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Leadership with Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta

Founder of Orchid Agency
Mariya Finkelshteyn
March 2, 2020
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A few years ago, I attended an event in which Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines described how the company leveraged innovation and leadership to emerge as an industry leader.  Here are the top takeaways:

1. Communicate in front of the problem

He referenced the notorious outage in 2016, which caused so many headaches to thousands of travelers. As an airline that runs +6K flights per day and millions of travelers it prides itself on reliability, it was tough to accept the failure. The airline was running on manual for a couple of days during the power outage as it couldn't rely on technology. In that moment what was important was to communicate in front of the problem. As a result Delta put out multiple announcements, videos from Ed and other communications to rebuild trust within travelers and employees.

Another land mine of Delta’s history is getting out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a tough journey which was led by Ed Bastian. Delta had to move with speed to get out of that mess and it was like the wild wild west. A competitor at the time, US Air, even tried to acquire Delta, though it was not successful. During that journey it was the drive, momentum,  confidence and agility were critical skills to move through the bankruptcy. Fortunately, Delta was able to get out of bankruptcy and turn the company around to profitability.

2. Embrace technology and innovation

With Ed Bastian as the CEO, Delta started to invest and embrace technology more and more. In 2016, Delta committed $4 billion into technology, mergers and acquisitions, and products to expand its operations. Most notorious merger at the time was of Northwest Airlines. And while most look at M&A from the lens of profits, cost reductions, massive restructures, I was pleasantly surprised to hear Ed speak more and more about the people.  Specifically with the Northwest merger, the leadership team at Delta focused to ensure that this would be a positive experience of growth for both sides of the merger. What did Ed do? He brought the people early into the process. One example is negotiating with both pilot unions (which is not an easy job) in front of the merger and getting the buy in from the people in advance of the acquisition. 

In 2011, Delta bought an oil refinery so that they can eliminate the middleman to reduce jet refinery costs.  At the time he got ridiculed for the decision but it's the rigor and spark that he had in the moment to take a bold bet and now that decision has more than paid back in terms of results. 

"Confidence, intelligence and a little imagination will take you a long way" Ed Bastion, CEO of Delta.

3. Serve your people

Time and time throughout the entire day, Ed reiterated that

"Delta is in the business of serving people" Ed Bastion, CEO of Delta.

His massive focus, attention, passion and empathy towards employees is incredibly addicting. It's rare to see companies focus on their most important asset, people. Most simply write that on their website as a cultural “value” to attract candidates but unfortunately live a completely different culture behind closed doors.  Throughout the session with Ed, it was clear that he actually lives and breathes this value and that the most important priority to him is to take care of his people. In fact, he even noted:

“CEO's job to serve employees and employees job to serve customers”, Ed Bastion, CEO of Delta.

Even through the bankruptcy he wanted to make sure that people do not feel like they are the cost problem or just a number to the organization. He always gets back to the people.  Even in this scenario, he focused on the employees to explain why Delta was in trouble - which was a revenue problem due to a poor and non-competitive product.

As someone who worked in the company for 20 years, the basics are still the same - value your people. And while Delta hasn't had the most comfortable road to profitability, it's the continuous focus on people, innovation — from employee profit-sharing to the purchase of an oil refinery — that transformed the company from bankruptcy to an industry leader.