I recently accompanied a client on a site visit to Flight Centre’s new Brisbane headquarters. What an impressive office! The building is ultra-modern with lots of open space, travel-themed meeting rooms, an amazing gymnasium (free for all staff, and at 11.00am was a hive of activity) and even slippery dips joining upper and lower floors – much quicker than stairs or lifts! Brisbane’s Google perhaps?

This modern office design reflects the organisation. Obviously Flight Centre is about making a profit, but it seems to have a pretty clear view that its people are important too. As well as having a strong ‘wellness’ program, the organisation has internal financial advisors which staff can access (for free) to get their finances in order, arrange their home loan and process their tax. When asked how these staff services ‘value add’, it was explained to us that these were more about attracting and retaining talented staff – rather than providing a ‘return on investment’ they provide a ‘return on expectations’. This, it was said, is particularly important for the many millennial staff employed by the organisation.

Two things struck me during the visit. First, the trouble that Flight Centre has gone to, to detail the extensive graphic depictions of Flight Centre’s history – this ‘museum of our story’ as it is known adorns many walls and (combined with a three week induction for new staff) let staff know that they are part of something much bigger than themselves. Second, the role that Flight Centre’s senior leaders play in creating the organisational culture. Creating Flight Centre’s culture hasn’t happened by accident. Flight Centre’s legendary boss has deliberately crafted the organisational culture based on his personal views of what he thinks works best for people – he championed the wellness program after a chance meeting with a personal trainer many years ago.  The senior team promote the ‘healthy wealthy wise’ program. The office design is reflection of how the organisation functions.

The experience reminded me of something an old boss of mine once said about the role of leaders in creating organisational cultures – ‘water always flows downhill’.

The HR text books would describe Flight Centre’s approach to its people management as one reflecting the ‘resource-based view’ (RBV) of the firm where employees and their knowledge and skills are seen as a ‘resource’ which is just as important to the organisation as its ‘bricks and mortar’ resources. You wouldn’t want to see your IT system walk out the door; nor would you want to see your organisational knowledge walk out either. The RBV lens suggests that it makes sense to invest in your people just as much as you invest in your ‘tangible’ assets.  For many (particularly millennials), this RBV approach is a ‘no brainer’ – bosses would view people as critical to organisational success and would invest in them, right?

But many traditional organisations and industries operate under a different paradigm – even today. The RBV concept only emerged in the 1980s, countering a more traditional and entrenched management lens where staff are seen as a cost rather than a resource. In these organisations, the centre of organisational gravity resides at the top, and staff are expendable.

Roger Martin[1] suggests that organisations operate in accordance with the ‘entrenched governing values’ of the organisational leaders – and historically these have been (1) winning, (2) maintaining control, (3) avoiding embarrassment, and (4) staying rational. And here’s the kicker – according to Martin, these traditional entrenched governing values are by their very nature, “undiscussable”.

This traditional ‘lens’ reflects hierarchical thinking – which is familiar to most of us; after all most of us grew up in a family unit built on a hierarchy of sorts. This means that most of us know the ‘rules of engagement’ for surviving in hierarchical, traditional organisations (undiscussable though they might be).

But with the increasing competition for talented staff across the marketplace, you would have to think that organisations will have to adopt a RBV if they are to attract and retain the brightest and best people. You mightn’t have to install slippery slides between floors, but people need to feel empowered, supported and encouraged to contribute their ideas. But this all depends on what Martin describes as the organisation’s ‘entrenched governing values’. Surely these ‘undiscussables’ need to be talked about!

flight centre

[1] The Responsibility Virus, Martin, R 2002, Basic Books, New York