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Hobbyists are the Ultimate Engaged Employees

August 13, 2009

Hobbyists are the Ultimate Engaged Employees

You know you're in the boondocks when you're in a country where Blackberry messaging doesn't penetrate. Ethiopia, for instance, where I am now, as I write this blog post. My Blackberry works as a phone, but the email doesn't happen.

For the last few days I've been in Johannesburg, and the flight from Jo-burg to Addis Ababa takes a full 5 ½ hours. That's like flying from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. It's easy to be ignorant of how big the African continent is, if all you do is look at maps of it. Because it straddles the equator, Africa actually looks smaller on a Mercator projection flat map. Personally, I was stunned that it would take that long to get from any point in Africa to any other point on the continent.

I'm here to meet with an executive at Ethiopian Airlines tomorrow. There are three major state-owned airlines in Africa: Ethiopian, Kenyan, and South African. Each of these airlines aspires to be the dominant continental carrier in this rapidly developing part of the world. But traditional, state-owned airlines are in a terrible economic vice. They are the ultimate legacy companies, early adopters of computer technology now strapped with archaic IT systems, and heirs to railroad business models with activist unions and rigid, costly work rules.

But one thing I do find interesting about the airline category is that the population of airline managers is sprinkled with a generous assortment of "hobbyists" - managers and executives who just happen to love airplanes, and will do almost anything to be around them. Some of you may not know that I once worked in the airline business myself. My first job in the airline category was as the director of accounting for a regional carrier, and then I migrated to the pricing department (which, before de-regulation, was similar to accounting), and then on to marketing. And of course I've been in and around the marketing discipline ever since. When I worked at this airline, I noticed that some of my fellow airline execs collected tail numbers. Seriously. Went on a business trip with our VP of Planning and Scheduling, who was absolutely a brilliant linear programmer (this was before PCs, remember), and he was an avid collector of tail numbers. He wrote down the tail number of every plane he ever set foot on. Amazing. Of course, a hobbyist is also the ultimate engaged employee. Talk about someone who lives and breathes their work!

I'm wondering if there are other "hobbyist" businesses out there. Computer gaming, perhaps, or Web masters? Hotels and resorts? Any other suggestions?

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