Building Back to the Future: An exclusive interview with Delta CEO Ed Bastian


By Dr. Tom Mullins

In the past years we all have been navigating through a time of crisis that has impacted all of us.  The political tension, racial unrest and COVID pandemic combined to create a perfect storm whose combined pressure has placed unprecedented challenges for leadership in the church, business and government arenas.

Being an old football coach, I have always made it my practice to learn from the champions. I interviewed champions of the church world as well as top business leaders to discover the principles that help guide them as they lead their organizations through these challenging times.

I had the privilege of sitting down with a friend who was faced with guiding a business with a $47 billion revenue through the chaos of the pandemic. Ed Bastian is CEO of Delta Airlines, where he has served in different roles since 1998. In May 2016, Ed became the CEO of Delta, by revenue the largest airline in the world. Although it may seem that there’s not much in common between running a global airline and pastoring a local church, I think you’ll be surprised at the applicability of the principles that Ed applied as he led Delta through the early days of COVID-19 and out the other end.

Tom Mullins: How in the world did you stabilize your team when you had to face the new realities of 2020 and everything was suddenly shut down and slowed down? What was the first move you had to take as a leader to help your team stabilize during that time?

Ed Bastian: Well, I needed to get the organization focused on our highest priorities. First, we had to protect our people and our customers in the face of the pandemic. Second, we had to protect our financial resources, our cash, to make sure that we could get through an uncertain and challenging time. And third, we also had to protect our future. We had to make sure that the decisions we were taking weren’t short-sighted and wouldn’t somehow inhibit our recovery. So even in the darkest days, we were focused on what we could do to ensure we’d come out of this strong. So, those are my three themes. I talked about them constantly, I wrote about them and I used all forms of communication to do so.

Mullins: What tools did you use to communicate?

Bastian: Probably the most effective was video. I conducted video town hall meetings with all of our people worldwide—tens of thousands. We had 75,000 people. And they could dial in and see me as I’m talking and letting them know where we were in the process. What we knew, most importantly, but also what I did not know and being very transparent about the realities and the vulnerabilities that we had. I wanted them to be able to see me, see my face, see that I was OK. But also acknowledge and understand that we were walking through this together. We needed to lean on each other.

Mullins: In 2005, Delta went through bankruptcy. Were there carryovers from that experience that you were able to bring into your leadership for this crisis?

Bastian: We're not shy about talking about the crises we’ve been through. In our industry there was a series of crises: 9/11, the bankruptcy, fuel spikes, the recession. But a global pandemic was the biggest of them all. We’ve been through crises before. So that gave me a confidence and credibility with our team to know that we would figure it out. We didn’t know how, but it was important that we define the reality, but also stay very, very consistent with hope and optimism. It was as bleak as it could be, but at the same time we remained optimistic and confident that there was a path. You’re not sure of all the steps you’re going to take, but you’re going to get there.

Mullins: When you’re in crisis, you got to be on the front lines with the team. They need to see you out front leading.

Bastian: I, as the leader, was in the office most days through the pandemic. And I was flying every week throughout the pandemic. I was very, very visible. It was a very odd time to be traveling. There was a lot of anxiety out there.

Mullins: Are there any adjustments in your leadership style or some of the ways you organized your team around you in order to facilitate regaining your momentum?

Bastian: You’ve got to keep your thoughts open to anything, to be able to make many decisions and many changes. One of the most important ones was our decision to block our middle seats, for example. We blocked the middle seats on our planes for a full year—the only airline in the world to do that. We maintained the confidence of our people and our customers that Delta was the airline that they wanted to stay with, the brand to keep them safe during a pandemic. The standard of care and of cleanliness throughout our organization, our planes and our facilities was revolutionized overnight. I had to get down to a level of detail that I had never, ever thought I’d have to go to again. I was involved in not just managing and understanding what we were seeing, but also the rebuild as we were starting to put the airline back. And one of the key tenets I’ve used to rebuild is that we’re building back, not to where we were, but to where we’re going.

Mullins: That’s good. Can you talk a bit more about that concept?

Bastian: When you’re running at full pace, as we were prior to the pandemic, there were a lot of things that we would have liked to have done or thought differently about. We just didn’t have the time to be able to implement the type of changes we are implementing now. So, whether it’s accelerating the redevelopment of our airports, the rebuild of La Guardia, the rebuild of LAX, the technology landscape, what we’re doing organizationally to sharpen our focus on the customer or technologies—we’ve used this time to accelerate.

The single biggest thing that we’ve learned during the pandemic, that’s keeping us very focused on the future, is the concept of resilience and wellness. It’s something that we didn’t talk a lot about prior to the pandemic: the wellness of our business. There were a lot of things we took for granted, such as how we have to take care of each other, not just our health and welfare, but also our emotional state, our spiritual state as well as our financial state. We holistically put the tools in place for our people to do all of that and to talk openly about it.

Mullins: Obviously, crisis reveals the strengths and weaknesses of our teams, and we’ve got to go through a realignment and what I call ‘reduction of drag.’ Were there any things that jumped out at you that allowed you—because of the crisis—to actually reduce some drag in the organization?

Bastian: Crisis reveals character. And my boss, the chairman of our company, Frank Blake, reminded me of that at the start of the crisis: that this kind of crisis would reveal the character of our company, our people and our values. It’s a statement I thought about every single day as we’ve navigated this journey.

This time has given me a chance to really reflect on the character of our company. We can accelerate our path to the future. We’ve eliminated a lot of our older planes—planes that had been scheduled to be retired in the next five years. We haven’t stopped taking [delivery of] planes through the pandemic. In the past, that’s what we would have done—just shut down our order books and basically closed our cash flows. So, we got rid of close to 400 airplanes. We're coming out of this a lot younger, as a result.

