When Boeing went to Kenya

8-December-2010Published in: St. Louis American

Through my third story I learned the importance of empowering others through a story shared with me by John T. Quinlivan, an executive at Boeing Corporation. It's a story about a simple act we all take for granted.

You see, a few years back John was the person in charge of delivering Boeing jets to countries around the world. This particular delivery was to the nation of Kenya. The day began with much pomp and ceremony, as Boeing entertained airline executives and top government dignitaries with a demonstration flight in the 767 over the beautiful landscape of Kenya.

Later, the aerospace giant opened the airplane up for a static display, where people are invited to walk through the plane to sit on the seats and get an upclose view of the plane.

More than two thousand Kenya Airways employees and the invited public showed up to get a glimpse of the plane that afternoon. At the completion of the static display, with the plane cleaned and secured for the night, a group of children showed up from a nearby orphanage. Despite protests from his Kenyan hosts, John Quinlivan offered to give them a tour of the plane.

When the children arrived on the tarmac, they stood transfixed at the bottom of the stairway, looking up at massive plane. From the top step, John motioned to them to come up. But no one moved. They just stood there.

It took awhile for John to realize that he had a problem. The problem was a simple one. The children and their handlers had never walked up stairs before. They didn't know how.

So, with the help of the Boeing staff, the children made their way up to the plane. It took a while, but they all finally made it to the top of the stairway, where they stretched out on the large seats in first class, checked out the cockpit, sat in the pilot's seat, and even tried out the restrooms!

At the end of the tour, it was a sight to see the kids attempting to walk down the stairway. A few found it more comforting and ensuring to just sit on the steps and make their way down as carefully as they could.

What stories are being told in your organization that speak to the value that you bring, that conveys the overwhelming reason for your existence?

My friends, walking up the stairs is enabling others to reach their goals. That's what Michael Kennedy Sr. is doing. That's what is taking hold at the Gateway Middle School for Science and Technology. Walking up the stairs is the good work at Grace Hill, where they are enabling St. Louisians from all walks of life to participate in the American Dream.

This is the third of four stories told by Akande in his keynote speech at the St. Louis American Foundation's 2010 Salute to Excellence in Business. The series concludes next week. Akande is dean of the George Herbert Walker School of Business & Technology at Webster University.