The world is changing at an unimaginable pace, and leaders have to remain nimble while meeting expectations from a number of stakeholders. Many leaders are saying trust has become a currency that needs to be measured, valued and maintained.
Tim Ryan, PwC’s US Chair and Senior Partner, sat down with Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, to discuss how trust is more important than ever, and how trust in our people and our work can help us get to new solutions together.
Tim Ryan is PwC's US Chair and Senior Partner. A forward-thinking leader committed to driving human-led, tech-powered outcomes to build trust in society and solve important problems, Tim has a proven record advancing strategy, growth, innovation, and upskilling. He reimagined PwC leading a complete digital transformation and launching a bold new strategy – The New Equation – to get ahead of the rapid pace of change bringing the best people, capabilities and technology together to support clients in building trust and delivering sustained outcomes. Equity is foundational to Tim’s trust-based leadership – he is also the founder of CEO Action for Diversity & Inclusion.
Ed Bastian is the Chief Executive Officer of Delta Air Lines. As CEO of Delta Air Lines, Ed Bastian leads a team of 90,000 global professionals that is building the world’s premier international airline, powered by a people-driven, customer-focused culture and spirit of innovation.
Under Ed’s leadership, Delta is transforming the air travel experience with generational investments in technology, aircraft, airport facilities and, most importantly, Delta’s employees worldwide. A 24-year Delta veteran, Ed has been a critical leader in Delta’s long-term strategy and champion of putting Delta’s shared values of honesty, integrity, respect, perseverance and servant leadership at the core of every decision.
Find episode transcript below.
00:00:00:24 Welcome to PwC Pulse, a podcast to provide insights to help you solve today's business challenges.
00:00:09:22 Hi, I'm Tim Ryan, PwC US Chair and senior partner and I'll be your host for today's conversation on PwC Pulse. I recently spoke with Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Air Lines, about a topic we're all thinking about - trust.
00:00:24:04 The world is changing at an unimaginable pace and leaders have to remain nimble while meeting expectations from a number of stakeholders. Many leaders are saying that trust has become a currency that needs to be measured, valued and maintained.
00:00:38:02 Let’s go ahead and jump into that discussion.
00:00:40:37 One of the things that we see happening is the world is changing very fast. Stakeholders have expectations, businesses evolving, the public’s sentiment is evolving and trust is becoming more and more important every day. In fact, many would say it's becoming an important currency for businesses.
00:00:55:29 And they talk about measuring it, valuing it and maintaining it. We're going to talk a little bit deeper about trust. Ed, trust is something you know a lot about. Many would say, you can't have a conversation these days. You can't read a study these days without trust being one of the biggest assets a company has. Why is that?
00:01:12:86 Trust is the currency around which business foundations and the fabric of business occurs. And by the way, it's not just business, its community. It's global, it's personal, and it’s relational.
00:01:25:84 You think about what we do is our business here, is that we put people on our planes and we take them in the sky and trust in the quality and the safety and the delivery of that service is foundational.
00:01:39:15 I mean, that's job one. But trust goes much further beyond that, because trust also means when something happens, whether there's a cancellation or there's a baggage issue or whatnot, who the customer is going to put trust in to take care of them.
00:01:52:84 Ed one of the things you like to talk a lot about is the virtuous circle. Could you share with the group what is the virtuous circle and why is this so important to you?
00:02:00:37 If you take good care of your people, your people will indeed take good care of your customers who will reward you with their loyalty and their repeat business will allow you to invest in growth so that you can take better care of your employees and you keep that circle moving.
00:02:16:23 In PwC, we have a very similar philosophy. The philosophy is if our people are happy, well taken care of, it leads to great outcomes for our clients. And if our clients are happy, then our business does well and we create more repeat business.
00:02:28:00 And it's a huge focus for us. And one of the big steps that we've taken recently, given where talent is going, what's important is we call it My+ and it is about choice, creating an environment where our people could create their work experience, which gives them the ability to work the way they want to work and way beyond physical and virtual, but the types of assignments and the choice.
00:02:49:01 When you look at Delta, how do you create a happy environment for your people where they begin that virtuous circle and they go like, what are some of the things you're focused on?
00:02:57:18 I think all companies are approaching that issue and the return to office is there are probably 100 different models out there that people are thinking through and I think we're still learning about. For us, we hire people largely based on their ability to serve.
00:03:12:16 Yes, highly technical skills, and those are the basics. You have to have the skills to get in the door whether you're a pilot; you're a flight attendant, you are a mechanic. But there needs to be a heart of service that sits underneath that.
00:03:25:02 And the more our people are able to serve our customers and each other, that's what really they find joy in. They find joy in making a difference.
00:03:32:54 So you hit on two things. Our businesses are very similar. You fly planes, but you have a lot of services in your business. And we're obviously a professional services firm. And you talked about things happen, you talked about bags and we don't bet a thousand every day.
