February 27, 2024

Corner Office | David Barger: Early Access as a Fast Track to Learning

Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. It was back in the ’80s, and I was at New York Air. I was manager of stations and then director of stations. I can remember it like it was yesterday, because all of a sudden you have an awful lot of direct reports and pretty dynamic change. It was a shock to my system, because you didn’t have years to really build the tools in your tool kit. At the same time, there was tremendous access to the leaders of the company, so you had great visibility. I think I’ve learned over time to try to expose as many potential leaders to situations as early as possible, because it really helps to build your experience for when you do move into that chair.

Q. What were some other important leadership lessons? Any particular mentors?

A. For me, it wasn’t so much about being mentored by an individual, because I was moving so fast through the organization. But again, just having the exposure and access was so important. As a young manager, to have access literally to the top of the organization was very memorable for me, because it helped set the framework at the highest levels about the behaviors that were needed and the goals that were being created.

Q. What else?

A. You have to be able to simplify things that are complex. At the end of the day, if the 13,000 people on the front lines don’t understand what you’re trying to do, forget it. You don’t stand a chance of making it work. I love the Oliver Wendell Holmes quote: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.”

Q. Give me an example.

A. We got the board together four years ago to discuss best practices and strategy. Out of that, we ended with 23 objectives, four pathways. You name it — we had some interesting terms. Fast forward, and the 23 became 14 in Year 2, then 10 in Year 3, and we crystallized them into two — culture and offerings. We have to get a little more specific when we talk about culture, of course, like preserving a direct relationship with our crew or building talent into the organization. These used to be stand-alone objectives. But it’s just so much easier now to communicate the two and then to get more specific, as necessary. It’s been very helpful. People on the front lines know what you want them to do, and it’s easier to set the expectations.

Q. How do you talk about leadership within the company?

A. We teach principles of leadership on a regular basis, to supervisors and above. The module I teach is, “Inspiring Greatness in Others,” and we talk a lot about how we each have a silhouette that comes to life. And, as the silhouette comes to life, it’s as much about what you’re doing, the body language, as what you’re saying. There’s a lot of lessons to be learned by watching others make a mistake. And I’ve certainly seen that, in the past. It could be leaders coming in and the next thing you know they’re not visiting the cockpit, they’re not saying hi in the galley, they’re not going to the baggage service office, they’re not stopping by the ticket counter. It doesn’t take a lot. People know you’re there. Go see them. Be present.

Q. What are some other takeaways from your session?

A. There are several, but here’s a few more: Be mindful that there is incredible leadership all around you. Go find it. Go tap it. Go mine it. And here’s a key question: would you want to report to yourself? It’s little things, too. When you say hi to somebody, do you mean it, or is it just a casual comment?

Q. Any leadership insights you’ve gained in the last couple of years?

A. We have executive coaches we’ve used over the last couple of years. The message was, enough consensus building. When it’s time to make a decision and your team’s not making the decision, make the decision. I don’t think I ever was reticent in terms of making a decision. But, as I look back, there were plenty of examples where the team was looking at an issue but not getting a final decision. I think it’s probably the most formative feedback I’ve been given — that it’s fine to be the consensus builder, and I know that’s where I lean in terms of my leadership DNA, but now I am more comfortable saying, “This is what we’re going to do. Next topic.”

Q. Let’s shift to hiring. What are you looking for? What questions do you ask?

A. To me, what’s most important, beyond the skill set, is the organizational fit — does the person truly understand what we’re trying to accomplish here. I want somebody who’s comfortable in a conference room, but at the same time will board an airplane and introduce himself or herself to the customers.

We have specific questions for interviews about past experiences, which are the best predictors of future behavior, and they’re tied to our values — safety, caring, integrity, fun and passion. We truly ask people about past experiences with those five words in mind and try to lift out of the conversation whether they are the right fit for the organization.

Q. How would you summarize your leadership philosophy?

A. I think the best leaders are teachers and they’re truly taking the time to explain a balance sheet or a fuel hedging policy or other things. You’re teaching. You’re not just doing and communicating what you’re doing — you’re teaching people why you’re doing it. And I really believe in giving people the opportunity to have access. There’s got to be other people within JetBlue who can run this company who are not just my direct reports. They’re in the organization and they’ve got great careers ahead of them. I also believe in leading from the back of the room, and watching people in the company who are stepping up to teach others.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=01d3436e9d29b783404fa9e41e4df552

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