How did JetBlue dethrone the big boys in the biggest market in the world? It all started with the “radical application of common sense.”
JetBlue’s first flight took off just six years ago, but you’d never know it by the company’s soaring performance. By 2003, in fact, the neophyte airline had reached a comfortable cruising altitude that most of the “big boys,” or the airlines we at least used to think of as the behemoths of the industry, envied. In a year when U.S.-based air carriers as a whole announced losses of around $2 billion, JetBlue, the fledgling, had become a veritable 97-pound-weakling-turned Charles Atlas with a profit of $17.6 million racked up for the first quarter. By 2004, the company, no weakling anymore, had topped the $1 billion mark.
It’s penetration of the New York market in such a short time is nothing short of staggering. At its JFK headquarters, it carried the most total passengers (10 million to American’s 8.1 million). Domestically, JetBlue’s JFK passenger numbers more than double its next closest competitor. Today, the airline operates about 100 flights a day out of JFK, and it just broke ground on an $875 million, 26-gate terminal set to debut at the airport in 2009. When completed, JetBlue will account for one quarter of all flights leaving JFK. The carrier is also making headway at nearby La Guardia and Newark Liberty airports.
While the company keeps its fares low, and its in-flight television on the back of each new leather seat, it’s more than the drive to save pennies, and the opportunity to catch re-runs of “Friends” on the way to Vegas, that sends passengers into the air with JetBlue. The training given to executives, all the way down the runway to pilots and flight attendants, or in-flight crew, has been pivotal to JetBlue’s success. It’s a big part of the reason the readers of Conde Nast Traveler have named JetBlue the “Best Domestic Airline” four years running.
From the beginning, the Forest Hills, N.Y.-based company knew what it wanted to teach its employees, and what it wanted to avoid as pitfalls of the business, says Mike Barger, vice president and chief learning officer. “I think when there was still a very small group of us trying to create this airline in the Northeast, one of the things we really focused on was how do we differentiate ourselves from our competitors,” Barger says. “We accepted the philosophy that an airline seat was not a commodity, and, therefore, people would have an interest and an excitement for something that was a little different.”
Finding that difference, he says, meant gathering the company’s founders, all 35 or so of them, into a session to vent common air travel complaints. The goal was to figure out what kind of practices to encourage in the workforce of their burgeoning enterprise. “Early on we knew what would set us apart from our competitors would be just this great service and this commitment to taking care of people, and we kind of all decided together that what would really make that happen would be to create a culture that really supported that.”
Trying to figure out a way to translate their feelings into a workforce that shared their values, the founders grappled with the proper vehicle to transmit their message. They weren’t convinced the conventional mission statement would cut it. So, the entrepreneurs took to butcher blocks, scribbling down words and ideas they wanted to instill in new employees.
The goal was coming up with a concise set of values that was simple and easily understandable, yet would comprise a strong enough statement to keep the company on track. “We spent a whole day writing down the things we thought were broken or substandard in our industry,” Barger says. Some improvements seemed so simple. They wondered, for instance, why a pilot couldn’t be trained to communicate better with passengers. Was there really any reason travelers shouldn’t be told why they’re still sitting at the gate when it’s past departure time?
By day’s end, the butcher-block boards Barger and his colleagues had put all over the walls were full of as many as 200 failures of the aviation industry. With these points in mind, the founders were sent home with the task of thinking about possible solutions. “We came back the next day, and took every one of those items, and talked about what it would take to create a company where those items weren’t an issue,” he says. The simplicity of the solutions were often so obvious; providing a better option for air travel could be as easy as talking to passengers about why the plane is still on the tarmac 20 minutes after it was set to take off. “We came up with this wonderful little catch-phrase we use all the time around here, Barger says: ‘the radical application of common sense.’ ”
As their brainstorming progressed, the founders realized that the solutions they were coming up with fit naturally into five categories, which, if they only had words or labels put on them, could serve as guiding principles. The five words—safety, caring, integrity, fun and passion—became JetBlue’s signature corporate values. “The story we would tell is not so much that the words themselves meant so much, but all of these challenges, solutions and energies that went with them are represented by these five words,” Barger emphasizes.
On the first day of orientation, new hires, or new crewmembers (all staff at JetBlue, no matter the position—executive, flight attendant or pilot—are known as “crew”) are told about the company’s commitment to these values, Barger points out. “We tell them it’s not the five words that are important, it’s all of those opportunities, solutions and differentiators that make this a special place,” he says. The company prides itself on finding employees who fit that culture.
During the interview process, potential new hires are asked to describe experiences from their own lives that illustrate the values JetBlue was built on. It isn’t unusual for companies to talk about values, Barger notes, but JetBlue is a standout because of the specificity of its guiding principles. “A key to our cultural success is that we not only defined the kind of culture we want to have, but we created, and now utilize, a mechanism that allows us to identify people who fit that culture,” he says. “Everybody and their brother says, ‘We hire for attitude,’ and that’s all nice, but I haven’t seen too many companies that spell that out particularly well, and that’s what I think we’ve done pretty well.”