00:03:46:01 Trust isn’t about perfection. Trust is how do you deal with things that don't go well in our business similarly like, how do you think about that?
00:03:54:00 On a beautiful day in Atlanta when it's sunny, it's hard to distinguish and differentiate your service. But the reason why Delta is consistently voted the number one airline in our not just our country, but on a global basis is the fact that people know when things are difficult.
00:04:10:08 That's the airline that they want to be on because they know whether it's weather delays, ATC delays, changing schedules, there's always something happening in the course of our network and there is a premium, by the way, that customers pay us for.
00:04:25:44 And so if customers and there are some customers who price is the only distinguishing factor that they want and they probably shouldn't choose Delta because we're not the cheapest, but we are the best and there's value that they extract from that.
00:04:38:34 What I take from that again, knowing you and Delta, that doesn't happen by accident. You've done what we advise many of our clients to do, which is think about what success looks like, develop a framework, train it, measure it where there's room for improvement, then go seek that out.
00:04:52:49 And what we advise our clients is as you look to build trust, those are the types of things that you really need to be thinking about to be distinguished.
00:04:58:00 No, absolutely and another thing is visibility and leadership and being out in front with your employees. And so when I say that my job is to take care of our people, I mean, physically, my job is to take care of our people, to be with our people, to be present, and for people to get to know me and get to know my vulnerabilities and my persona and that I'm behind them and over time, there becomes this.
00:05:23:36 It's no longer a management frontline issue. People know who we are and that we are all one team. So I think so much of leadership today and that build trust has been threatened by COVID and the pandemic because people have had to go to their homes, they've had to dislocate and the disconnection has created such angst and energy loss and momentum loss and despair in some places.
00:05:47:47 Yeah, so that I want to put you in the spot a bit, I remember back in October of 2020, you and I were talking and at the time a lot was shut down and you kept building in New York.
00:06:02:05 You were investing in cleanliness and you arranged for me and one of my partners to have a tour of LaGuardia to show us the safety steps Delta was taking leading edge to show us the commitment to build because you saw a future that would end.
00:06:17:06 That wasn't easy at the time. It seems obvious now because things are booming again. Can you just tell us what was it like to make that decision, how does that go back to trust?
00:06:25:08 Well, if you think about all of the challenges that we face in COVID, our business, but your business as well. One of the things people were looking for as we gone through this period is who can I trust, the CDC, can I trust the CDC?
00:06:38:05 Can I trust our political leaders? Can I trust our corporate leaders? Who do I look to for confidence that it's not even that everything's going to be okay? This is just what's happening right now.
00:06:49:02 So the best way we could do it is bring people like yourself and show you what we're doing and restill the confidence in travel. And thank you. And I remember that day that you went out there and spent a day with our team at LaGuardia, which you have to do again, because we have a brand new LaGuardia facility that which would be an even more fun experience to go through.
00:07:08:17 But again, it comes back to trust and with everything that we've been through, that difficult time, the vulnerabilities, the lack of confidence.
00:07:16:00 How have you evolved as a leader when you think about transparency as a mechanism to build trust?
00:07:22:20 Well, transparency was a key, one of the things that we launched during the pandemic because we couldn't all be together on large zone, which is what my preferences, as our internal Sky Hub, which was our intranet, where we could talk video wise to all of our people.
00:07:38:04 And on a weekly basis, I'd get on and I would just let people know where we were and it was a week by week plowing through a very dark, very difficult, lonely time. But so many of our people that could see me, they could see I was okay.
00:07:54:08 They could see the pain physically, and then my voice and some of the emotions attached to it as well as the optimism. But we were able to expose our biggest vulnerabilities and the risks in a way we never had before.
00:08:10:00 And so when I asked our people what they could do, and one of the big things we asked them to do was to take large amounts of time off from the company without pay. We had half of our entire company in 2020 take voluntary the entire year off without pay.
00:08:26:11 And you can imagine how much that saved us because people weren't flying, but we didn't want to lay them off and we did not lay off a single employee through the entire COVID crisis because of that. But that's because they had trust and that's because they knew that this was a person I could count on.
00:08:40:07 And that job will be there for me when I get back. And that to me, was the ultimate form of trust. And so it was transparency in terms of exposure of the risk, but it was also honesty.
00:08:53:01 Then your business is all about transparency and honesty. And now tell me about yourself Tim, in terms of how you've dealt with that with your team?
00:09:00:00 I think one of the things we advise our clients on a regular basis is transparency doesn't really come into play when you're right and things are perfect. Transparency is frankly more important when you don't know the answer, when you made a mistake.
00:09:11:05 And one of the things that we do in our business is very similar to yours. When we don't know the answer, we tell our people, when we know the answer we tell our clients. But then we say, here's how we can figure it out. Here's the path forward. Our economic times are still challenging.
