AAR Believes In Doing It Right

Ignite, Science of Story December 19, 2016

AAR Believes In Doing It Right

Andy Swindler
Conscious businesses prosper through purpose-driven people-first practices, but many still struggle to tell their courageous stories. I help connect the dots.

Have you ever wondered who keeps the airplanes we fly in safe and working smoothly? If not, it’s because they are so good at it. In such a critical field of safety, success is defined not by “good enough” but by perfect. And aren’t we lucky to have them?

In the past, airlines did the heavy maintenance (checks) of their own aircrafts, but these days increasing numbers of operators are turning that over to someone else. This follows a logical trend of specialization across all industries. Airlines should be in the business of customer service, an idea demonstrated by Southwest Airlines’ unlikely rise to success when compared to their enormous rivals.

That said, it’s still a huge leap of faith to outsource something as mission critical as jet maintenance.

AAR believes in DOING IT RIGHT To connect a better world. Their compelling vision is zero margin of error for mistakes that could impact aircraft safety is. With 4,500 employees worldwide, they grew from a company selling parts to airlines and brokers in 1951 to the global operation of today. Today there are some parts that AAR can guarantee delivery all over the world within three hours.

For AAR, the future is about more than parts and maintenance. It’s about people. AAR’s road to purpose began with the CEO, David P. Storch, who became keen on the idea in 2015 when the company sold off its cargo business to focus on aviation services for airlines and government. This was shortly before he succeeded the company’s founder and his father-in-law, Ira A. Eichner, as chairman. At the time AAR was still using mission and principles that were established in the late 1990s.

AAR’s growth over the decades presented some unique challenges. The company had grown far beyond the aircraft parts trading it started with. AAR believed it needed to have stronger brand awareness of its current capabilities within the B2B supply chain in order to continue growing globally and having a positive impact on the rapidly changing airline industry.

Its new goal was to become best-in-class with a high-performance culture. They believed that employees need to be fully engaged in their workplace by aspiring to the company’s higher purpose and living its values. And it was up to AAR leadership to ignite this culture by clearly communicating its purpose and leading by example.

While an agency was brought on to help discover the purpose, and the process included input from leaders in every part of the business, the task of communicating it and rolling it out to the rest of the company fell to Kathleen Cantillon, Vice President of Strategic Communications. Defining the mission and expressing the values took a very short time once she got the top business leaders in the room — just two hours. This was so quick that they didn’t trust themselves with it at first. The purpose they built on for AAR was ‘DOING IT RIGHT To connect a better world.’

AAR describes its purpose framework, “Right is not always easy. Right is not always patient. Right can be brave, demanding and even unique. So it was when women won the right to vote, when FedEx introduced next-day delivery or when Amazon reinvented the supply chain. Right is about setting a direction, believing in what you are doing and doing it well.

“At AAR,” they continued, “we constantly search for the right thing to do for our customers, for our employees, for partners and for society. We wake up in the morning knowing we have to deliver and at the end of the day believe we did our best and are encouraged to return the next day and do even better. We do not rest on our earlier accomplishments.”

Kathleen, whose 30-year career focused primarily on external communications, admits that her first experience of igniting a company’s culture was a bit daunting, but her team’s success in this endeavor inspired us to share her process with you now.


Igniting a Culture of ‘Doing it Right’

Step One: Create compelling collateral materials needed to convey the new vision to all teams around the world simultaneously. This included:

  1. A values video on YouTube that was created in conjunction with the outside firm and includes employee peers speaking rather than just leadership.
  2. A PowerPoint presentation with purpose framework distributed for local playback to avoid technology screenshare issues.
  3. A Flipbook for each employee with purpose and values for quick and convenient reference.
  4. Giveaways promoting the new purpose.

Key managers in each location were trained on the new purpose and materials. They were charged with customizing their local purpose presentation at the same time in all locations.

Step Two: Coordinate with top managers a couple of weeks before the company-wide launch date.

AAR conducted breakout sessions to discuss how the new purpose framework would be relevant to each manager’s workforce and how to communicate it in a way that would resonate with each team. They were given the framework as well as ideas for discussion.

The managers were trained and inspired to lead intimate sessions that were broken into two parts:

  1. Part One was a global live telephone broadcast from the CEO, which was also recorded for anyone to replay to for those who couldn’t attend in person due to time difference etc.
  2. Part Two was an on-site airing of the values video followed by an open forum for employees and their managers to discuss what this meant for them and their area of the business.



Step Three: Purpose launch day.

The larger a distributed group of people is, the more critical it is to use reliable technology to distribute a message. This goes far beyond protecting the egos of the people presenting. It’s critical to keep everyone engaged in the message.

