When Delta Airlines, one of America's historic corporations, took a
financial nosedive and went into bankruptcy in 2005, many people
wrote off the carrier. The choices were simple: Change the entire
organization or join dozens of other airlines - large and small -
that have faded into aviation history.
LX Briefing spoke with author and consultant Nathan Greeno
on how Delta leveraged its learning organization to help create a
culture of change that is clearing a path for the future and
assuring a workforce that is not only well-skilled, but also fully
engaged. Greeno is the author of Corporate Learning Strategies
(ASTD Press, 2006), which contains a chapter on the steps taken by
Delta Airlines to reengineer its workforce. He is president and CEO
of the Drawing Board Consulting Group.
LXB: What led you to tell the Delta story in your
Greeno: My connection was with Delta University
through the American Council on Education's College Credit
Recommendation Service, of which I was chairman. Ted Lehne, manager
of Delta University, also served on that ACE board. Ted was
interested in seeing how Delta benchmarked against the corporate
learning models that I was constructing.
LXB: What did Delta do to survive after 9-11?
Greeno: Delta is considered a legacy carrier, an
established airline that grew up in a travel environment where fuel
costs were low, travel agencies booked most tickets, employees were
unionized, and airlines concentrated on delivering service.
Low-cost carriers, with aggressive price structures, and low
operational costs per mile redefined the industry but Delta did not
want to cave in and become a low-frills commodity.
To stay focused on delivering service rather than becoming a
commodity, Delta had to engage employees in providing a superior
customer experience. Using lower fares to attract new customers and
great customer service to retain customers, Delta felt it could
recover from Chapter 11. Its recovery strategy focuses on four
elements: strategy and direction, employee engagement,
compensation, and training and development. Three of the four
center on human capital investment.
The belief is that if the company invests in people they will
continue to create the "Delta Experience" and maintain a level of
commitment to the organization.
LXB: You had worked with another airline. How was
Greeno: The culture at the other airline was very
caustic. I anticipated the same at Delta. When I started working on
the Delta University campus I found something quite different and
it led me to dig deeper.
I conducted interviews with people who had been told they were to
be dismissed in the next six months. In every case the people said
Delta acted with integrity and that they loved the Delta
Experience. It shocked me. They were positive about the
organization in the midst of not just the bankruptcy, but also
their own personal crisis of losing a job.
Deep in Delta's DNA are two statements: "We are only as good as our
people" and "Our people are our brand."
LXB: Are slogans indicative of Delta's focus on
Greeno: When you are dealing with an established
organization, the initiatives usually come from the organization
first and the people are responders. Delta's leadership has
positioned itself to lead by example. That makes people willing to
Under CEO Gerald Grinstein's leadership, the executive level took
the largest pay cuts in the company. (In 2004, Grinstein took only
half of his $500,000 annual salary.) That is a different kind of
cultural leadership and it's what gives life to the Delta
LXB: You wrote about the need for Delta to engage
its employees. It sounds easy, but was it?
Greeno: In employee motivation, you have three
methods of getting people to do what you want them to do. The first
is coercion: Do it because I tell you to do it. The second is
attitudinal: Apply peer pressure. What we want to get at is the
belief level: Get people engaged with both the process and the
product. It has to do with maximizing people's self-interest.
If we can help people see not only their fit in the organization
and their own career paths, but also engage them in the creation of
that fit, their motivational level goes up significantly. That is
what happened with many employees at Delta.
During the restructuring of the company, about 17 percent of
employees took an early buyout. But among the people who were
engaged in the learning strategy by taking courses at Delta U and
who saw how a combination of training and educational attainment
could help map their career paths, only 1.7 percent left.
LXB: You noted that as a result of Delta's new
approach to learning, the company can now benchmark against
business solution outcomes vs. transactional outcomes. Can you
explain that a bit further?
Greeno: Delta is benchmarking (its learning
approach) both internally and externally. They participate in the
ASTD's BEST Awards process and share data with other companies as
members of ASTD's Benchmarking Forum. Their internal focus is to
move beyond formalized training evaluations into measuring the
impact of training on performance six months and 12 months down the
road. They don't want to know if a training event was good; they
want to know if it changed behavior. That is how the organization
is using learning to maximize its own self-interest. Delta is
saying that training is an event, but that learning is a process.
They want to see the impact of this process, over time, on the
company's performance. As they see behavior change, they can say,
yes, training contributed to that behavior change and we are going
to continue to invest in it.
LXB: You noted that in 2004 Delta U had something
like 1,000 students in the process of pursuing degrees or
certifications. This seems like a huge number, even by large
corporation standards. Why is there such enthusiasm and buy-in?
Greeno: Delta is the only legacy carrier that has continued this kind of program. The high participation is a result of the efforts of the learning organization to negotiate discounted tuition with colleges and universities. And they only partner with institutions that are willing to be agile and flexible. They do a great job of broadcasting these learning opportunities to employees. It comes from the company culture: employees know that the company wants to invest in them.