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Jet Blue Founder's Advice for Leaders: Have Your Cry and Keep Going

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This week I'll be sharing some insights I picked up at the recent Inc. 500 conference in Washington, DC. Today's comes from Jet Blue's founding CEO, David Neeleman who was one of several terrific speakers at the conference.

Lots of people in the United States are familiar with Jet Blue and have experienced the energetic service, seat back TV's and Terra Blue potato chips that the airline is known for. What may not be as familiar is the story of Jet Blue's founder David Neeleman and that he is now involved in starting his fourth airline. The first was Morris Air which was a regional carrier that began as a travel agency. In his Inc. presentation, Neeleman told the story of being approached by Herb Kelleher, the legendary CEO of Southwest Airlines, and being asked if he wanted to sell his company to Southwest. Neeleman idolized Kelleher and told the audience that he would have sold Morris to Southwest for a lot less than he did to get the chance to work with Kelleher. Neeleman hit the ground running at Southwest and started pushing big changes on a number of fronts. Five months after getting there, Kelleher took Neeleman to lunch at a Ruth's Chris Steak House in Dallas and told him he was fired because he was just too impetuous. Neeleman told us he cried after that conversation.

But he kept going. After leaving Southwest, he took what he learned and helped start another airline called WestJet. A few years later, in 1999, he started Jet Blue. The company grew rapidly through the next decade and was one of the few airlines to retain profitability after 9/11. Neeleman tried to operate Jet Blue by three principles that he shared with the Inc. audience:

1. Flawless execution in everything that touches the customer.
2. Treat employees so well that they become ambassadors of the company's brand.
3. Make it right with the customer.
Principle number one was what made things so tough for JetBlue when they kept a plane load of passengers on the tarmac at JFK airport for nine hours during the Valentine's Day blizzard of 2007. While acknowledging that keeping the plane on the tarmac that long was inexcusable, he pointed out that Jet Blue was not the only airline who made that kind of mistake that day. They got most of the bad press though because they had established such a strong reputation for flawless execution. That's when principle three came into play. Under Neeleman's leadership, Jet Blue made it right with the customer through a public apology, introducing a Customer's Bill of Rights and issuing around $30 million worth of flight credits to passengers who were inconvenienced that day.

Still, that was the beginning of the end of Neeleman's days at Jet Blue. The board named a new CEO later that year and Neeleman was named chairman of the company. A year later, he had left the company completely because he missed the day to day excitement of being CEO. He told us that leaving Jet Blue for good was the second time he cried.

That has led to Neeleman's fourth act which has been to start an airline called Azul in his country of birth, Brazil. Azul began operations in December 2008 and six months later was the third largest domestic airline in Brazil. It was a lot of fun to watch how excited Neeleman was in describing what Azul is doing for Brazil and how it is changing the lives of people who have never before had the opportunity to travel by air. Since Neeleman speaks Portugese, he is able to take full advantage of the weekly flights he takes on Azul to work with crew members and talk with customers. The man is clearly very happy and passionate about what he is doing.

In addition to being impressed with his entrepreneurial spirit and his vision, I was really struck by Neeleman's resilience. He made enough money when he sold Morris Air to Southwest that he really didn't need to ever work again. That wasn't for him, however. When he got fired from Southwest and nudged out of Jet Blue, it would have been easy for him to give up. Sure, he had his cry, but he kept going. His philosophy on life, he told us, is "It's really not about what happens to you in life, it's about how you deal with it."

That strikes me as a very important philosophy for all leaders. Another is embedded in some questions Neeleman asked the audience as he closed his remarks. Does your company (or organization) matter? Would anybody miss it if it was gone? If you can crack the code on why your organization should matter to people, he said, you'll be successful.

What is it that your organization does that matters to people? What could you do to make it matter more?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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