{IndustryName} > Read > Manage People at the Speed of Change

Manage People at the Speed of Change

How to Empower Employees, Lead By Example and Bury Your Competition

Chief Optimist Exclusive

Friday, September 20, 2013

Ann Rhoades and four other people sat around a nondescript table in a blank, white room, eyes fixed on now-legendary airline entrepreneur David Neeleman. The plan, he explained, was to start a brand-new airline from scratch with the goal of disrupting one of the biggest and most airtight industries in the Western world. It was 1998, three-quarters of a century after the airline industry took off. Manage People article 3The six executives, each with a different role to play, sat pondering the weight of the risk they were about to take together. How do you topple giants and corner the American air travel market? How do you make a change that big?

The new company was JetBlue Airways. Today it’s the only airline to receive the J.D. Power and Associates award for Highest Customer Satisfaction Among Low Cost Carriers nine years in a row.

“We said we wanted to be totally different from other airlines and we wanted to exceed expectations of employees and customers by design. This is who we’re going to be when we grow up,” remembers Rhoades. “The plan from the outset was to bring humanity back to air travel. We made that known internally and externally.”

Her role as chief people officer was to make sure JetBlue had the right culture and the right personnel to revolutionize an industry. How do you build that?

According to her, you focus on building a workforce that knows where it’s rooted so it can grow in any direction without losing its sense of identity. You build a dynamic culture so you can build a dynamic business.

A Passion for Predetermination and People
Even before becoming part of the founding team at JetBlue, Rhoades had a long history of building businesses with adaptable cultures. She served as the vice president of people for Southwest Airlines from 1989 to 1995 and, after that, as executive vice president of team services and public relations for Promus Hotel Corporation which includes DoubleTree and Embassy Suites. Today, she heads a consultancy called People Ink, which helps companies build lasting internal identities so they can create authentic, differentiated external ones.

Her philosophy has always been that every company has a culture, but only the great companies build “intentional cultures.” The rest just think of culture as the company picnic or holiday party.

“You have to start by defining what you want to be. When I work with a company, the first thing I do is get all the A-players into the same room and we decide what we stand for. That never takes more than a day and a half to vet and put in writing. That’s the foundation,” she says.

In Rhoades’ eyes, the best way to defend your culture and your business is to be really clear about what you stand for. That way, no matter what’s happening outside in the market, every employee at every level always knows how the company fits in. But that’s not all.

“Once you know who you are, you need to institutionalize it,” says Rhoades. “It takes two things. First is accountability. Every employee needs to embody the organization’s values in every situation. That’s how you exceed expectations the way Southwest or JetBlue do. The second thing is a system of rewards and recognition, so that you’re supporting the daily behavior implied by your values.”

Rhoades says the ability to adapt to change without letting your customer experience erode comes from a dedication to the behaviors essential to your brand. She believes you can only inject those behaviors into your culture by dedicating your business to a set of core values.

“Ultimately, the combination of behaviors equals the culture. At JetBlue, we made the case that great cultures are the ones that have great [customer] performance because we really believed that you are on the outside what you are on the inside,” she explains. “So if you can create these great cultures, both the internal and external customers will perceive that and be excited about it, and you’ll have better performance.”Manage People article 2

It Starts on the Inside and at the Top
If the ability to adapt to change ladders up to core values, then you can bet that accountability for upholding those values has to start in the C suite.

“I really believe that leaders drive the culture in a values-based model because values are all about behaviors. You can put words on the wall but what people watch inside a company is how the leaders behave,” she says.

According to Rhoades, JetBlue is so dedicated to the idea of executives embodying the company’s values that the compensation committee and the values committee each review the CEO’s efforts to embody the values annually. The CEO is held accountable just like everyone else.

“If you can define the behaviors you want starting at the top and all the way through the organization, you create this environment that exceeds expectations by having everyone behave the same way,” she says.

When a big change hits an organization, people know. Customers know. Employees know. And people talk about what it will mean for the business. But the whispering is quickly dispelled when people experience the same level of quality they’ve come to expect from the organization after the change has happened.

For JetBlue, Southwest, Zappos and the dozens of other companies Rhoades has worked with, this consistent delivery of what’s expected, even in the face of change, all starts on the inside. Employees—or as Rhoades calls them, “internal customers”—need to feel the same sort of consistency from their organization.

