Delta C.E.O. Ed Bastian: ‘Leadership Is Not a Popularity Contest’

Delta C.E.O. Ed Bastian: ‘Leadership Is Not a Popularity Contest’

It was a business unit called syndication, where they would produce commercials, and in return take airtime as a barter arrangement. I had this sense that they weren’t realizing actual value in return, and it turned out that the revenues they were booking were totally fictitious. It was just kind of a bookkeeping exercise, and it turned out it was a fraud of $50 million.

Soon after that, you wound up managing a team. Was that difficult so early in your career?

When you’re young, you want to be friends with people. But leadership is not a popularity contest. It’s about making some tough decisions, trying to give counsel and trying to make the best decisions for your team.

What were you looking for when you went on to work for Frito-Lay?

As an accountant, you’re not making the decision — you’re not bringing business ideas and being accountable for the results. I wanted to own the result. I worked at Frito-Lay International, which was a conglomeration of all these snack companies around the world. Each had its own snacks, its own flavors and brands, and Frito was on an acquisition binge. We would acquire brands in the U.K. or in the Netherlands or in China or in Russia. We would get on the Frito-Lay plane on a Monday and visit three, four, five countries around the world, get back Friday evening in Dallas for the weekend, and the next Monday we’d hit another set of countries. I was on the road 90 percent of the time.

Did you have a family then?

I did. It was hard. That marriage wound up breaking up shortly after that period. It was difficult. But from a business standpoint, it was incredible.

How did you wind up at Delta?

A friend called me and said Delta had an opening as a corporate controller. I said, “I feel like I live on an airplane, so why not?” Then I got inside, and realized it’s a hell of a lot more complicated than you can appreciate.

And the airline industry had some dramatic highs and lows back then.

Yeah. 9/11 happened and changed all of our worlds. I was in Atlanta and watched the second plane hit on TV. Being in the airline business, your first thought is the safety of your crew and your team. There was immediately a worldwide ground stop on air travel, and we had to put all our planes down immediately.

In Atlanta, it was eerie. Our offices are right across from the airfield, and there was just the sound of silence for several days. It was like a pall that sat over the airport, the office, everything. We saw international business drop to almost nothing overnight. We had to let 15,000 people go in two weeks because we didn’t have any cash coming in. It took us 10 years as a company to recover from that.

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