The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the largest division of the Department of Transportation with approximately 50,000 employees focused on assuring the safety and effciency of the National Airspace.

Certified in 1987, the National Air Traffic Controllers Association (NATCA) represents more than 20,000 controllers, engineers and other safety-related professionals, with membership from every state, territory and possession of the United States.

The Professional Aviation Safety Specialists (PASS) union represents approximately 11,000 FAA and Department of Defense employees throughout the United States and in several foreign countries who install, maintain, support and certify air traffic control and national defense equipment; inspect and oversee the commercial and general aviation industries; develop flight procedures and perform quality analyses of the aviation systems.


In 2009, the agency was coming under increasing Congressional and public pressure to modernize and improve the safety and effciency of the National Airspace System. At the same time, the FAA and its two largest unions had what many would say was among the most contentious, adversarial labor-management relationship in the federal sector. That toxic environment was clearly being felt by employees at every level, as evidenced by the agency’s near rock-bottom rating of 214 out of 216 in the annual Best Places to Work in the Federal Government survey.

It was clear that undertaking “NextGen,” a comprehensive air traffc system modernization initiative, could only be accomplished if labor and management learned to work together. Overland Resource Group was retained to help leaders from the FAA, NATCA and PASS develop and execute organizational change processes that would enable employees at all levels to collaborate on improvement projects required for effective NextGen implementation. Achieving the largest technological transformation in the history of the federal sector would simultaneously require labor and management to lead a cultural transformation in which enemies could become allies and warring factions could form a united front to overcome the massive challenges presented by NextGen.

Through ORG-facilitated dialogue sessions and meetings, senior management and labor leaders began taking the first diffcult steps to set aside past differences; to address intractable conflict; to overcome deep-seated distrust; and to explore whether — and how — they could move toward more collaborative and productive relations. But it wasn’t until the leaders began focusing on identifying and discussing their interests, rather than on being positional and arguing for the rightness of pre-determined solutions, that they were able to really hear and understand one another’s perspectives.

Quickly they came to understand that the Interest-Based Leadership™ skills they were cultivating at the top of the organization were the same skills they needed labor and management leaders at every level to learn and to practice. This would facilitate the behavior change necessary to build a culture where working together became the norm rather than the exception.

The challenge, then, was how to create interest-based leadership skills across an organization characterized by iron-clad functional silos; hundreds of facilities each with its own sub-culture; dozens of work groups and job classifications; and a decades-long history of adversarial labor-management relations.


“In order to change the culture you have to change the behavior… So we set up collaboration conferences and then training. And we really constantly pushed towards finding the common ground and working together… We [knew] if we didn’t really push that philosophy down to the field level, we would fall short and we wouldn’t be able to really change the culture of the FAA.”
Paul Rinaldi, President, National Air Traffc Controllers Association


Working closely with senior leaders from the FAA, NATCA and PASS, ORG developed a strategy that would enable the agency to:

Deliver the training in less than six months to more than 700 leaders

Provide hands-on, face-to-face training to every operational front-line and mid-level leader jointly with his or her management or labor counterpart

Assure the transfer of knowledge to an internal pool of managers and union leaders and develop them into trainers, coaches, or internal consultants to assure the sustainability of the process in the most cost-effcient manner possible

Provide and equip leaders across the organization with a web-based Collaborative Work Space for accessing training tools; communicating across geographic and functional boundaries; sharing Best Practices and Lessons Learned; and collaborating on documents through a shared portal, which also provided for document storage, retrieval and version control


To assure training efforts would be as effective as possible for adult learners, ORG utilized its proprietary, innovative approach to teaching Interest-Based Leadership™. “When people come into a situation being positional, they already have a solution in mind and their agenda is to convince the
other party of the rightness of that direction,” explained ORG Partner Mike Hunter, who led the training development effort. “Once they learn to identify outcomes they need and to understand the other’s interests, they can begin to focus on creating solutions together that meet both sets of needs.”

