How giving up control will allow your company to grow
Nolinor is a Quebec-based charter airline that started operations in 1997, providing air transport services to hunting and fishing outfitters, eventually receiving permission to also provide its own aircraft maintenance. In 2004, the Prud’Homme family trust became majority shareholder and the company has been expanding rapidly since, first growing its fleet of Convair 580 aircraft and more recently acquiring a fleet of B737 aircraft. Then in 2005 came an opportunity to move operations from Montréal–Dorval International Airport to larger facilities at Montréal–Mirabel International Airport north of the city, which proved to be a milestone for the company’s growth. Shortly after, in 2006, the company was named one of the best-run enterprises in the province of Quebec by the National Bank of Canada. More recently, the company purchased a hangar at Aeroport Montréal Saint-Hubert/Longueuil and is the official carrier for the Montreal Alouettes football team. My interview is with Marco Prud’homme, Vice-President and shareholder of Nolinor.
Q: You have a big story to tell, for a relatively young company. What’s next for you?
The vision that we had for the company has remained the same. We are listening to the customers’ needs, so we don’t have a long planning process or vision or strategy that we would need to change each year anyway. The way we envision growing the business is by listening to our customers’ needs and the need in the market and trying to address these. In that way we won’t have any aircraft stuck on the ground for long periods of time. So far, this has been pretty much the key to our success. We’re not romantics in the aviation field. We’re not here to prove a point. We’re not here to have a statue at the airport. We’re just here to listen to the customer and make sure that we find a solution that matches their needs, at a price point that is fair.
It took a few years to figure out exactly what we were doing. I mean, we were working really hard and doing a bunch of stuff, and at one point in time we had to sit down and ask, “Okay, the team is growing; why are we having success while other people are failing? What’s the difference?” We had to think about it and try to figure out exactly what was the key thing that we were doing differently from other people.
“We’re not romantics in the aviation field. We’re not here to prove a point.
We’re just here to listen to the customer and make sure that we find a solution that matches their needs,
at a price point that is fair”
Q: So, I guess what you’re saying is, being self-aware is a key element of success for a management team.
Yes. Even if you work seven days a week, at one point you have to sit down and think a bit, try to understand what works, what’s not working, and so on. It’s not only for the management, but for anybody at a company. When we started at Nolinor, there were about 25 employees. We’re now over 275 and for sure, we cannot take everyone by the hand and explain to them in detail what they must do every day. You must put in place a culture – a way of doing things, or a way of dealing with issues. This gives leverage and empowers employees so that they can solve problems. Yes, sometimes people make mistakes, and other times they overachieve in what they set out to do. But, as long as the average is positive, people will learn from their mistakes and the company will grow.
Q: This acceptance of failure is really part of setting yourself up for success, isn’t it? Would you say that acceptance of this at the management or leadership level is quite important?
I think it’s a game-changer in the sense that, if you’re trying to micromanage everybody inside the company, your growth will get stuck. There are only so many hours in a day and hours you can track, and there’s just no way you can micromanage everyone and everything. For many years, in an earlier business venture my family was involved in before Nolinor, we had placed a lot of importance on controlling every single decision in the company. We arrived at Nolinor with this mentality, but we soon discovered that this approach would not work. We needed a new approach – one that would give us more free time to think about how we can grow the business and acquire new customers, enter new markets, and initiate new projects. You cannot micromanage every single employee, otherwise you’re paying people for nothing.
Q: Did this realization come from experience, or was it from talking with other businesspeople who had tried different approaches?
To be honest, it came from an issue. I left the company in 2008 for a few years, at a time when the company was stuck. My father [Nolinor President Jacques Prud’homme] could not keep up with being involved in every single decision, so he had to hire more people and he had to trust them – he found out on his own what I was trying to tell him for a long time. When I came back in 2013, I came to a completely different company. There was no intention on my part or his to go back to how we used to do things, between 1999 and 2007. I guess sometimes you learn from good experiences; sometimes you learn from bad experiences. For us, this situation created more potential for growth.
Q: What you are describing is really a change in management style, in leadership style, that I’m seeing in younger companies that are growing very rapidly. We call that style agile, for lack of a better term, but it’s completely contrary to the traditional management approach that you’re taught in business school – the command-and-control type of approach to management that’s been instilled in society since the industrial age. I think it’s very relevant in this day of more complexity and rapid change. Would you say you’re riding the wave of that new trend in management?
I’m not sure we’re riding any trends. I guess what we’re doing right now is part of our personal business culture that we grew. My father started in aviation on his own – he was only 21 at the time. He didn’t have any formal management experience; his background of knowledge was that of a bush pilot. So, every single dollar he earned was through trial and error. Those things take time and I learned a lot from him. But I have a more academic background and so we did clash when we were trying to push new ideas.
