by what he had seen on trips to the United States where grocers were allowing shoppers to help themselves off the shelves and pay on exit. Profit margins were tight, but volumes of goods sold were high.

He was introducing this model across some 80 stores he ran on behalf of the retail group that primarily made its money from clothing sales. Ackerman’s paymasters just didn’t get it and he was instructed to expand margins. His refusal would eventually get him fired.

Ackerman agreed to meet with Goldin, and on the day of the meeting the Checkers boss instructed his secretary to clear his diary so that he could meet the young entrepreneur at the airport himself.

“That meeting changed my life."

"The fact that I went to meet him and showed him around myself, meant that when Jack was ready to sell and heard that I had been fired, he approached me first to buy Pick n Pay. The lesson I learned that day was to never be too big for your boots. I met him, and that changed everything,” Ackerman says.

Sometimes a kind word, or treating someone seriously, will pay off.

Most of time you won’t feel the benefit yourself, but someone else will maybe, just maybe, pay it forward.

It’s worth a go.

Bruce Whitfield is a multi-platform award-winning financial journalist and broadcaster.

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