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How to create a winning culture? Focus on caring and competing takes care of itself


Photo credit Delta Air Lines

I’m #deltaproud to say that I’m a lifelong member of the Delta Family.


What kind of Kool-Aid-drinking sash-wearing, Keith-Raneire-initials-branded-hip cult term is THAT? You’re no doubt thinking.


Practically, it means that even though I no longer pick up a pay check, I continue to be eligible for staff benefits, for a while at least. Which is right now as I fly TATL (industry lingo!) I’m sitting in a nice comfy reclining Delta One seat waiting for my warm cookie.


Spiritually, it means that I was once welcomed into a working culture like no other I’ve ever experienced. One that asks for resilience, persistence, creativity, and the relentless, never satisfied pursuit of excellence. And does it by making you feel like you are part of something special. And once welcomed, you never leave. Like Hotel California, but less sinister.


Carrot or stick?


The US airline industry is deeply competitive. At Delta, every decision is assessed against the strategy of the other two of the “big three” airlines. A competitive edge is everything, one poor performance can have ramifications from a tiny ripple to a tsunami. So you might expect that relentless focus on constant striving for better, of never missing a commitment to a customer, requires a cut throat, unforgiving culture.


But no. Delta takes the daring approach of suffusing its employees in a warm glow of gratitude, recognition, belonging and, yes, that very un-business-y word, care. In aggregate it creates a whole that is somehow way more than the sum of its parts, with employees who feel connected to each other, to a purpose, and to its leaders. They really will bend over backwards to help the company succeed, because they ARE the company. They are all the Delta Family.


Especially if, like me until recently, you have never worked in a service environment, you may have “does not compute” firing off in your synapses. How can creating that kind of environment make you more competitive? Surely it’s a free-for-all with no consequences?!


I get you. I’m a former strategist. I like data and proof points too.


In 2019, Delta became the world’s most successful airline in history. And yes, it got there because its network is brilliantly managed, its operations are superb: the mindboggling ability to fulfil its 15-minute bag promise, for instance, is something you can only appreciate when you’ve seen what goes into making it happen. But it also got there by making the choice to constantly reflect to its employees just how much they matter. Its culture is even cited in its investor decks as a strategic differentiator. Having been part of it, I can say that it is.


Why, how, and what can we all learn from this example, even if we have to warm our own cookies?


Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Peter Drucker


Culture is normally the underpinning box on the strategy plan-on-a-page. A bit of a second thought. Something-something values. Something-something winning team. Everyone agrees it matters… but the meaty stuff, the geographic expansion and the building of capability, that’s what gets the real airtime.


Well, growth is about admitting when you’ve been wrong. I have come to see that culture is not the cherry on the cake. It is the cake. (Yes, I am still waiting for my cookie.)


When you’ve worked somewhere that you can’t help but appreciate the impact of the culture on the company’s success, the penny drops. Companies don’t actually exist, they aren’t entities. They’re groups of people. People whose behavior makes or breaks every big decision an executive team ever makes. I’m not trying to claim that saying “culture matters” is some huge insight. But just how what dramatic a difference? That’s something I only learned recently.


THE most brilliant of win-wins


Running an airline is basically a giant game of jenga. With a thousand people moving the blocks out at once. In a tornado. The number of things that can’t be planned, never mind relied on to go to plan, is staggering. Weather patterns, security incidents, mysterious lights in cockpits… It’s so full of variables that it’s a miracle that the whole thing never (seldom) grinds to a halt. But from the outside you’d never know it. Why? Because, of course, Delta are exceptionally good at what they do, but also because of the Delta Family.


Being in the Delta Family means you’ll help your coworkers out whenever they need it, because you know someone else would do it for you. And because success is collective. On a day-to-day basis, on the front line, customer-facing world, it’s a philosophy called upon every day to keep things moving.


But it even shows up behind the scenes You might, for instance sign up to deep clean the planes to support Maintenance, even though you have a Head Office job and you’re not typically a fan of plane washrooms. Or volunteer to support a Reservations team drowning in the weight of a pandemic, even though it’s not by any stretch in your job description. But if you view your job as – making the Delta Family successful, you’re a bit less concerned with job descriptions.


Imagine being a leadership team under these conditions! It’s really the most brilliant symbiotic, win-win there is.


