Former air exec tells earthbound managers how to fly

February 14, 2005

Running a hospital isn’t much different from running an airline, according to Howard Putnam. The former CEO of Southwest Airlines was a last minute stand-in at the opening session of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society meeting Monday morning. Sun Microsystems’ CEO Scott McNealy could not appear as scheduled.

Running a hospital isn't much different from running an airline, according to Howard Putnam. The former CEO of Southwest Airlines was a last minute stand-in at the opening session of the Healthcare Information and Management Systems Society meeting Monday morning. Sun Microsystems' CEO Scott McNealy could not appear as scheduled.

The same leadership qualities that propelled Putnam into the corporate stratosphere can also be used by directors of imaging or IT chiefs, especially in times of political and economic turbulence, he said.

"The rules of engagement changed on Sept. 11, 2001," Putnam said. "They changed in aviation, and they changed in business."

Airline pilots will now depressurize the cabin or roll the airplane upside down before they will let anyone enter the flight deck.

"As we work our way through transitions in healthcare or aviation, what we have to think about is how turbulence can have positive stages," he said.

When turbulence or resistance hits, be flexible and make changes, he said.

Putnam has navigated through his share of corporate turbulence. He was once persuaded to leave Southwest, the nation's most profitable airline, to run Braniff, the nation's least profitable airline. Through little fault of his own, he was at the helm when Braniff went bankrupt in 1981.

"They lied to me," he said.

Braniff's board of directors had assured him the airline had $175 million in the bank. But the books were cooked, and Putnam was left holding an empty bag.

"At Braniff, everyday was a bad day," he said. "You had to find something that was positive."

Putnam offered healthcare managers a few pearls:

  • When hiring or staffing, look for people that who handle stress.

  • "Honesty is the most valued management ingredient," he said.

  • Good leaders are also good mentors.

Know what business you are in, he said. If you sell a product, you are a vendor. If you sell a vision, you are developing a brand.

Putnam said that Southwest Airlines succeeded because it is not an airline. Its business is mass transportation. Simplicity is the key: Every Southwest aircraft is a 737.

"Every pilot can fly every plane," Putnam said. "How many different kinds of office machines do you have?"

Once, in order to remain solvent, Southwest was forced to sell one of its four planes to reduce cost by 25%. The only way to keep the same number of flights, then, was to decrease turnaround on the ground. Hence, seat assignments were eliminated.

Southwest's rapid turnaround techniques may not apply in the OR, but the same principles may apply in IT.

"Sometimes you have to balance your own propellor," he said.