AAR typically uses reliable teleconferencing services for quarterly earnings meetings and the phone conferences are recorded for replay. This same technology was used for the live broadcast for Part One of the meeting, and timed so that managers could play the PowerPoint slides locally in sync with the CEO’s live broadcast, and everyone could have access to the recording later.

For Part Two, managers in each location were in charge of showing the values video and coordinating their local presentations and discussions, where employees were encouraged to share their ideas and questions about the new purpose in an intimate discussion with peers. At the end of the presentation, managers gave out the flipbooks and luggage tag giveaways.

For reinforcement, the AAR employee intranet was updated with sections specific to ‘Doing it Right’ and an online LMS course was pushed to all employees. Each week a story highlighting an office or employee living a value is shared through AAR’s intranet based on input from worldwide sites and employees. Local managers also developed recognition tokens they give to employees who are doing it right.

They even launched a #DoingItRight hashtag for use on social media. And performance appraisals now include the new values in setting goals for each employee. Additionally and in support of its ‘Ideas Matter’ value, AAR provides financial incentives for ideas that generate revenue and save cost, knowing that the best ideas often come from the people doing the work.

The new purpose and values have also found their way into AAR’s hiring and training process, since this is the best time to see if someone is a good match for their culture.

In addition to creating a better place to work and attracting top talent, AAR’s stronger culture will help generate revenue and reduce costs while maintaining safety and increasing innovation.



Summary: Connect people!

The entire presentation was done in a structure that mimicked the company, a global network with local presence. This included nearly 50 locations worldwide.

  1. Schedule all hands meeting
  2. Tune into teleconference, play slides locally
  3. Sign off, then local leader takes over:
    1. Show ‘Do It Right’ values video on YouTube
    2. Use outline provided for a local discussion

All employees receive:

  1. Flip cards with values (better than big expensive books that nobody looks at)
  2. ‘Doing it Right’ Luggage tag (giveaway that is consistent with the aviation business)
  3. Links to call recording and YouTube video

What’s Next?

A few months after rollout, AAR held focus groups to check in with people about how they were doing it right. Kathleen also decided to send a company-wide survey to gauge the response to the new purpose of ‘doing it right,’ which was crafted to work both internally to rally the tribe and externally to build brand awareness and preference in the B2B supply chain. The response was generally very positive, but Kathleen reminded us that people react differently to change.

“There is always some negative reaction to change,” Kathleen said. “About 25% of people are skeptical, typically longer-term employees who have seen new initiatives announced without much to back them up. Things like this happen every 10-15 years, so what’s different about this one?”

What’s different is that AAR found a truly higher purpose, one that could connect a diverse group of people around the world. Part of the challenge for B2B firms in the future is that they must find a way to become memorable beyond a tagline or logo. AAR wants to focus more on relationships than transactions. To AAR, doing it right is about connecting people across the world. That is, after all, the end result of all their work -— making sure people stay physically connected through air travel.

Survey Results

Out of 3,159 surveys sent out, 1,534 people responded.

Question 1: I feel inspired by the Doing It Right Initiative. (1,290 responses)

  1. Favorable Responses – 63% (814 Respondents)
  2. Neutral/Unsure Yet Responses – 25% (321 Respondents)
  3. Unfavorable Responses – 12% (155 Respondents)


Question 2: I believe that the Doing It Right initiative will make AAR a better place to work. (1,284 responses)

  1. Favorable Responses – 66% (856 Respondents)
  2. Neutral/Unsure Yet Responses – 24% (312 Respondents)
  3. Unfavorable Responses – 9% (116 Respondents)


Question 3: The DIR value that is most important to me is: (1,280 responses)

  1. Highest is “Quality First…” – Largely attributed to the high MRO respondents
  2. Lowest is “Do It Fast…” – Based on comments, people think this may lead to quality/safety issues (may be a misunderstanding)


Question 4: In terms of what you consider most important in sustaining the DIR initiative? (1,279 responses)

  1. Highest is “Management practice what it preaches” – Reflects importance of management accountability and follow-through for sustaining DIR
  2. Second is employee recognition and changes to policies/procedures – echoed in commentsscreen-shot-2016-12-19-at-4-26-28-pm

Employee recommendations for Sustaining “Doing it Right”

  1. Train managers on how to provide communication and feedback to employees on DIR alignment and job performance
    • Managers/Leadership need to be held accountable for setting examples of behavior in alignment with DIR and ensuring employees are as well
  2. Continue company-wide promotion highlighting examples of employees living the DIR values via myConnection intranet
  3. Implement more reward and recognition programs, globally (e.g., Ideas Matter) and locally (e.g., coin token reward program for mechanics)
  4. Continue to reference DIR in all leader communications
  5. Continue branding internal programs with DIR alignment
  6. Continue to review HR policies for opportunities