Delta C.E.O. Ed Bastian: “Leadership Is Not a Popularity Contest”

Here is a brief excerpt from David Gelles’ interview of Delta C.E.O. Ed Bastian who helped steer the airline through 9/11 and a bankruptcy. Then he had to tangle with the National Rifle Association.

To read the complete interview, check out others, and obtain information about deep-discount subscription rates, please click here.

Credit: Erik Tanner for The New York Times

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In the days after the shooting last year in Parkland, Fla., students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School used social media to protest companies that had partnerships with the National Rifle Association. Among them was Delta, which offered a small and little-used discount to N.R.A. members.

Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, quickly decided to scrap the partnership. In retaliation, local politicians, egged on by the N.R.A., decided to end a tax break that would have saved Delta $40 million. Mr. Bastian was unbowed, writing in a statement that “our values are not for sale.”

Mr. Bastian worked in accounting and big food before joining Delta, and he speaks about his employees with uncommon reverence. He backs up that sentiment by sharing a large portion of annual profits with employees. Last week, Delta paid out $1.3 billion in bonuses to front-line workers.

What was your childhood like?

I grew up in a large family. I’m the oldest of nine kids. My father was a dentist and he had his practice in our house. My mom worked in my father’s practice as a hygienist or assistant. My grandmother lived with us. And it wasn’t that big of a house. You had to learn the dynamics of teamwork at a young age. But as soon as I graduated high school, I was like, “I’m not going back.”

What was your first job?

It was on a summer work crew for the county highway department — just cleaning roads, picking up trash and paving roads. The next three summers after that, I worked at a rock quarry where they made cement. It was hot, it was nasty, but it gave me the incentive to say, “I’m never going to do this for a living.”

After you graduated from college you joined PricewaterhouseCoopers. I’ve noticed that a lot of C.E.O.s start their careers as accountants. Why do you think that is?

At the time, I was an accountant because I was pretty good at math and analytical skills, and I could get a job. But looking back on it, accounting teaches you the language of business. As an accountant you have different clients. I had an advertising agency and a bunch of different industries. The chance to kind of work inside the company, to see their books, gave me a lot of confidence at a very young age.

I read somewhere that you discovered some fraud while there.

My first year I was assigned to a large advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson. I stumbled upon a relatively small part of the business, and I just had questions I couldn’t answer. In years past, the accountants in that area couldn’t really understand it either, but they just moved along. But I didn’t let it go, and it just kind of kept bugging me.

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.

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Here is a direct link to the complete interview.

David Gelles writes the Corner Office column and other features for The New York Times’s Sunday Business section, To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

To learn more about him and his work, please click here.

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