00:09:24:08 The world is still challenged. Our people often ask me what do I think the future holds and I'm honest, I don't know. But here's what I do know. What I do know is we're focused on taking care of you. What I do know is we're focused taking our clients.
00:09:36:04 What I do know is we're going to keep investing before we tell our people the path. We're candid about the risks, and we do the same with our clients as we co-invest. And I think that's really important. As I think of my journey as a leader, it's become clearer and clearer.
00:09:49:04 The way you earn trust is you let people know your vulnerability.
00:09:52:14 And a personal brand that you create alongside that. And while it sounds sensible, it sounds easy. It's really hard to do. If we didn't get to the jobs we're in by not having answers, we got to the jobs we're in because we had answers, we had ideas, and we had followership.
00:10:10:07 And this was the one time in large measure that we all had to say, we just don't know. But we'll tell you what we do know and we'll keep you posted on where you go. And that, more than anything, enabled us to have the buy in from our team.
00:10:23:01 And by the way, it wasn't just our people, it was our customers. It was our community. It was our government, because so many people were coming to us looking for what are you guys saying because we're flying all around the world. So we're seeing all parts of the world and we're interacting. We never stopped going through that period.
00:10:37:15 Yeah, it’s incredible. Do you mind if I switch gears a topic people like you, myself and many, many of people in the audience are dealing with now is ESG. You mentioned earlier the number of stakeholders we all have. We have governments and clients, we have investors, and we have our people.
00:10:53:05 And there's a lot of pressure on leaders on the topic of ESG and in many cases, ESG is related to trust. How do you think about ESG and manage all the different stakeholders who will guide you?
00:11:05:10 Yeah, well ESG is an interesting discussion because there's nothing about the E and the S and the G that candidly kind of relates to each other. They've kind of been put together as an acronym, and I think that's what we're all struggling with about too, is because the world is so different. On the environmental side, sustainability, that's our existential challenge as an industry.
00:11:24:02 We don't have a substitute for propulsion of our aircraft other than jet fuel or fossil fuel. And 98% of our footprint is exactly that.
00:11:35:05 And so we're working and working hard with the administration, working hard with our energy partners and others, our OEMs, our engine manufacturers to try to create new forms of propulsion and eventually we will find it.
00:11:49:01 And certainly the short term sustainable aviation fuels provide some very interesting and promising opportunities, but that's what we have to work on. And by the way, it's not just that, it's what we're doing on the ground. Our ground vehicles are moving to electrification.
00:12:00:02 We're doing many major eliminating plastic from our operations, then you kind of get to the governance side and the social side of it. You know, the role of a CEO today has never been more difficult, but also more important because of societal views of the roles that we play in the comments, you know, everything you say is parsed.
00:12:20:07 And, you know, 50% of the people love you and 50% of the people probably don't care for you. And by the way, it's true for everybody. It doesn't matter. You just can't have a thin skin when you get through this. But you have to stay on purpose. You have to stand about what you believe.
00:12:31:01 And you don't want to wade into political waters, but you want to be on point. I was speaking to a group recently, so younger people as group, we're talking about this and I've come to the conclusion that we all need to put our purpose out in terms of who we are as companies, our values, and our leadership, what we do, why we do, why we do.
00:12:49:12 And we've got to play offense on these topics. And when something happens or something goes wrong, I mean, occasionally you're going to have to speak, you're going to have to say something, and you’re going to have to do something. But it's got to be consistent with what you believe in. It's not just what you believe in, it's what your stated fully, so that people aren't surprised.
00:13:06:03 Yeah, I think many of the environment piece first from what we see, not only what Delta is doing but many of our clients. Reality is we don't know a lot of the answers right now. There are investments, innovation, partnerships. And I think the fact that you're talking about what you know, what you don't know, what you purpose is and where you're trying to go, that builds trust.
00:13:23:03 And it just another example where the answer doesn't have to be 12 months or 24 months away is direction of travel, honesty and candor again, which is a huge task to learn that's what we advise our clients on the environment and understand what's important to you.
00:13:35:04 Focus on it and tell your story and be open and honest about it and show forward progress. Your comment about the social side, I think is a really important one. If I go a little deeper, I know I couldn't agree more. We have to know what our values are.
00:13:50:08 Our values can't be far weathered. We have to be consistent about it. One of the hardest journeys I went on was three years ago. We went out with our first transparency report around where we were on D&I, and our goal was to be the most transparent organization in the country.
00:14:05:22 So we benchmarked everybody and we wanted to tell more, even though we knew we weren't where we needed to be. But we felt that if we're going to really be trusted, we get to tell the story when it's good and when it's not so good, and then we also like the self-imposed pressure to say, now hold us accountable.
