How To... Turn Managers into Leaders
By Bridget Finn; David Neeleman

(Business 2.0) – Unless you've spent the past four years in a bunker, you're probably familiar with the JetBlue success story. By offering comforts like satellite TV and leather seats, the discount carrier soared to profitability within a year of its 2000 launch and kept growing during one of the worst air-travel slumps in history. What you probably haven't heard, though, is that JetBlue's smooth takeoff was followed by a stretch of turbulence. As a result of its rapid growth, newly promoted managers were forced to learn leadership on the job, with just the sort of bumps you'd expect. While the problems didn't affect the bottom line, they did rankle the rank and file. CEO David Neeleman reacted swiftly, instituting mandatory training programs for managers. The result was happier workers, which begot happier fliers: JetBlue earned the best service rating of any U.S. carrier in the Omaha Aviation Institute's 2004 Airline Quality Ranking Survey. Here's how Neeleman has fostered a culture in which leaders don't just demand respect, but earn it. -- INTERVIEW BY BRIDGET FINN

JetBlue's officers don't act aloof and sit at their desks all day. We roll up our sleeves to understand what's going on, because our leaders shouldn't treat others as inferiors. A couple of years ago, we promoted our middle managers without giving them leadership training. They became little dictators, and favoritism started to creep in.

So we had to create a leadership program to reset the expectations of what leaders should do. But we didn't hire a bunch of slick facilitators to talk about principles. Instead, the people who were actually living them at JetBlue were the ones teaching the courses. Now 40 of our top managers spend two days a year leading the group.

In addition, our 23 corporate officers each focus on a different city every year. Once a quarter, they go to the city and listen to the airport staff. You have a VP for public relations or in-flight sitting down to ask, "What are your challenges?"

We want people to follow our leaders because they respect us, not because they've been told to. If my employees think management is in it for the money, that makes my job a lot more difficult. Some airline CEOs cut fat compensation deals for themselves while laying off employees and asking them to take salary cuts. But you can't be cheap with your people. When employees work on Thanksgiving and Christmas, we bring in meals and send our managers to work alongside the airport staff.

The president, Dave Barger, and I also donate part of our salaries to a crisis fund. If an employee's wife has cancer, we can decide to pick up the bills, or if someone's house burns down, we'll often help replace their personal effects.

We try to teach by setting an example. Our managers have to be people who like to deal with people, because at the end of the day, we're in a people business. Our job is to make sure that customers have a good experience; if they do, we know they'll fly with us again.