Great company culture starts at the top. We know leaders come in all shapes and sizes, but it’s not always about the big changes – it’s about the everyday moments.
How you show up in the good times and the bad times, the interactions you have with your staff, and the tone you set from your conversations have the greatest impact on company culture.
So, in today’s episode, we discuss a CEO’s role in shaping culture and how it impacts employee happiness and performance.
We chat to a leader who has been described as visionary, authentic and collaborative. Our guest is Burt Sigsworth, CEO of Cabin Services Australia – one of the leading professional aircraft cabin cleaning providers.
Burt joined the company in 2007 as the national operations manager and was elevated to CEO in 2013 when the Emirates group acquired the company.
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YouTube Channel: HR Think Tank
00:00:00 – Intro
00:01:32 – Burt’s Leadership Journey
00:04:43 – Burt’s Leadership Style
00:06:54 – Changing the Way Culture is Created During the Pandemic
00:10:02 – Enforcing Strong Culture Around COVID
00:12:47 – Cabin Services Australia’s Cultural Impact
00:18:56 – Measuring Good Workplace Culture
00:22:47 – Challenges in Business Growth
00:24:48 – Making Mistakes
00:26:28 – Building Alliances During Periods of Upheaval
00:28:04 – Working Together in a Pandemic
00:30:19 – Team Approach to Crises
00:31:40 – Fast Five Questions
00:33:46 – Outro
Q: Could you share with us some key moments in your management journey over the last 15 years? How did you get started in these leadership positions?
Like most people, my journey is as much an accident as it is good planning. Opportunities come along, and if it seems like the right opportunity, you just run with it.
I studied communications at university, which seemed like a good broad course, and it has certainly been valuable. While I was studying, I worked at a gym in Five Dock, which led to another opportunity that had a management component.
It was there where I learnt my first real management lesson – I tried to be friends with everybody. I had a colleague that was on a similar level to me, but her management style was the opposite. I think she very much liked people to hate her. She would get pretty good results because people feared her, probably.
Whereas I would get mixed results. So, maybe I was a bit more of a pushover. Further down the line, I worked with someone who reported to me – she was fairly senior and quite an independent worker.
I sat down with her, off the cuff, in one of those 360 reviews and asked about the other person’s management style compared to my management style. And she said, “Well, that other person’s getting a lot of good results, but there’s a lot to be said for being liked.” And that has sat with me to this day.
Throughout my management journey, I’ve had the fortune and misfortune to see many people manage. And a lot of people are looking for that first type of result, which is, essentially dictatorship which instils this culture of fear.
But that kind of leadership style can only go so far. So, people will fear you and do the work you request, but only while you’re looking, and they have to. If you want people to go the extra yard for you, being a dictator will never get you there.
There’s a lot to be said for being liked. If people respect you, if people like you, then they’ll go the distance for you. So, that was an early lesson that stuck with me the whole way through.
And then, at one point, I ended up managing a business through administration, which led to another job in the aviation industry. And then I’ve been in the aviation industry ever since.
Well, I think personality is a big factor, right? I can’t think of anything nicer than to be referred to as a man of the people.
I come from a working-class background, and, in this role, I get to mix with many different leaders of businesses and can’t speak the language of their workforce. And so I was very fortunate in having the family background that I had.
I went to a selective high school, which allowed me to connect with people from different backgrounds – which made me multilingual in English if that makes sense. So, In reality, I want to be amongst the workforce, which essentially comes down to the type of personality I have.
But as it turns out, being visible and being seen to be part of the team gets incredibly strong results from the people working with you. And so, as a result of that, we’ve got a great enterprise bargaining agreement which works for the business and the workforce.
And when that comes around every three years or so, we sit around the table with people from our business keen to negotiate, and we always get great results.
Q: In the last 12 months, you haven't had the same opportunities to travel, given the restrictions in place in our country. How have you shifted the way that you continue to build a culture to reinforce that you're accessible and people can approach you? What changes have you had to make?
We were servicing 550 flights a day, pre-COVID. Within two months, we were down to 15 flights. So, it’s not just a matter of me not being able to go to the workplace and see the workforce. The workforce is not there – the majority of the staff have no hours to come and work.
So even if I could travel, there’s nobody to visit.
The reality is that your culture has to suffer under those circumstances, especially because of the way that our business builds it – which is me and our executives, jackets off, sleeves rolled up, on the floor with everybody else.
We have other methods of communication that we use. For example, we have a newsletter that comes out every month, and I’ll do a video and send it through.
Well, we can talk about it pre-COVID and post-COVID world as well, because again, I’m managing people across the entire country, and Perth’s a long way away, and it’s in a different timezone.
Getting around and seeing people is, for me, key. I know that many people will be moving towards a world in which “Teams” meetings have been successful, and they’re happy to just stick to those meetings – regardless of whether they can physically go see someone or not.
So I think that travel is less important in a new world because we’ve all embraced old tools.
But think about how it used to be. You’d go to a meeting, and when the meeting finishes, we’ll have another bit of conversation that was probably not work-related and steered more to a personal catch up – “Hey, how’re your kids?” Or “What’s happening?”