Several other key attributes differentiate the ORG approach:

  1. Relevance matters. The consulting team worked with labor and management leaders to develop customized scenarios that reflected situations that controllers, technicians, managers and union reps would actually encounter in their work lives. This enabled them to get hands-on practice in utilizing the skills required for interest-based conversations.
  2. Behavioral technologies help participants move beyond conflict avoidance so they can effectively dialogue about “un-discussables.”
  3. Training is designed using accelerative learning principles to address all learning styles, to improve learning retention, and to reduce time to proficiency. “This allows participants to practice new skills in a safe environment and feel confident that they have internalized new knowledge and skills effectively,” said Cathy Wright, ORG lead consultant. “It puts them at the top of their game as an adult learner.”
  4. Participants learn to recognize their own “triggers” to enable them to make conscious decisions about how they respond when others knowingly, or accidentally, “push their buttons.”
  5. The training design utilizes an escalation effect which enables participants to learn increasingly complex concepts and to practice applying them. “As they build competence, they also build confidence,” Wright said. “That helps assure that when they return to work, they are much more likely — even eager — to use what they’ve learned so it becomes a lasting behavior.”
Before rolling the training out across the entire organization, leaders recognized that because of structural differences in functional areas and between PASS and NATCA, they needed the flexibility to deliver the training in the way that best suited their unique needs. As a result, while the “roll-out” methods differed, the core content and end results were the same. In both cases, training was customized for the environment specific to each work group. “Beta” tests were carried out with sample groups to gather participant feedback and to make refinements before rolling out more broadly. Initial rounds of training were delivered by ORG consultants. As labor and management leaders selected internal resources to act as collaborative

process coordinators, trainers or coaches, ORG designed and delivered training to equip them for their new roles. This “Train the Trainer” certification process enabled the FAA and its unions to embed internal expertise for teaching the concepts on a recurring basis and for helping assure the sustainability of the process.

According to Trish Gilbert, executive vice president for NATCA, “Permanent change requires not just energy but a new collaborative way of thinking… One of the many challenges of collaboration is ensuring that [those at] field facilities are educated on the principles of a more collaborative process, through all levels and at all facilities.”


Labor and management leaders credit ORG’s Interest-Based Leadership™ training with helping them achieve significant and measureable positive outcomes, not to mention vast improvements in labormanagement relationships.

  • Improved Work Environment. Today, the FAA ranks among the top 40 percent of agencies in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government® survey, with a score of 64.5 and a ranking of 114 out of 292 agencies, versus a 2009 score of 49.4, when it was a mere two spots from deadlast among agencies participating in the survey that year. The FAA’s impressive progress propelled the Department of Transportation to the top of the list of Most Improved Agencies in 2012.
  • Cost Savings from Grievance and Arbitration Reductions. NATCA and the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization reduced grievances from hundreds of thousands to dozens and reduced the time and expense associated with pre-arbitration reviews. NATCA President Paul Rinaldi noted that historically, each of NATCA’s nine regions would conduct week-long pre-arbitration review meetings with the agency each quarter, considering an average of 100-200 grievances. “This year [2012], I’m proud to say most regions have cancelled one, if not two, of their quarterly reviews. And when they do meet, they meet for less than a day and they’re dealing with less than 10 issues,” Rinaldi said. “And at this time at the national level, we have less than five grievances that are right for arbitration and we have never ever had that in this organization ever. It would always be 500 [cases] keyed-up, ready to go for arbitration. Not only is that saving a lot of time, but it’s certainly saving a lot of money. Arbitrations are very, very expensive and time-consuming.”
  • Expedited Negotiations Process and Record-High Contract Ratification. As a result of improved relationships, PASS and the FAA’s Technical Operations line of business agreed to enter into their first-ever interest-based negotiation process. “The benefit at the contract table was having that open dialogue,” said PASS President Mike Perrone, noting that interest-based leadership skills enabled them to negotiate more effectively and to wrap up the process in almost one-third of time it had taken previously. And, 85% of those represented voted in favor of the contract, marking the highest rate of ratification in the 36-year history of PASS.
  • Operational Improvements impacting the National Airspace System, air carriers, the flying public and the environment. At the facility and district level, managers and their labor counterparts began collaborating on operational and quality of work life issues that created air space effciencies; lowered costs; lessened environmental impact; improved personnel and airspace safety; reframed operational performance measures; and more. A few examples of bottom-line improvements, from among hundreds, include: NATCA’s Rinaldi points to En Route Automation Modernization (ERAM), a $2 billion en route modernization program that was “an abysmal failure” from 2003-09 without the involvement needed from union members. “We are now… up and running in about six facilities and testing vigorously in another 10, and things are looking very good,” he said in late 2012.
    • A collaborative team revised descent paths in Washington, D.C.-area airports for an estimated annual fuel savings of $18.9 million (based on November 2010 fuel costs) and a 108,300-ton annual reduction in carbon emissions, a significant benefit to the environment.
    • A regional partnership of the FAA, NATCA, Delta Air Lines, US Airways, and Atlanta and Charlotte, NC-area airports resulted in the development of more efficient routes that equate to 6.6 million fewer gallons of fuel and a reduction of 65,000 metric tons of carbon emissions each year. For US Airways, optimizing the airspace at its largest hub in Charlotte translates into fuel savings of $17 million annually.
    • A realignment of operational areas at the Washington Air Route Traffic Control Center is saving the facility $4 million a year in reduced payroll costs. “Collaboration at all levels is worth the effort because it almost always produces better outcomes,” said David Grizzle, Chief Operating Officer of the Air Traffic Control Organization, in the January 2012 edition of The Controller: Journal of Air Traffic Control. “At the FAA, we have been able to accomplish things that we probably couldn’t have done without collaboration.



