Should a CEO be a nerd about his company’s products?


Speaking of Ben Schlappig at One Mile at a Time, he had a post last week that I thought about a lot. The essential:

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom appeared in court yesterday in the current Justice Department case. During interrogation, the subject of JetBlue Mint was brought up, which is JetBlue’s business class product. Isom claimed that he had never flown on JetBlue Mint and did not know if JetBlue Mint was flat. He then clarified that he understands Mint is JetBlue’s domestic first class, but “can’t speak to all the amenities they include.”

Here’s the part I thought of:

I’ve had the opportunity to interact with a number of senior airline executives over the years, and I find that their knowledge of competitors is generally one extreme or the other:

  • Some airline executives literally couldn’t tell you the first thing about their competition and have zero knowledge of their passenger experience, fleet, etc.
  • Some airline executives know literally everything about their competitors, right down to being able to tell you how many seats competitors have on specific planes.

I find that there are very few frames that fall right in the middle, because it’s quite polarizing. Either they know practically everything about the competitors, or almost nothing. Without naming names, I will say that, in general, there is a strong correlation between airlines that provide an excellent passenger experience and airlines whose executives are watching the competition very closely.

If you ask me, every CEO of a US airline with a premium product should have to fly JetBlue Mint, to see how great the seats, service, Wi-Fi, entertainment, food and Drinks can be quality on a domestic flight.

As someone who flies business class on American a few times a year, I’m zero percent surprised that Isom doesn’t know or care about the flight experience of American competitors.

The sentiment Schlappig expressed above is not airline specific. I think it goes back to the classic idea of ​​a “businessman”. That an executive can simply have the gift of “business”. That an MBA trains a future leader to lead any type of business. These are probably the kind of executives who run most companies in most industries. But I don’t think that’s how excellent businesses are run. Great companies, in any industry, seem to be run by executives who live and breathe whatever their companies do, and they stay up at night and wake up in the morning thinking about how to run their industries when it comes to quality.

If the CEO’s primary view of the company is through spreadsheets – if it’s just P&L for them – that company isn’t going to excel at quality. Or if they excel in quality, they won’t be doing it for long.

Tuesday, October 11, 2022


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