How Boeing’s Leaders Fly

Phil Polizatto’s job is not to train pilots to fly Boeing’s planes. It’s to train team leaders to build planes more effectively.

Minutes before his plane went down over the glaciers of southeast Alaska, the captain was poking fun at his new first officer. He was streaking toward Ketchikan, eager to land before his favorite snack bar closed. The first officer warned that the plane was flying too high and too fast, but the captain brushed him off. “What’s the difference between a duck and a first officer?” the engineer chimed in. “The duck can fly.”


That wisecrack silenced the first officer. The silence was deadly. The plane crashed, killing 1 passenger and injuring 34.

“That’s an example of how creating an environment of fear and distrust can prevent you from assessing information,” explains Phil Polizatto, an instructional media designer for aerospace giant Boeing. Polizatto’s job is not to train pilots to fly Boeing’s planes. It’s to train team leaders to build planes more effectively. His course is the most dramatic in a fleet of offerings designed for new leaders at Boeing. Here are snapshots of three of them.

Plane Talk About Leadership.

This workshop uses disastrous cockpit conversations to teach team leaders how to communicate. “Just as a flight crew is dependent on the captain’s behavior, the work of a team is dependent on its leader’s behavior,” says Polizatto, who launched his course at Boeing last January and already has a waiting list of 340 eager team leaders.

Team Leader Job Aids.

Last November, Boeing launched an intranet site devoted to teamwork. It offers a wealth of instructional materials and diagnostic tools. The site provides learning that is “just in time, just for me,” says Chuck Welter, an organization development specialist at the company.

The Web site focuses on the most sensitive realities of life in teams. If a person is disrupting a meeting, for example, the site offers a menu of options. It also offers hands-on advice about learning from mistakes. It encourages leaders to call a meeting to discuss the following questions: What did we expect to happen? What actually happened? How did we respond?

Leading and Managing Our Work Together.

This two-day workshop is aimed at the whole team, not just the leader. “The original intent was to train people to lead in new ways,” says Mary Jo Svendsen of Boeing’s Center for Leadership and Learning. “But we found that people learn best when they’re in the environment they work in every day. So we required leaders to bring their teams.”


The workshop uses a series of leading questions to explore a team’s vision and division of responsibilities: If you were an investor in your team’s vision, would there be enough hope, energy, and intent to get your attention? If your team left Boeing and formed your own business, how would you determine roles and make decisions? What analogies would you use to describe how your team operates?

This last question prompted a breakthrough conversation inside one troubled team. Asked for analogies, some members called themselves the Union, others the Confederacy. The team simply could not reach what it considered a consensus. Svendsen and her colleagues explained the true meaning of consensus: everyone is prepared to support a conclusion, even if they don’t agree with it. After hours of emotional discussion, the team came back with a different analogy: the United States of America.