Right now, we’ve been able to find a rhythm under which I would say that neither of those two extremes are better. Even when you manage in a very academic way, it doesn’t work. It has to be a mix of both, and it has to be a mix of trusting people who have the competency to actually deliver and keep following those people who need more guidance and who you need to grow. And, it all comes back to trying new things, and I guess my father was not always open to that. Two years ago, we hired a consulting firm to give us a hand in one area of the company. That required a very different mindset, because we used to close the door to any outside help. That was the first try, and we hit a home run on the first try. When you have those small successes, it changes your view of how you see things, and you’re more open to new experiences.
Q: How would you describe the culture of Nolinor? Obviously, you and your father have developed a certain approach – how has that further permeated throughout the organization? How do employees embrace your central philosophy?
It’s not easy. I would say that there’s not a day that is the same. There’s no big plan for how we’re going to achieve our objectives. Once a situation comes up, before we react or do something crazy, we try to figure out exactly how we should do it and what would be the best course to take, and how can we create synergy with other stuff that we’ve put in place. It’s very hard and very much case by case.
There’s no clear-cut way of doing it, but I guess with an open mind, and the reality of it is that there are so many hours in a day. You don’t really have a choice but to test your folks with new challenges and then just trust them to deliver, and touch base with them from time to time to see what they’ve done and what works and what doesn’t work.
Q: So, do you have teams within Nolinor that are formed spontaneously to deal with certain issues as they come up? Are they self-organizing, or how would you characterize the approach?
Because we’re in the aviation business we have this structure that we must follow, to meet Transport Canada regulations and all that. But that covers only the operation. It doesn’t cover managing change. It doesn’t cover managing growth. It doesn’t cover managing R&D. It’s a very specific task-oriented structure, so flights can leave on time, and that everything works properly and safely. But that’s only half the game.
The other aspect is trying to improve and grow the company, so for this there’s no real structure. It’s more like when there’s some new topic, or new project on the table, we have a look at who can deliver on that, and we trust that person to first get all the information she or he can gather on the subject. Then they give us their feedback, and we come up with a solution. We empower them to move forward, and we do the follow-up after that. It’s all a question of who’s best to do the job, not just who’s in the structure, who’s supposed to do it. So it’s very different. So the structure is there for regulatory purposes, but for anything else we try to figure out who’s the best person on the team to do it.
We used to have a lot of meetings. We don’t do that anymore, since these were not giving any results. We now have a structure where everybody works in different cells, and those cells are not really structured. They’re very flexible in the way they organize work. Most of the time we don’t have any timetable either, since every time you fix a deadline, there’s a surprise. When you have a very linear approach, something can happen that will throw you off. The way we look at it is that we know we are going to reach our goal. The date we’re going to reach it is not very important. It just puts extra stress on everybody, and it’s not a good way of going about it. We’re more into flow. Case in point, we started a project about a year ago and it started one way. However, during the process we found other opportunities, and we took a different approach that ultimately gave us results.
We therefore also never announce anything in advance. We announce only what we are able to close, what we are able to realize, and in that way, we only celebrate success. When we look at our competitors, they are eager to share what they’re working on. That’s not the way we work. We give a lot of information on what we accomplish, and don’t share much on what we’re working on.
Q: So, you’re quite opportunistic in your approach, scanning for opportunities and then gauge whether you can make a difference?
I would say that for an important project to get closed, and delivered, there might be between 10 to 20 other projects that we’ll just cancel along the way. Opportunities come and go, and you have to make the right call at the right time. Sometimes timing is everything.
I’ll give you a past example, which is quite funny in retrospect. We were considering equipping our aircraft with iPads so that people could view movies. At one point in time, having an iPad was something rare, and when they came out we looked at that possibility. Today, it’s a no brainer that this project would have failed. Everybody has an iPad or a smartphone device on which to watch a movie. So, sometimes it’s like, we look at a project that seems interesting, but at some point, upon closer inspection and reflection somebody will raise their hand and say, “Well, there might be an easier way,” or “Do we really need to do that? What’s the ROI on that?” and “Why are we doing this? Did we fall in love with this idea, or do our customers really need that?”
We’ve put in place a system that encourages every passenger to give us feedback on the flight they’ve taken. It’s a very simple process, and we’re able to gather a bunch of information that we didn’t have before. And, with this information we can go back to our customer and say, “Oh, by the way, your passengers on this particular charter flight do not appreciate this feature, or the departure time,” or so on. We’re able to give that feedback to the customer so that a contract that may have started out in a certain way, will end up being improved with an easy solution that works, I would say, 80% of the time. And, we get this information for almost nothing – from our passengers.
It’s all a question of giving the tools to the right people, trusting them to find the right path, and not being romantic about your own ideas. This also means that if the president or I have a concept, or an idea, and once we put it on the table it’s very important to understand that we don’t own that idea anymore. If somebody comes and destroys it, or changes it, or modifies it, or finds something better, it’s very important that you don’t take it personally, because once it’s out in the open – inside the company – it’s for everyone to improve it and ownership no longer rests with any specific person. That gives a lot more leverage for people to take risks, I think.