The Delta Family get all the pride, inclusion and belonging that they’re part of something bigger than themselves, that they’re supported by 89,999 coworkers, that no effort to go above and beyond will be wasted, because they also know they’ll get it back (with interest) one day. It’s a self-regulating system.


The Delta execs get an insanely engaged team: if you want the well proven research that more engaged teams are exponentially more productive… please Google them, free wifi is not a benefit of the Delta Family. And they know that their employees will do anything not to drop the ball, and in an unforgiving industry, that’s everything.


Culture drives the bottom line. Really


If you’re thinking, yeah, nice PR story, but how much practical difference can it make? Isn’t it just a thing HR talk about at conferences? I say no, really not.


The pandemic has cut a well-documented swathe through the airline industry. Even with the support of the federal funding, last summer, the writing was on the wall for thousands jobs. We all knew that it was only a matter of time. People needed to be let go.


Actually nobody was let go.


Because it helps that Delta make you part of the Delta Family long after you’ve technically gone, the voluntary severance package was astoundingly generous. But also, by choosing to leave, you’re giving an opportunity to your coworkers who have fewer choices. And helping protect and build a better company for them in the future. That’s really how the whole issue was communicated and positioned. And something like 20,000 people signed up, entirely through choice. There was not one lay off.


Thanks to a gradually recovering world, but also in large part those voluntary exits, after a year in the red the P&L bottom line is now finally in the black.


An aside close to my heart. Do you know the difference between an environment where departing coworkers are treated with respect and grace, with thank you cards and year books? Versus pulled into a room, given their COBRA letter and escorted to their desk to pack up? If you’re lucky, you’ll never have to know. But take it from me, it’s huge. For the leavers and the people left behind.


How do you make your culture live?


This isn’t supposed to sound like a yoghurt recipe. But culture is an organic, living, breathing thing. It’s easy to fool yourself about culture and whether you’re actually using it to drive anything. Culture that isn’t engrained is just a list of values on your website. What are the magic tricks to a winning culture? They aren’t all that magic, but they are transformative


1. Lead by example


People need to hear a message, of course. But hearing the right words isn’t nearly enough. And asking for behavior is one thing, demonstrating it is another.

Or if you prefer:

Actions >>>>> words and acting with conviction>>>>>going though the motions

The Delta CEO, Sir Ed of Bastian (aka Ed, aka Ed <3, aka Ed For President, I have truly never known a CEO so loved) took a 100% pay cut. For a year. Never ask your people to do something you can’t demonstrate you’ve done yourself.


2. Make joining your team seem like stepping into something special


It’s good to start off with a laptop, a security badge and somewhere to sit. I’ve started off plenty of jobs that don’t check off that list. What I’d never done before is start a job and have a first day that is part immersion, part history lesson, part training, part celebration. The Delta B-Day celebration is really hard to explain, but it's the best tool I've ever seen to envelope you into the Delta way of doing things. For the cost of a day out of the office, a cake and a bottle of bubbles, I’m not lying when I say it made people CRY. Get them on day one.

3. Celebrate the people who exemplify your values


And I mean CELEBRATE. To be nominated for the Delta Chairman’s Club is to know that you’ve demonstrated the qualities that make the Delta Family, the Delta Family. To attend the ceremony is to be dressed in your finery, walk on a red carpet, be photographed, be lauded by all the great and the good. It’s not hard to make people feel special. You just need to shine a light on the actions that demonstrate their beliefs, and make them feel seen.


4. Say thank you. And mean it


There’s the simple thank yous. Off the cuff for a job well done. Ending every team meeting with a thank you for everything the team does. The CEO thank you to his hard-working employees in the earnings announcement. The corporate communications updates. They’re all appreciated but also there’s the more creative ones.


The shuttle bus that takes the Head Office employees to the airport emblazoned with “Serving The World’s Best Employees.” The call out in the onboard safety video. The annual Block Party with actual big name celebrities that you close down the streets for and fly in employees from around the world to attend. OK, these might not be directly usable by anyone that isn’t Delta. But I guess I’m saying, think hard. If you want your culture to live, be consistent and immerse people in it.


The bottom line


It's tempting to see culture as the sandbox we play in every day, something that just is, not something to be used. But consciously creating a purpose-driven environment can lead to real business results. And a lifetime of warm cookies.

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