Relationships are built in a way that’s just not possible if you’re just sitting in the meeting – and that’s true to your staff and your customers. I couldn’t begin to tell you how many deals are done in my mind on the walk from the conference room to the car or whatever.
No matter who it is you’re talking to, what you’re doing is building relationships and building trust between you and another person so that you can say, “Hey, there’s this thing we need to do. And I need you to do this bit. And together, we can achieve this thing.”
I just don’t think you can underestimate the foundations that are built around official interaction.
Q: So, how do you see yourself continuing to make sure you've got a great strong culture if you can't be there in person?
At CSA, we’ve got a great culture of going out together and socialising. Even if none of us were coming to the office, we would still have to have the office touch football team or the ten pin bowling championship every month, or whatever the thing is that keeps people building relationships.
I don’t think you can ever take a relationship for granted. So you can have a great relationship with someone that reports to you, and then they move to remote working, and you’re no longer getting the little bits. And as a result of that, you end up slowly drifting apart instead of staying together.
So, I just think you have to be deliberate about that stuff. There’s plenty of things that you can do in terms of remaining in contact, such as “Teams” meetings.
The best advice I’d give to anyone is that you stay deliberate about the one-percenters. Because even just from the work perspective. I couldn’t tell you how many meetings where we sit around and talk about a problem, and then the cameras go off, and there’s just three people left in the boardroom, and then someone will say, “Oh, what about that thing?” And then someone says, “Oh, well, hang on a sec. Yeah. That probably is the solution to that problem.” And those three people solve that problem.
And that problem would never be solved if everybody just pressed leave at the end of the meeting.
Q: Can you talk about the culture you’ve built at Cabin Services Australia has impacted your bottom line and employee retention?
We didn’t always have a great culture. We had one ownership structure when I first got there. And I think the culture was kind of like a fast-food style provider: we’ll get in, get out, do the job as well as we can with the resources we have, and make as much money as possible.
And making as much money as possible meant that we often wouldn’t see the trees through the forest. And so we would cut back on things and save a hundred dollars and never be able to understand the impact of that thing.
There was a saying there: we get paid for what we don’t do, not for what we do. The thing that you can get away with not doing is where the money’s made.
And then I think when I took over, we took a different view about what culture should be like. There’s probably a lot of reasons for that. But one of which was, we got bought by the Emirates Group, which put a bit of nervousness through our bit of the industry. And so a lot of our work went to tender at the same time.
So, it became a really stressful moment. And to add to being new to the group, I was new to the role. So, our business had a lot of growing up to do in terms of governance and oversight.
My leadership style up until that point was to protect the people reporting to me and the people reporting to them sheltered from the difficult things. I just thought that I needed to continue to be happy and inspire people to feel like everything’s okay. And then, they kept doing a good job.
But then we went through a period where many people weren’t coming to work happy, and we were spending a lot of time at the office, and that’s when I thought about the concept of being deliberate about culture.
So, the first thing we did was hold a management conference where all our managers were together. We didn’t have any external speakers or anything like that. It was just an “around the table discussion” which I led.
The idea was to say, “Hey, there are some things that are great about this business. And we’ve built quite a big business from something quite small.” When I first got there, we had three customers, and we’re doing five flights a day. At that point, we were doing around 300 flights a day – which is something to be proud of.
And then it was about shifting the focus to other things we could do really well at and changing the things we weren’t doing so well at.
My goal was always to have the happiest workplace there is. So, by the end of the conference, we had established that everyone was responsible for the workplace culture – not just me. And everyone agreed.
And after that three-day conference, our business transformed overnight. I would go out to the workplace, and people were as happy as they could be because their boss was happy and engaged. The engagement was the key, though – the managers were on the shop floor and visible, and it made all the difference.
Q: What's the measure for good workplace culture? And how do you measure your workplace culture at Cabin Services Australia?
So there’s a couple of ways that I think you can measure it. Being in the Emirates Group, we do a thing called an OCDI. We would ask all of our staff a series of questions that have been calculated a certain way, and that will give you a result across different categories for culture.
We get a high score, particularly in the category of management credibility.
To be a credible manager, you need to engage with your staff. They need to feel like they can walk through your door and trust you to help them resolve their problems. But having an open door isn’t always enough, so you also have to take the door to the people.
I’ll give you a simple example. We use a lot of vacuum cleaners, and vacuum cleaners break all the time. The most common thing that I’ll hear when I go around and meet with people is that the vacuum cleaners suck, but not in a good way.
So we replace them all the time. And yet, every time I go somewhere, they say, “Oh, the vacuum cleaners are old. They’re all broken.” And I know they’re not because we replace them all the time. But suppose you clarify that there are new vacuum cleaners by having a vacuum cleaner opening ceremony (I know it sounds silly). In that case, the focus changes to them being really happy about the new vacuum cleaners.
Nothing’s changed. All we’ve done is tell them that the problem was fixed. That’s what makes a credible manager.
If you ask the right questions and you have the relationships, you’ll get the information. I go and talk to all of our staff, and they’ll tell me if they’re happy or not. They’ll tell me if it’s a good place to work or not. They’ll tell me if they like their manager or not.