“It’s all a question of giving the tools to the right people, trusting them to find the right path,
and not being romantic about your own ideas. This also means that [if you have an idea] and once [you] put it on the table, it’s very important to understand that [you] don’t own that idea anymore”
Q: So, would you say that it’s a completely open, and transparent work environment you have created that encourages creativity and ideas?
Yeah, but it’s not always easy since the natural reflex is to intervene and decide. However, if you’re able to take the time, and I guess, sleep over it, and then come back the following morning, you’ll have a more clear view on it. Everybody has the same goal – we all want Nolinor to thrive and be a success. How to achieve that can be viewed differently by other people. So, you must sit back and relax, and say, “Well, that’s completely different from what we had in mind, but it’s not a bad idea, and it’s actually cheaper, and it’s actually better,” and so on. Because if every time you cut someone off or find a way to just destroy what they’ve worked on, nobody will want to jump in and do something new. You have to give people the right feedback, so they can thrive.
Q: It’s counter intuitive, isn’t it? Give up control to gain more control in terms of where you are going as a company.
Yeah, and this is true not only in the aviation field, but in many other fields. Sometimes you meet people, and they micromanage their team so much that you kind of wonder why they’re paying their employees a significant salary when, at the end of the day, they don’t allow them to make any decisions. If your management team or your team leaders can’t make any decisions, then you don’t really have a need for them. Their job then becomes more about managing email.
For myself, I try to send as little email as possible. I prefer to have a one-on-one chat with someone and help solve an issue quickly. I guess, if you’re sending an email for someone to confirm or share information, that’s okay. But if you’re sending an email to solve a problem, then you’re only creating a bigger problem. You need to talk with people. People do not send me any long emails. I don’t read them. I have given that scope to everybody, that if they send me an email after 9 o’clock, or if they send me an email that is more than a couple of lines long, I won’t read it. So, they don’t waste time writing long emails. If they have something to say, the door is always open, and they can just sit down, and we can talk about it, solve the issue, and move on. Because, otherwise you’re just managing email. The purpose of email was never to take up 100% of your waking hours while at work. It’s a tool, not a job.
Q: As Nolinor grows, how do you avoid what has been called the bureaucracy trap, in that procedures are created, and systems, and so forth, to keep everyone kind of moving in a certain direction?
Well the one thing that has happened over the last few years is that we have someone inside the company who had the great idea to create an information system under which almost the entire the operation is now managed. We share all information, i.e. schedules, travel, employee profiles, flight schedules, airport information – everything is within that system that was built in-house. We have two people working full-time on upgrading the system with new features. It has cost a lot of money so far, but it has saved way more, and has made it possible for us to reduce the amount of paperwork, and bureaucracy inside Nolinor by a factor of maybe five. The system has taken a lot of time to build and now we just keep improving it. Our mindset is now more into connecting with our customer. This system is now part of our customer service, and our customer receives real-time information about their flight. That’s something that’s not been done before by any other carrier that we know of. I’m not talking about only basic information – I mean very important information. We share a lot of information with our customers. We have created a need for them and it’s automated, so we don’t have somebody sending emails to customers like we used to do in the old days.
Q: Then, the trends that we’re seeing – more and more digitalization, automation, the use of AI – are you staying in tune with this?
We try to. If you have some spare time, you must go outside your business and see what new opportunities exist and learn about new ways of doing things. I purposely don’t attend any of our industry trade shows. I’m always into stuff that is not related to aviation, because that’s the only way to find other opportunities or ways of doing things that are not present in our own industry. You can’t just simply copy what everybody else is doing; you need to do things that nobody is doing.
Many of our management travels the world, attending different events, getting training, or learning new skills and tools. Sometimes you look at the budget and say, “Ooh, why are we spending so much money on that?” It’s not like we expect an employee to come back with a great idea every time we send them somewhere. But maybe they’ll meet someone and that someone might call him six months after with an opportunity, and so it’s very hard to figure out the ROI on that. Every time we have something that works really well, and we go back down the line to track down its origin, it comes back to somebody who was in touch and learned about something new.
We also share a lot of books. I like reading a lot, every time I read a good book – it could be on management, or marketing, or something completely different – I tend to share it and encourage others to read and share it with somebody else.
Q: You are creating a learning environment and connecting on the edge, if you will, which is where innovation really happens. It doesn’t happen in your own little world. It happens on the exterior of your world.
That’s right, so you have to be open to that. You have to have an interest in learning and trying new stuff. I’m not interested in being aware of the new type of oil that’s going to go inside an aircraft. For me, that has zero value. It really comes down to how we manage things, how we grow customers, how we get more visibility on the Internet, how we treat people, how we train and grow our people. Those are the issues that, for me, are more complex and more interesting than what is going to be the next type of aircraft we’re going to buy. Because basically, we’re not buying aircraft to fulfil our own personal dream. We’re buying aircraft to be able to provide a service our customers want and need.
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