While leaders recognized that teaching collaborative skills at all levels was a critical component of the change effort, they also knew it was not the only area needing attention. So, they simultaneously went to work on other keys to build and sustain collaboration:

  • Joint Leadership Teams (JLT) made up of the executive leaders and union officers were formed to provide strategic oversight for the overall collaborative process and to address critical, strategic issues.
  • These teams articulated their commitment to collaboration and shared success stories through newly-developed “joint” communication channels.
  • They adopted more progressive Labor Relations practices and utilized traditional grievance and arbitration processes only when necessary and appropriate.
  • JLT leaders developed clear, measurable outcomes and increasingly relied on the employees who did the work every day to help solve problems and to create solutions for achieving those outcomes.


Lasting change requires lasting attention. Embedding sustainable cultural change requires too much effort for it to be left to chance. The FAA and its unions have been wise to pay attention to sustaining the collaborative foundation they have built by:

  • Selecting, developing and supporting internal resources to assure on-going attention to the collaborative process;
  • Providing an on-line Collaborative Work Space that serves a) as a hub for accessing tools, resources, training, and documents; and b) as a communication infrastructure that spans geographic and functional boundaries;
  • Recognizing the need for on-going collaborative structures to manage and lead the collaborative processes set in motion;
  • Equipping leaders at all levels with the skills required to succeed in a collaborative culture; and
  • Expecting setbacks and committing to stay the course.


All too often, organizations send their leaders off to skill-building classes and they return energized and ready to put their new-found knowledge to work. But their workday world hasn’t changed, nor have their co-workers, their managers, or the problems they must confront. Despite the best organizational and leadership intentions, “change-back” is a powerful force that makes it difficult to put the concepts and new learning into practice. The FAA and its labor leaders sought to combat “change-back” by:

  • Insisting that union leaders and their management counterparts attend the collaborative training sessions together. In this way, the pair could “change together” and work to support one another, and hold each other accountable, for practicing and modeling the collaborative skills in the workplace.
  • Collaborative structures were established to create lasting forums where interest-based dialogue is the norm and collaborative behaviors are the expectation. These included Joint Leadership Teams at the executive level; collaborative leader pairs at the mid-level; facility-level joint sponsors; ad hoc teams; and problem-solving work groups, among others. In addition to addressing issues collaboratively, these structures provided people with real and meaningful opportunities to regularly practice and use their skills.
  • Every organization is unique and its people respond best to approaches tailored to their unique needs and built with their involvement. Customizing training content to make it relevant to the specific audience super-charged the effectiveness of the learning experience.

“Just as we modernize air traffic technology and change the way we interact between ground and air, we also need to modernize the human part of our business and the way we interact with one another. Specifically, we need to update how we communicate and relate to one another,” said FAA COO Grizzle. “Interest-based communication has had a profound effect on how labor and management work together. [It] is helping us to resolve issues in a less formal, less protracted, less litigious way — where we respect the perspective of everyone. But it takes a lot of courage and commitment.”

By equipping its leaders to exhibit that courage and commitment in embracing a new model of leadership — one based on valuing others’ perspectives and seeking common ground — the FAA and its unions have built a culture of collaboration clearly dedicated to their shared interest of assuring the safest, most efficient airspace in the world.


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