We used the time to tap into resources, to raise capital, raise cash, financing against our SkyMiles loyalty program. We raised $9 billion, and we had never raised any money against the loyalty plan previously. So, it was a bit of an untapped resource and opportunity. We knew we could do it, but we never had gotten around to figuring out how. As a result, it gave us the cash we needed to protect the future.

We also offered early retirement to a lot of people, and we had 20,000 people take it, which means that the organization got a lot younger overnight. That’s going to enable our company to give a lot of people new opportunities—a fresh new company.

Mullins: What were some of the things you did to celebrate some of the small wins with your people?

Bastian: The constant acknowledgement of where we were at and what they were doing. There really wasn’t time for celebration as we were going through this. It was a lot of small things that were making a big difference. We won the JD Power Award as the best airline in North America, which is something that we hope we always reach for, but some of the smaller guys have nipped it from us in the past. To win that award in the midst of a pandemic when arguably Delta had the most to lose—we fell the furthest because we were sitting at the top of the industry—shows how quickly we navigated and picked ourselves up and prepared ourselves for the future.

Mullins: So, you used the crisis as an opportunity to accelerate—not going backward, but actually moving forward. That’s pretty profound, I think.

Bastian: We absolutely did. It was also a time of challenge for us with the social justice issues we were experiencing throughout the country. In Atlanta, we focused on the diversity of our team and the inclusiveness of our people. We spent the time, we didn't ignore it. We brought leaders in from across the spectrum, from Bryan Stevenson who wrote the book Just Mercy, and the Academy Award-winning movie, to talk about his days as a lawyer on death row saving innocent men, to Dr. Bernice King, Martin Luther King’s youngest daughter, who is at the King Center here in Atlanta. It was about more than just thinking that we’re in this for the economic salvation of our company.

Mullins: So, to wrap up a little bit, if you were able to sit down and coach leaders on how to begin to rebuild that lost momentum in their organizations, and you had to distill it down to a few key tips, what would they be?

Bastian: The first tip would be that this pandemic has given everyone the opportunity to reflect on their mission, on their purpose, why they exist, what their role is in society, what their role is in the community, what value they create for their customers and their own employees. It’s allowed everyone to clarify that mission and clarify the purpose. I think a lot of people were too busy to be intentional, to really stop and think about the purpose they have. And as it’s slowed everyone down, it’s giving everyone a lot of clarity.

For us it’s very clear: our purpose is to connect the world, to connect people and bring people together and bring understanding. And it’s never been more clear what our essential role in this world was when that mission was interrupted by the pandemic and we weren’t able to fulfill that mission—how isolated the world feels.

Second is to focus on your people, your employees. Protect them. They've been through a hard time, no matter what. The people that will come through this pandemic strongest are the people that have a team, that are motivated and feel like the leadership has their back and they’re united in purpose.

Mullins: Are there any others that you want to add to these couple here that are so strong?

Bastian: What I feared the most and continue to fear the most as we go through the recovery is that those that were most successful are going to be obsessed and preoccupied with getting back to where they were. And that’s not going to be good enough in the environment in which we’re in with so much change. And those that have been most successful probably have the most pride, probably have the most to lose and have lost the most as a result. But they also need to be the quickest to adapt to the future.

Also, realize what your core values are, what you're not going to change. But be very open to hear from different points of view and different perspectives of what needs to change about the past because your success can be also your greatest vulnerability.

SIDEBAR: Seven Principles for Regaining Momentum

Leaders must be present and out front. We should always endeavor to empower and equip our teams to lead, finding great satisfaction when we are able to have our teams out in front. However, if there is ever a time when we need to lead by example, with high visibility, it is during times of crisis. Crisis is no time to retreat to your office to meet with a small group and strategize how you’re going to regain momentum.

Clarify your values and your mission. When the winds of change come, we can often get blown off the mission. Because of that tendency, our values have to be restated and clarified so that they become the foundation for all of our decision making. Staying true to those core values is what gives us the strength to press through and come out the other side of the challenges that we face with fresh momentum.

Overcommunicate. We need to be candid about where we really are and about the challenges we are facing. This is not a time for blind optimism, but we must also embody a positive attitude through encouragement and a confidence that we have weathered storms in the past and will make it through the present crisis, becoming even stronger in the process.

Protect your team’s wellness. A crisis is a great opportunity to show that that you care about the person, not just their performance. As Ed demonstrated in his prioritization of the health and wellness of his team at Delta, care conveys loyalty, but it also inspires loyalty in those you lead. When you demonstrate that kind of loyalty for your team, you will instill in those you lead a deeper sense of loyalty for your organization.

Seize new opportunities. Delta had to demonstrate a lot of courage to carry out some of the changes that they made in the midst of the pandemic. They were aggressive not only in securing new aircraft and upgrading their various hubs, but also in looking ahead. Ed’s big question was not, How am I going to survive? but How can our organization actually thrive coming out of this and be in a stronger position? That type of foresight is critical for leaders, and that is why Delta came out the other side of the pandemic with great momentum and are recognized as the No. 1 airline in the United States.

Stay flexible. You can’t get rigid. You've got to look at your methodology and be willing to change—to call some “audibles” as we would say in the football world. This means a willingness to try some things, and if they don’t work, go to the next best idea and run with it. Flexibility is critical to being in position to regain your momentum.

Focus forward. Leaders are always looking to tomorrow, and I think that was demonstrated by Ed’s willingness to look for new opportunities and seize them. One of his biggest concerns was that his team would become complacent and try to bring Delta back to where they were before the pandemic. Like Ed, if we focus on the future, we will be in a position to come out of difficult times with fresh momentum that will be there waiting for those that have led well through times of crisis.


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