This article continues my writing about Aquila’s start on the journey from Good to Great as a first step to my writing a book on Aquila’s evolution. These articles continue to examine how Aquila used the concepts of Jim Collins’ book Good to Great to bring us to where we are today. And in this time of uncertainty, we are finding these concepts more valuable than ever!

In his book Good to Great, Jim Collins says: “Avoid bureaucracy and hierarchy and instead create a culture of discipline. When you put these two complementary forces together—a culture of discipline with an ethic of entrepreneurship—you get a magical alchemy of superior performance and sustained results.”

And he was right! What does this translate to in the actual day to day? How does this culture of discipline come about?

For an entrepreneur, getting the right people on the bus must come first. If people have the right attitude, fit the team, and are in the right seat on the bus, it’s a winning combination. It’s about attitude and the responsibilities they have on the team and not about the job. It’s about everyone knowing who’s responsible for getting something done and owning it (the right seat on the bus). You cannot discipline the wrong people into doing the right thing… you need self-disciplined people with the right attitude on your bus from the start. As quoted by Jim Collins: “The level five leaders on the team routinely credit others, external factors, and good luck for their success. But when results are poor, they blame themselves. They also act quietly, calmly, and determinedly—relying on inspired standards, not inspiring charisma, to motivate.”

I was asked recently how Aquila arrived at having our whole team really living the vision and buying into the Good to Great BHAG (our Big Hairy Audacious Goal – more on this one in another article). Did we write it and ask how it felt to the team? That question seemed strange to me, as I assumed every company would use the same approach that we had. Our whole team wrote it… as a group, we decided what would be in it… what would inspire us… so that everyone sees part of themselves in it. It is only then that it becomes “the team’s” envisioned future.

The same goes with our roles and responsibilities. We make it very clear from the beginning that we all have a role to play and that we expect each team member to be able to “own” this role and eventually excel at it. When someone is in the right seat on the bus, it’s probably because we have made sure that we are using an individual’s strengths and talents to get them in that seat. We also work together with team members when changes need to be made, either because they have honed their skills in certain areas or reached a point where they have gained more experience. We also cannot forget that their love of a role needs to be part of the equation. When everyone enjoys doing what they do, they are happy and take pride in doing their job exceptionally well. Once or twice a year, we check back to see how they are doing, if they’re still loving the parts they play in the organization, and if there is something that they’d like to do in future to challenge them. This allows us to think of ways to get team members in roles they also are interested in trying.

So how do we manage these roles and responsibilities? Each role at Aquila is itemized with what is involved with that role, and what responsibilities go with it. It isn’t always an exact science and sometimes we need to revisit roles as we may have too many gray areas. The clearer we can be with what responsibilities make up part of a role, the fewer questions down the road, and the better the collaboration and teamwork. What is great about this is that working this way makes us accountable to each other to make the magic happen. Self starters and leaders appreciate having control over their area of responsibility, knowing they can ask if they need help. At times of high demand or stress, if anyone gets overwhelmed or needs help, everyone pitches in to assist – otherwise, they are free to work in whatever way feels best to them to get the job done. What we have seen in these uncertain times is how a disciplined team can make miracles happen in spite of dealing with stress all around us.

I can hear all the questions now… What about giving direction? What if they’re new? Doesn’t it all get chaotic? What if we were a larger team? Yes, Aquila gives lots of direction, especially when it is a new team member, even providing many ways that things can be done. In the end, the person doing it chooses what works best for them. When mentoring a new team member, they tag team with someone with experience until they know what is expected and what their role involves. And the size of the team should not matter. Even in larger organizations, most are divided into subgroups and departments… so if each area manages in this same way, then the whole organization would excel.

To give a concrete example of this discipline in action, I will use a day last fall where we had three large ships in port, and over 4000 people on tours. There are multiple double and triple ship days in port, so this example is a regular occurrence, and we offer at least a dozen tours for each ship, so a triple ship day could end up with over 30 different tours. The foundation for managing such a large day starts 18 months ahead of time with proper allotments and draft dispatches of what could work for each ship. Allotments is our term for inventory, for how many people we can take on each tour in any given day – then the dispatch gives these numbers the times of day and the total numbers separated into blocks of time.

At about one year ahead of these scheduled ship calls, that is when we secure and book enough buses for those large days, advise the suppliers of the dates they will be needed, and set a plan to recruit and train enough tour guides to provide the projected tours. With three ships in port, we would need over 40 buses and tour guides to deliver excellence on up to 30 different tours… each tour requiring a deep knowledge of our local history, and some tours needing expertise in different areas such as photography, naturalists, German-speaking or Spanish-speaking guides. Many buses do tours for one ship in the morning and another in the afternoon, and tour guides also will often do multiple tours in one day. You could compare this to one giant puzzle that all has to come together in the end.

On this triple ship day, three Aquila Cruise Managers are assigned months ahead of time, each having the responsibility for one ship. Emails are monitored leading up to the cruise day, answering queries from the ships on things to do, timings of our tides, special requests from passengers, etc. Then the day before is when all final numbers come in from those ships, with exactly how many are booked on each tour and at what time. This is when suppliers and buses are confirmed, and tour guides are assigned.

And now it’s the big day. We monitor if ships are delayed, what supplies each manager needs for the pier, and what last minute tweaks must be made. Everyone is on the pier over an hour before the ship arrives. Once on the pier, our cruise managers and their pier dispatch teams juggle transport arrivals and issues, on-time dispatching, guides’ questions, collecting tickets, and finally sending passengers off on tours with a big smile. It’s like a great symphony where each player has a role to play and it all comes together to make the day happen with as little chaos as possible. Throughout the day, the teams monitor buses returning from tours, more tours leaving, dealing with any issues that may arise and finally, sending an end of day report to the ship to give them a full account of the day.

Ship days are made somewhat less stressful because it was someone’s role to ensure guides were trained for the unique tour needs of that ship and were trained and scheduled months ahead of time. Someone else’s role was to ensure 40 buses were dispatched to be the correct pier at the appropriate time. Another role was to ensure all 80 suppliers throughout southern New Brunswick were ready to receive these buses loaded with our cruise guests, and that each supplier knew what their responsibilities were for the day… they knew how many meals, how many entrance fees, how many wheelchairs, and any other special deviation.

A cruise day with multiple ships in port and smiling pier teams ready to greet our thousands of guests is a great challenge… and yes, issues and problems do come up… but without this disciplined organization and planning throughout the year, it would definitely be chaotic instead of what appears to the outside world as an organised well-planned cruise day. And then we are able to celebrate together a successful day or join in commiseration if things went sideways… but we are in it together and no one person gets the glory for it as it all becomes a team effort.

Building a disciplined team takes work, it takes time, determination, and grit. And these disciplined teams do have to follow the systematic plans that the team has arranged to make their envisioned future happen. Can you think of a time when you were given complete autonomy for taking a project to the finish line? How did it feel? It’s not for everyone. We have had team members self-eject as that way of working and those responsibilities were not the right fit for them. If this is a model that excites you, then find a workplace where you can work creatively in this way and surround yourself with others who have similar values.

Once in place, a disciplined team working on the same mission is totally unstoppable, a dream team to contend with – and a place where the sky becomes the limit!

There are so many lessons Aqulia has learned through these years that I want to talk about. And so many critical learnings in these uncertain times that have made teams so much more important. In my next chapters will be ideas around the importance of mentorship, managing an organization to have fun, succession planning, community giving, dealing with COVID and more. Stay tuned!

Originally published on LinkedIn on May 21st, 2020