Get Your Company Culture Right—and Go from Surviving to Thriving
One of the most remarkable business comebacks of the last 20 years is Delta Airlines. This is a company that began as a fleet of crop-dusting airplanes in 1924 and grew into one of the nation’s largest airlines … there’s an impressively long Delta history. In recent decades, however, the company struggled. It became known for short-term thinking and poor decision making. Most telling was how Delta failed to value the employee experience. Eventually, in 2005, Delta filed for reorganization under chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code—one of many airlines to do so. It emerged from bankruptcy two years later and made the decision to learn from its mistakes. The company chose to be different—to build a new future and a new company culture. How did they do it?
One of the biggest lessons Delta learned is this: the behaviors that enabled it to survive difficult times were not the behaviors needed to grow and win. Let me explain.
As expressed in an article by Glenn Llopis, during times of uncertainty and instability, it’s not unusual for companies to lose their focus. They start doing for the sake of doing. Activities become tactical with little, if any, strategic value. A once thriving culture transforms into one that’s fast-paced, with short-term thinking and a daily grind of tension. Understandably, this takes a toll on the company’s greatest assets: its people. Employee relationships tend to weaken, trust in leadership diminishes, a reactionary mindset becomes the norm, and a culture of competition versus partnership emerges. It becomes a dog-eat-dog world, without financial rewards or long-term payoffs.
Like so many companies that enjoyed successful comebacks over the last 20 years, Delta did a lot of soul searching. They determined the type of company they wanted to be and built the company culture needed to deliver it. Suddenly, the Delta leadership team became the No. 1 fan of its once forgotten employee base. And you know what? The leadership team earned back the trust and respect of their employees. Simply put, Delta transformed into a growth company.
Characteristics of a Growth Company
A Google search will reveal a broad list of traits attributed to winning companies. Here’s how I see it.
In a growth company, reactionary thinking is replaced by proactive attitudes. Everyone is expected to lead with compassion and respect. The company invests in the employee experience, treating employees just as they want their customers treated. They innovate strategically. They identify what sets them apart from their competitors and then invest heavily in those areas. They develop a passion for winning. Applied wisdom (mentoring, sharing of best practices, collaborative work groups) takes shape … because everyone has something to teach and something to learn. Communication is contagious, transparency is in overdrive, and every employee—regardless of role—understands, embraces and believes in the corporate strategy. This is what a company that plays to win looks like.
From Surviving to Thriving
There are many factors that can cause a company to lose its focus: holding on to old ways of doing things, market disruptions, bad business decisions, lack of a clear vision. But with a renewed commitment from leaders and employees, companies can regain their standing in the market and transform from a surviving to a thriving company. As Delta Chief Executive Officer Richard H. Anderson wrote, “We have a saying at the company: ‘We hunt in a pack.’ From the C-suite down, we approach every challenge and opportunity as a group in which each member feels valued, and that ability to work together gives us the freedom and clarity of thought to do business in a different way. This culture—the Delta culture—has allowed us to bring innovation back to an industry that was once known for it.”
This is what a growth company looks like and everyone in the “pack” is responsible for creating and driving it. What a great sentiment too: to work together with a common vision and a common purpose, knowing you have a team around you that has your back every step of the way. We can learn so much from Delta’s transformation. And the best part is—it’s never too late to make a comeback.