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One CEO’s $40 million ethical decision

Two top CEOs, Delta’s Ed Bastian and Spanx founder Sara Blakely, discuss the challenges of aligning their values with their leadership in uncertain times.

One CEO’s $40 million ethical decision
Ed Bastian [Photo: Daisy Korpics for Fast Company]

Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian always flies coach. “I don’t pay for the seats, so it’s the best I can get,” he cracked today to a Fast Company Innovation Festival audience. Flying in the cheap seats, Bastian says, allows him to hear directly from Delta’s consumers.

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So does his public email address. Bastian says the thousands of messages he gets each day allow him to keep track in real time of consumer concerns and Delta issues.

It was, he says, one of those very emails last February from student survivors of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, that alerted him to the fact that Delta was offering a group airfare discount to members of the NRA.

“Within five minutes of receiving that email, I decided we can’t be doing this,” Bastian said. “It’s just not who we are. We weren’t saying the NRA was wrong. They’re entitled to their views. But they’re not entitled to a discount just because they’re the NRA.”

A few weeks later, the Georgia state legislature voted to eliminate a jet fuel tax break, potentially costing Delta as much as $40 million a year. But Bastian remains convinced he made the right decision. “Our values aren’t for sale, and I’d do it again,” he said. A beat later, he added, “But next time I might call the chairman of our board before making that decision.”

(Georgia Governor Nathan Deal later suspended collection of the tax, and the legislature may revisit the issue in early 2019.)

Bastian was appearing at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan alongside Spanx founder and CEO Sara Blakely to discuss how values inform their leadership during uncertain times.

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Watch the event in full in the video below:

Spanx recently partnered with designer Zac Posen and Lands’ End to update uniforms for Delta’s 65,000 employees around the world.

“We wanted to put the ‘uni’ back in uniform,” Bastian said. “Our people are great and we want our uniforms to make them feel even greater.”

Blakely emphasized that Spanx’s contribution to the new look is about health as well as style: The graduated compression of its hosiery helps circulation for high-altitude crews. The company spent more than a year testing the new products on women all over the world to match every skin tone.

Sara Blakely [Photo: Daisy Korpics for Fast Company]

Blakely said she hasn’t had to adapt the language around her company in the #MeToo era. “I’ve been communicating the same way since the beginning,” she said, “which is to be authentic. I want women to feel better. To allow women to have their clothes fit better so they can authentically be who they are.”

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Blakely recalls that shortly after launching her company 18 years ago, “All these people started asking me, ‘Sara, what’s your exit strategy?’ And I did not know what they were talking about. I’d never taken a business class in my life. So eventually I just came up with a line to get them off the subject. ‘You know what? My exit strategy is this: I want to exit a room and look good.'”

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About the author

Noted expert on nicotine gum chewing and Hawkeye wrestling fan, Jay Woodruff is a contributing editor at Fast Company. After helping launch the quarterly DoubleTake, he joined Esquire and later held senior editorial positions at Entertainment Weekly and oversaw digital at Maxim, Blender and Stuff

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