Family Culture

June 7, 2021

I was on the Delta employee website recently, listing myself to take a flight. It was my first flight since Covid, and yes, as a retiree, I still get to fly free! I came across an article entitled "How culture and creativity saved thousands of Delta jobs." In short, CEO Ed Bastian shared in a memo to all employees that Delta had effectively planned and managed staffing to avoid layoffs. "Avoiding involuntary furloughs in this unprecedented environment is entirely due to the innovation, hard work, and shared sacrifice of our people," Bastian said. In the words of that great baseball philosopher, Yogi Berra, I couldn't help but feel "Déjà vu all over again."

The Delta Family

When I got hired by Delta in 1980, I recall being welcomed to 'the family' by many current employees. I appreciated the welcome but didn't give it much thought until the end of my first year with the company when Business Week magazine came out with a cover story entitled: Delta; The World's Most Profitable Airline. From the article, "Delta's secret is simple. It combines good planning…with a massive effort to motivate employees. The foremost of Delta's tenants is that employees are to be treated like members of a family. Delta has not laid off or even furloughed a single full-time employee for economic reasons in 25 years."

The part about no furloughs was particularly comforting in an industry known for rampant layoffs, but the family culture focus caused me to reflect on my interview process. I recalled being asked by the Director of Pilot Hiring, conversationally, about my family and our relationship. During the psychological phase, both the written test and the interview with Dr. Sidney Janus, the company's psychologist, focused heavily on questions concerning family interactions. The questions didn't seem unusual but reading the Business Week article gave me new insight.

The Spirit of Delta

The following year, the economy crashed, and Delta suffered substantial financial losses. True to its culture, the company didn't institute involuntary layoffs, and the employees responded. They voluntarily raised $30 million in payroll deductions to purchase the first Boeing 767, named "The Spirit of Delta." The recession ended in 1982, and Delta returned to profitability. It has to date, retained its historic title as the world's most profitable airline.

Let me offer a few observations. Delta's focus on its family culture has been intentional and consistent during good times and bad, and the long-term results speak for themselves. Additionally, the company has structured its human resource processes to attract and hire employees who fit within the culture Delta wants to maintain. From a broader perspective, Delta is implementing the P4 components laid out in my book, The Flight to Excellence, Soaring to New Heights In Business and Life.

The P4 System

To review, the four Ps are:

Principles: Delta's stated Values are Honesty, Integrity, Respect, Perseverance, Servant Leadership.

People:  Delta is hiring the right people, has maintained the 'family culture' for decades, and is taking care of them even when times are tough.

Flight Plan: The company continues meticulous planning, one of the 'secrets' noted in the Business Week article referenced above.

Performance: Delta consistently executes and is the world's most awarded airline. No. 1 in customer satisfaction among airlines in the J.D. Power 2021 North America Airline Satisfaction Study. Fortune's Top 50 Most Admired Company and the most admired airline for the tenth time in eleven years. No. 1 in the Business Travel News Annual Airline survey for 10 consecutive years. Named one of Fast Company's Most Innovative Companies Worldwide for the third time in four years.

Delta distinctly demonstrates the power of the P4 system in building an authentic and enduring culture of excellence.


A Quote To Consider!

I really believe that the single hardest thing in business is building a company that does repeatable innovation ... and just has this ongoing culture of excellence as it grows. 

- Sam Altman, author