00:14:21:16 So I think there are two good examples of you're right, you've got to have your values. You've got to know where you're going.
00:14:26:19 Yeah, And I applaud you. And I saw your report and we've done the same thing at Delta a few years ago. We went out with our numbers around DEI, and they weren't what you would want them to be. They're not horrible, but they were not great and they show clear needs for improvement.
00:14:43:09 And we followed it up each year for the last three years with how we're doing. And we're making progress on some but kind of sideways on others. But the fact that we're accountable for it, we've committed to letting our people know most importantly, but also our investors, our customers, our communities where we know.
00:15:00:00 The brand has soared in that trust factor, the confidence, you know, the numbers are easy to hide behind. The numbers also can be liberating if you bring them out and you're willing to own them.
00:15:09:10 We have done a number of studies on trust and in many organizations where the leadership believes they're trusted and where employees or customers are, there's often a gap.
00:15:19:00 The CEOs are focused on a number of things, and employees are worried more about their day to day, so if I can maybe I will pivot to employees again and maybe hit a couple of different things.
00:15:29:15 How do you close that gap because many employees define trust from their perspective or a customer to your point earlier around their experience here in the moment?
00:15:39:18 Communicate whether it's video or written form and communicate often. And so that enabled people to feel like they were being updated more regularly. But now that we're back out of COVID, I am on the road nonstop with our people.
00:15:54:08 I know we're not perfect, but when they can see the person and they can feel the passion that drives success.
00:16:01:14 So Ed it is funny. As you know, with hundreds of CEOs and boards, one of the biggest things I advise them is be out and be close to your customer and close to your people. And as I look to the future, a critical skill set of the CEO and leaders, future leaders going forward will be human capital.
00:16:18:01 I guess I think about, there's always a different time for a skill set in the C-suite, maybe sales, maybe finance, engineering as we look forward the war for talent, which is where I’d like to go next and inspiring, motivating people.
00:16:21:03 The skill set that the CEO needs for me now more than ever is appreciation for people. And we just went, but as you look at the skills going forward, how do you see the skill sets of the CEO evolving?
00:16:43:16 Technology is changing in lots of different aspects of that. Digital is such in our business, such a huge part of where we're going and trying to change from the hand to hand work that we do with customers to giving customers the opportunity to experience our product under as much control as they can, as they want again.
00:17:00:00 And as a result of that, I think we have to all recognize that the people we have around us kind of need to morph and change and kind of look differently. But I come back Tim with the notion that if you are investing in your brand, meaning putting a quality brand out there and your reputation, you're not going to have problems attracting talent.
00:17:33:01 I think that's the role of the CEO is to make sure that they are providing that overall experience that their people can then express to potential new hires.
00:17:30:00 Good for you, last question for you, I know you love to be out in one of the places you go a lot is campus and you talk to future talent. If you get the question as Ed Bastian looks into the future, are you bullish or bearish? Are you optimistic or pessimistic? How do you answer that question?
00:17:46:17 I am bullish and I'm always bullish. And the reason I'm bullish is we are coming through and we've come through the defining period, not just of our generation, maybe of multiple generations here.
00:18:00:00 And we've all learned a lot and maybe one of the things we learned about is the need to maybe slow down and focus on what's important. We've learned a lot about wellness and how we take care of ourselves, how we take care of our social needs, our emotional needs, financial needs, not just our physical needs.
00:18:17:00 Things that we never would have talked about in the past and we're putting action at Delta behind each one of those platforms in a very meaningful way, and everything I talk about is that it's not about building back is about building better.
00:18:28:20 And in our business, particularly if there's anything we learned over the last couple of years, we've rediscovered the power of human connection and the energy that you say, and I know you're traveling a lot. I'm traveling a lot.
00:18:42:01 Every single time, people are just happy to be back together and there's something in that that we all need to recognize. And yeah, there will be virtual meetings and it will be virtual means by which people communicate into the future.
00:18:55:03 But nothing replaces the spiritual connection that we make and the energy we draft from each other than just being together, and there's a joy to that. And that's we spend a lot of time at what we do. We want to have fun. We want to enjoy it.
00:19:07:01 Ed, well, I'll double down on that. I'm bullish and when I'm on campus, I get that question in front of my people. What I've seen is incredible resiliency. I've seen incredible team, incredible innovation. I look at the challenges our world has and I'm like, bring it on.
00:19:22:04 When I look at talent at Delta, the talent of PwC, what people are doing is incredible. I think we've been through arguably the hardest time and we're still standing and we're doing pretty well. We're still special.
00:19:32:02 Edd I want to thank you, thank you for making the time. As always, you're generous with it. And thank you for listening to today's episode of PwC Pulse. As we heard from Ed, trust is one of the most valuable assets for companies and leaders as they grapple with the shifting landscape of risk and challenges.
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