Change: the Only Guarantee in Business Today
When the founding executive team at JetBlue walked out of the room that day, back in 1998, they hadn’t decided much. In fact, they changed their name twice before finally landing on JetBlue. But that didn’t matter. One of the few things they did decide was that they were going to change air travel forever. They were going to fly in the face of the status quo by changing to meet shifting customer demands.

They knew they needed to be adaptable. To do that, they needed to have a backbone and to stand up for what their business valued.

How did JetBlue become the great, resilient company it is today?

“It happened because there are 14,000 employees who understand that they’re all part of an organization that is constant,” she says. “That makes JetBlue dynamic. We are constantly changing, but never for the sake of change. We are always changing to keep improving.

“And our internal customers are involved in ensuring that success at every level. They’re on committees, right down to the line players. They’re active participants in driving the future of air travel.”

Changes big and small, good and bad, are impacting every business, all the time. To Rhoades, change management isn’t just something that happens when there’s bad news to deliver. It’s endemic to an organization’s internal workings, its policies, procedures and expectations. Adaptability isn’t a shirt you can pull over your head and wear when change is in the air. It’s something you have to be willing to dedicate time, money and effort to building.


How to Implement a Big Change Now
Of course, building adaptability into your organization’s culture is a critical strategy to help you next year or next week. Here are five steps for tackling a big change on short notice, taken straight from Ann Rhoades’ personal playbook.

Step 1: Build and Internal Communication Team
To deliver a message that brings everyone together, start by bringing key employees together to talk about what it means.

“Of course, you need the senior leadership, but you also need the other internal leaders from every level,” says Rhoades. “Get every A-player in the room. Your managers know who they are.”

These A-players will feel empowered by their firsthand knowledge, and they’ll spread the message in a natural way.

Step 2: Make Communication Two-Way
Tackling a big change as a leader is not about having all the answers, it’s about being open to hearing them. Make sure your employees know you’re open to listening.

“In organizations where they encourage you to tell the truth and where, in fact, you could lose your job for not telling the truth rather than telling the truth even when it’s bad news—that is the values-based organization I want to work in,” she says.

Step 3: Establish an Internal Communication Plan
One place to be confident at the outset is in your plan to deliver updates about how the change is being defined and implemented. Promise to keep talking and deliver on it.

“The more you inform your employees, good and bad, along the way, the more they feel empowered to make it happen. It’s when people don’t know that they can’t help you,” says Rhoades.

Step 4: Underpromise and Overdeliver
When it’s time to communicate the change out to customers, make sure everyone in your organization is prepared to be on the front lines. Go out with a promise you know you can beat.

Says Rhoades: “Rather than placating the customer when we announced a change by telling them what they wanted to hear, at Southwest we used to say, let’s exceed expectations by telling them the maximum amount of time it could take.”

Step 5: Reward Employees for Making You Successful
Yes, it’s part of their job, but you can really build a culture of doing the right thing by rewarding folks who do it.

“In the long term, you want people who are willing to stand up even when they have to tell you things you don’t want to hear. During a big change, you will know who those people are,” she says. “Ask for their input along the way. Reward them for making you successful.”

Ann Rhoades, founder and person responsible for extraordinary service (PRES) at People Ink (PeopleInk.com), is an experienced change management and human resource expert. She is known for creating corporate cultures based on values, customer service excellence and employee engagement. Prior to founding People Ink, Ann served as the chief people officer of Southwest Airlines, Promus Hotel Corporation (Doubletree Hotel, Homewood Suites, Embassy Suites and Hampton Inn brands) and JetBlue Airways. She remains on the board of JetBlue today.

Want to learn more from Ann Rhoades about building a dynamic corporate culture? Purchase her book Built on Values, available on Amazon.com.


Les Brock
Les Brock
Friday, February 21, 2014
“I really believe that leaders drive the culture in a values-based model because values are all about behaviors. You can put words on the wall but what people watch inside a company is how the leaders behave".

This hits it on the spot, as leaders we can drive the change culture in our organization or we can sit back and watch the change happen.  I have this ambition to be a leader that can help drive and model the change.  Great article!

Share this comment >

  • share comment on linkedin
  • share comment on twitter
  • share comment on facebook

Add a Comment

Share a comment...