It’s easier in some places than others. But then that’s indicative of how good my relationship is in some places and not in others.
It also comes out in other discussions that you have with people. For example, we were doing an interview yesterday for an internal promotion. And as part of the response, this person said she was talking about recruiting people and knowing whether this was a CSA person or not and whether they would do it the CSA way.
And I stopped her and said, “I think we all know what a CSA person is. And I think we all know what the CSA way is, but it’s not written anywhere. So what does that mean for you?”
She said, “Well, a CSA person is someone who will go above and beyond, who will do more than what their job requires. They believe in the place, and they’re happy to work as hard as they can. And the CSA way is to support and encourage those people. It’s safe to make a mistake here. There’s no blame. We’re just solving the next problem regardless of how we got that problem. And there’s a learning opportunity.”
Q: So when The Emirates Group bought out cabin Services Australia, you experienced significant growth. Can you talk to me about some of those key challenges and how you dealt with them?
It’s probably more correct to say that we’ve been sustainably growing the whole time, even before the buyout.
At the time of the buyout, it changed the relationship of other businesses to us. And so, the first challenge was to let the market know that we were still the business that we were the day before.
The second challenge was that we started as a small family-owned business – which has a whole lot of legacy that doesn’t necessarily fit in with the governance and oversight you would expect from a T1 business like Emirates.
So, we had to move from the business we were to the business we should be while still maintaining the customer-centric, dynamic and nimble qualities that made us successful in the first place. And so finding that balance so that you can still turn on a dime takes time, but I think we probably managed to do that.
Q: I want to chat about some of the mistakes that you've made in your role. I mean, are there any that you can share with us? And importantly, what did you learn from those mistakes?
I think you make a lot of mistakes where there’s nothing to learn.
For example, if I had made a commercial decision, where I decided to price something that ended up being too expensive, and the contract went to our competitor – there’s some small lesson there about being conscious of the market. But it was a judgement call. I thought what I was doing was right, and it turned out to be wrong – there was no major lesson there.
I’ve learnt less from mistakes made along the way and much more from reflecting on the cumulative result of things. So, there was a huge shift in my management style – I went from keeping things close to my chest to sharing enough of the problems that allowed us to make decisions together.
Being secretive and making decisions alone leads to resentment because if your team doesn’t know why you’re doing something a certain way, they’ll just think, “Well, he’s making mistakes.” But if we’re all doing it together, then we all agree it’s the right way forward, and we’re all invested in it.
Q: The last 12 to 15 months have seen many upheavals, crises and uncertainty. What's your approach to stakeholder management during these sorts of periods, and how do you build an alliance to come out of it?
It’s a good question to follow the question that you just asked because it’s another example of where I can look and say, well, we made mistakes on that journey, but we made mistakes because we didn’t know how long this pandemic was going to last.
So, we started making decisions at the outset. For example, we were certain that they would never close borders and that the whole thing would last for six weeks, tops.
That was the fault in our thinking that led to us making decisions about turning off staff and those sorts of things, which in hindsight, we might’ve done marginally different, right? But I don’t know that there’s a lesson to take to the next pandemic.
Our experience with other illnesses like SARS and swine flu was that it would be a quick thing. And so, as a result of that, decisions were made that I might make differently in the future. But again, that’s just an example of making the best choice with the information we had. And so next time, we’ll make the best choice with the information that we have.
I think again if we use this pandemic as an example, you have to remember that we have spent a decade building a culture in which we’re all in this together. And from the front line all the way through, people get sufficient information to know what’s happening in the business – we’re honest and upfront.
So our staff is ready to hear whatever message that we give.
And I think if it had been a reasonably short term thing, we would have just rolled back out of that with no real impact, even though the staff that stayed on had to take a significant pay cut, and many staff weren’t offered hours at all.
So, that’s where we started: with the two-way communication channels open. Around 1,100 employees were getting phone calls and some level of engagement with us.
Unfortunately, our staff were not entitled to JobKeeper payments. So we gave them some form of payment to support during COVID. It wasn’t millions of dollars, but it was something. But the back and forth communication and the existing cultural foundation meant they could trust that we had their best interests in mind.
- What was your first job? I worked on an ice truck, delivering ice to service stations and bottle shops.
- What’s something interesting that is not on your CV? Everything’s on my CV because you just never know what might pique somebody’s interest. But I think the thing about me that isn’t on my CV that people wouldn’t otherwise know is that I played in the Australian Dodgeball Team.
- What advice would you give your eighteen-year-old self? I would say just relax and don’t be too concerned about the future. Things will work out. Just always do your best, and the universe will take care of the rest.
- What book is a must-read? I’ve got two books which are also movies: To Kill a Mockingbird and The Godfather. I think in both cases, the movies are great, but the books are better. They both taught me how to think before I act, be deliberate in my choices, and try to do the right thing.
- What’s a job for the future that doesn’t exist today? I think with driverless cars coming along, I imagine a world in which we probably won’t own cars and Uber or something like that will be the method in which we get around, which is maybe getting an app on our phone, the driverless car turns up, and we’ll jump in, and that car just keeps driving all day and all night.