Recognition Trumps Reward…Every Time

I recently came across a letter I received from a former employer a long long time ago. It was in recognition for my participation in a major incident and finding it again caused me to pause and reflect and ultimately has prompted me to write this short article.

On May 02nd 1981, I was a fledgling co-pilot on the Boeing 737 fleet with the Irish national carrier Aer Lingus. My duty on this day was to check-in and be close at hand in the pilots lounge for the next 8 hours. This we did to ensure all eventualities were covered and to be available to replace any other co-pilot at very short notice.

This day was to be very different for our team. Moments after checking into the lounge and settling down for a long afternoon I got a call from Crew Control to say that I was needed immediately and to hurry.  I was informed that an aircraft had been hijacked as it was approaching landing in Heathrow and I was being called up to be the co-pilot on a second aircraft being organised to follow the hijacked aircraft. This meant I was heading to Iran, the destination the hijacker had announced he wished to go.

Another aircraft was quickly made available with politicians and advisers gathered and onboarded as we flew to Shannon to pick up a person the hijacker had requested to talk to in person. Meanwhile the hijacked aircraft had landed in Le Touquet in Northern France, which was the fuel limited endurance of the aircraft that had only expected to fly to Heathrow.

My duties were focused on supporting the Captain and maintaining constant communication with air traffic control and phone patch to allow the Irish Transport Minister of the day, Albert Reynolds, to talk directly from the aircraft with the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Charles Haughey, back in Dublin, keeping the Irish Government and the Aer Lingus team at base up to speed on developments.

We got to Le Touquet and landed.

After a relatively short period, 8 hours, on the ground the French special forces stormed the aircraft and brought the lone hijacker under control, avoiding casualties. The passengers were checked and fed and eventually we flew back to Dublin that night and along with the passengers, politicians and advisers we all went home. I was 20 years old at the time.

Three days later I received the note pictured below.  It was from the Deputy Chief Pilot Europe (DCPE) Capt Jim Brady. Three lines, thanking me for my help during the incident, typed out, signed and posted to me.

I have valued and held on to this letter ever since and to me this was how employee recognition works.

The positive and lasting effects of being really valued and appreciated by a colleague or in this case by a senior leader, has carried me through a long career and has stuck by me always on my journey in the last 40 years. I ended up having a pretty uneventful 35 year career at Aer Lingus following this initial drama… an airline pilot you want to be uneventful!

For me this single gesture by Capt Jim Brady was an exemplary behaviour recognition, taking the time from his position of authority to reach out and individually recognise my efforts on that extraordinary day. He didn’t have to, but he did. He simply took the time to write to me personally.

There was no voucher, no bonus at the end of the month, but a note to personally thank me for doing my job on that day. This has proven many many times since, to be far more powerful and personal to me, and one which I have appreciated more than a reward might have been at that time in my fledgling career.

The note also aligned with a change in management culture at that time at Aer Lingus, aligning to a new and more modern intent that cockpit workload was to be shared across the cockpit crew. This was being done in order to maximise the effectiveness of the team and on this day the Captain, being the most senior crew member, was allowed to share many of their tasks and responsibilities, so that they could devote themselves to the tasks and experience that allowed them to perform most effectively.

So powerful was this note of recognition that I stapled it into my pilots log book almost 40 years ago, as a permanent reminder that good behaviours should be recognised and lauded and as a reminder that I was grateful at the time for this personal touch. Also as a reminder to me to adopt the same attitude to my peers and colleagues throughout my thirty five years as a pilot.

I don’t fly any more but as CEO at Wrkit, employee recognition is central to my effectiveness as a leader and a key component to our employee engagement portal. Every week I encourage our team and leaders to recognise each other through the work we do together. It is an important part of our culture and our Wrkit behaviours. Peer to peer recognition is statistically proven to have a positive effect on employee performance, and is even more engaging then top-down recognition. Hats off to Capt Jim Brady in 1981 for having the vision and the courage as a leader to reach out with this brief but valued letter of recognition and for setting me on the path to emulate these behaviours; to be a leader that encourages employee recognition and to be able to provide organisations with the tools available for them to do the same. If you can, socialise the recognitions in your company whenever you can, because three shorts sentences really can go a long long way.