On the way up
As bedrock as JetBlue’s five cornerstone principles are, a few years into its corporate life, the company realized those principles needed to be spelled out a little more clearly. “We spent our first three years or so using these five values as the guiding principles that we [use to] conduct business day-by-day, and what we realized after a couple of years was that those were great values for front-line decision making, but they weren’t enough to allow our leaders, from our front-line leaders to our senior leaders, to lead the company,” Barger says. To fill that void, the company went a step further and created its Five Principles of Leadership (POL): Inspire greatness in others, treat your people right, do the right thing, communicate with your team and encourage initiative and innovation. Says Barger: “Now we have a set of leadership principles that support the way we execute the five values.”
Whittling down larger goals into compact, powerful statements has been a key strategy for the company, that, whatever it did, wanted to avoid presenting employees with a compendium of meaningless do’s and don’ts and vague concepts. “We really were opposed to a 1,000-page ‘Thou shalt not’ manual; what we’d really prefer is to have five, very simple values that [we can say of], ‘Hey, make your decisions based on the values, and if they are in line with the values, we’re going to support them,’ ” he says. The POL provides the added structure Barger says was needed to help company leaders apply the values in their day-to-day work.
It was the results of the company’s annual employee survey, The Speak Up Survey, that first alerted JetBlue that its leaders could use a little something extra for guidance, says Deborah McCuiston of the company’s learning and development team. “The first year we did it, the results came back just overwhelmingly positive, people really enjoyed their jobs, felt that everything was going well. The second year we put out the survey, probably the biggest thing that [we found out] we needed to focus on was leadership training for all leaders in the organization,” McCuiston says, “specifically honed in at supervisors and managers.”
Following the development of the POL values, the company created a three-day leadership development series called POL Foundations. The first day is facilitated by chairman and CEO David Neeleman along with the company’s other senior executives. “The whole first day is devoted to culture, to introduce the POL to supervisors and above, and talk about what it means to be a leader at JetBlue,” says McCuiston, adding that days two and three address what she calls, “people basics,” such as drug awareness, knowledge of sexual harassment laws and communications skills.
The series’ second program, POL in Action, occurs six months after leaders complete POL Foundations; it consists of a three-day course in which students get a [Dr. Daniel] Denison Leadership 360 feedback session and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator Personality Assessment test. “They spend the whole three days learning how to give and receive feedback and coaching,” McCuiston says.
The program’s first day emphasizes individual leadership awareness. “They find out how effective they are as a leader, individually,” she explains. On the second day, small break-out sessions help participants practice what they’ve learned.
Finally, on the third day, students spend two hours with a feedback coach who helps them “tie the ribbon around the package on what all the data means, and helps them formulate an action plan, so when they go back into their work environment they have an action plan to become a more effective leader,” McCuiston says.
The third aspect of POL is known as POL Follow-On, and consists of quarterly guest speakers, such as Mark Lipton, author of “Guiding Growth: How Vision Keeps Companies on Course” and Daniel Denison, professor of management and organization, who pioneered the Denison Leadership Survey (including the 360 feedback system JetBlue uses).
Something for everyone
Developing the kind of leaders who will encourage the culture JetBlue aspires to means also providing learning opportunities for entry-level players in the company. This need is taken care of with Leadership for Frontline Leaders, a program focused on the “front-door leaders,” up-and-coming employees who work on the front line, or those who deal directly with passengers, whether on the phone in a customer-service capacity, in the airport terminal or inflight. “It’s like a pre-POL program,” McCuiston says. “What we talk about is how to influence through motivation, and how to effectively communicate.”
In addition, participants are given emotional intelligence assessments to illustrate for them how their emotions impact their workplace performance.
Nurturing these individuals is critical since they are just a step away from becoming supervisors. But, the program also has an eye on present needs, giving participants “some critical learning opportunities that will help them be as effective as they can possibly be in their current positions,” McCuiston says.
The latest dimension to the programming JetBlue hopes will continue fostering a winning culture is a new educational division simply called “Professional Development,” which is intended to eventually provide customized learning, McCuiston explains. “Right now it’s for salaried crewmembers, so supervisor and above, but ultimately, we want to offer it to all crewmembers,” she says. Possible programming created by this new division includes learning in the areas of conflict resolution and basic project management skills, and can be defined as “learning opportunities that people can pick and choose from, that aren’t mandatory,” McCuiston notes, “but can help them build up their toolkit to become a more effective leader.” It won’t be a surprise if more programs like this arise in the future. Coming up with new ways to educate and train to further its values is key to JetBlue’s success, Barger says.
“We certainly have not grown flawlessly, and we’re learning a lot as we grow,” he stresses. “Growing faster than any airline has ever grown has certainly had its share of challenges, but we’re very excited about where we are, and where we’re going, and we spend a lot of energy on what I like to call being a little bit better tomorrow than we are today, and we kind of accept that philosophy.”
Have an opinion you'd like to share with Training readers? E-mail your letter to firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Letter to the Editor" in the subject line.