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Columbia Business Monthly

Sumwalt Faces Challenges at NTSB

Oct 03, 2017 01:52PM ● By Emily Stevenson
By Rachel Haynie
Photography by James Anderson/NTSB

Robert Sumwalt III was reading accident incident reports not as academic assignments, but out of keen interest - how and why - even before choosing business administration as a University of South Carolina major – breaking the engineering tradition led by both father and grandfather (a USC president).

As the new head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB,) Sumwalt has taken the agency’s helm at a time when more issues face transportation than at any other time within its 50-year history.

“Our transportation system, the lifeblood of our nation’s economy, generally performs very well,” says Sumwalt, whose NTSB appointment was bi-laterally approved by the U.S. Senate. “However, when transportation accidents do occur, the NTSB is called to investigate.”

During his tenure, Sumwalt will confront drones impacting the marketplace and airspace, driverless vehicles, the condition of the nation’s roads and bridges, and birds competing with airplanes for airspace. Scrutiny also will be given maritime issues, emerging technologies, and petulant weather - possibly more erratic due to global warming.

Preventing accidents, and thereby loss, and protecting assets are vital business tenets, so Sumwalt’s deep knowledge of safety in the transportation sector is a keen advantage.

“In spending a lifetime studying accidents, I have learned a thing or two about organizational behavior, because many of the accidents we investigate have roots in organizational failures.

“I believe a lack of alignment in goals and values is one of the greatest dysfunctions of an organization. By that,” Sumwalt says, “I mean there is a disconnect between what people at the top of an organization want and what people in middle management and on the front lines actually do. Alignment begins with a vision and values.”

The Columbia native explains, “I began meeting with managers and our 13 departments to lay out my vision for the agency and put renewed emphasis on our core values immediately after becoming NTSB’s acting chairman.”

Sumwalt, who accrued more than 14,000 flying hours over 32 years as a pilot, and who formerly chaired the Air Line Pilots Association’s Human Factors and Training Group, described a leader’s obligation. 

“We are to establish a vision, own the vision, and passionately communicate and pursue it,” he says. “But we can’t expect people to follow if they don’t know where we want to take them. That’s why I got out there as soon as I became the agency head and let them know where I wanted us to go.”

He says the vision is aspirational - “where you aspire to be one day. Values, on the other hand, are what should guide your daily decisions and actions.”

Sumwalt observes that “core values guide high-performing organizations’ decisions and actions. Lesser-performing organizations simply don’t have values, or if they do, they only pay lip service to them.” 

He adds, “I believe we must live our values so NTSB can reach the next performance level.”

The meeting with employees, as Sumwalt explained, also was to hear what was on their minds.

“If you take the time to listen, you can learn a lot. They are the eyes and ears of what’s going on in the organization.”

Facilitating the exercise Stop-Start-Keep, Sumwalt asked each group to “tell us what we needed to stop doing because it could be harmful or take us away from our goals; what should we start doing to make us better; and, finally, what were the sacred cows that we must absolutely keep doing.” 

The consensus: more internal communications.

Sumwalt, who for eight years consulted with NASA’s aviation safety reporting system, says, “Listening to employees is one thing – actually doing something to change things is quite another. We now have set up a page on our portal to catalogue each comment and provide feedback on how we’re doing toward improving things. Of course, not everything can be changed, but it’s still vitally important to show that you listened, you cared, and you tried.”

His position, as he explains it, “is not simply a figurehead position. The chairman of the agency is, by statute, the CEO NTSB. We have over 400 employees and a $105 million annual budget. It’s definitely a full time job. I put in long hours, but it’s rewarding. I’m so privileged to work with great people with a great mission. However, my respite is returning to Columbia and spending time with my family. I FaceTime with them each night, and that makes the distance not seem as great.”