Peter Carter knew he wanted to be a lawyer from a very young age. “When I was 14 years old, I took a city bus downtown and started knocking on law firms’ doors asking if they needed any help. For some reason, I thought I could get a job at a law firm as a teenager,” he said. “One firm hired me to be their runner, and I worked there until I graduated from college.”
That tenacity carried Carter to the courtroom and later to Delta, where he became Executive Vice President and Chief Legal Officer in July. In this role, Carter oversees legal and government affairs issues facing the airline. He and his team of legal professionals act as advocates for Delta, representing the company before regulators, courts and governments.
Before joining Delta, Carter was chairman of the board and trial partner at the law firm of Dorsey & Whitney in Minneapolis and also served as a law clerk for a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. He’s an alum of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Minnesota, where he attended law school.
In a recent interview with Delta News Hub, the Wisconsin native and parent of six shared insights on his leadership approach, who inspires him and why he carries a copy of the U.S. Constitution wherever he travels.
Delta News Hub: What's the most important thing you're working on/focused on right now?
Carter: We have a number of issues we’re focusing on now, including shepherding the Aeromexico joint venture agreement and tender offer through the regulatory process, advocating for the end of the Department of Justice’s inquiry into alleged collusion and fighting Congress’ effort to privatize the nation’s Air Traffic Organization. Read more on the legal and policy issues facing Delta in 2016 here.
DNH: What do you think makes a successful leader?
Carter: First of all, I think it’s important to be a really good listener because I think it’s through listening that you tend to learn the most about people. Then, it’s important to challenge, empower, thank and celebrate. It’s important for a leader to challenge his or her team to meet the organization’s objectives, empower them by giving them the tools they need to meet those objectives, thank them for doing their jobs and celebrate the successes along the way.
The legal department is a support organization that can either be bureaucratic and block progress or help Delta to keep climbing. I believe it’s our mission to solve problems rather than raise problems, and we have an amazing team that understands that. As I said on my first day at Delta, I believe that teams working together can move mountains. I encourage my team to think out loud, debate and ask questions. I want to hear their perspective. Collaboration requires discussion, helps people grow in their roles and generates the best results.
DNH: What’s been your greatest challenge or career setback and how did you overcome it?
Carter: As a lawyer, you’re paid to win, not to lose, so losing a trial is never easy. I once lost a case involving an aircraft manufacturer. I remember being surprised that the jury decided against my client and wondered why they didn’t believe me. It forced me to rethink everything I did but also to learn from my mistakes. If I had won, I wouldn’t have had that time of self-reflection. Going forward, I learned how to better communicate with juries and never lost another trial.
Another challenging time in my life that taught me a great deal happened right after I graduated from college. I volunteered for a program in Colombia to help underprivileged youth through my local archdiocese. After landing in Bogota, I was taken to a house, handed a set of keys and left in charge of a group of 13 boys, ranging in age from 4 to 14. I had no training and, at first, no idea what I was doing. It was uncontrolled chaos, but it was my responsibility to turn that uncontrolled chaos into a home. It was an exhausting two years, but I learned the importance of setting a routine, creating a system and finding resources to make it all work.
DNH: What’s your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?
Carter: It is hard to think of achievements in this way, but one professional highlight for me was when I represented U.S. Bank in a $500 million antitrust lawsuit back in 2009 in state court in Jackson County, Mo. This was at a time when banks were very unpopular. During jury selection, we asked questions to root out bias such as, “Have you ever had a dispute with a bank?” and everyone raised their hands, of course. It seemed like we were doomed. After the eight-week jury trial, we prevailed. My client was so ecstatic that he jumped up, gave me a big hug and burst into tears of joy. That trial gave me so much faith in the jury system and in people doing the right thing.
DNH: What words of wisdom or career advice would you pass on to others?
Carter: Someone once told me that every assignment you are given is a great opportunity, and if you can be the one who develops a reputation for getting something done really well, you will go far in life. It sounds simple, but it’s rare. Just by being that person that gets things done well, you’ll get noticed and advance your career.
DNH: What do you enjoy doing when you have the opportunity to step away from the job?
Carter: My wife and I love to travel. I’m also an avid reader and always have several books I’m working through. I also love to run. I try to identify some issue I’m dealing with, and my goal is to have a solution by the time I’m done with the run. I also love the theater: musicals, plays, operas, concerts, etc. Because of that affinity for live performance, I’m on the Board of Directors for the Alliance Theater in Atlanta. I’m also on the board of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce.
DNH: What’s your favorite travel destination?
Carter: Anywhere in Latin America. Latin America is culturally diverse and has fascinating cities with both Spanish and Indian influence, amazing food, beautiful mountains and lovely beaches. I couldn’t name one country in particular, but I try to go to a couple of Latin American countries each year.
DNH: Where do you most want to travel but never have been?
Carter: Russia has been on my list for quite some time. I’ve just always been fascinated by the fact that a group of rag tag revolutionaries were able to overthrow a well-established monarchy, and continue to be fascinated by today’s government under Putin, who acts much like a monarch himself.
DNH: What’s one thing you would never travel without?
Carter: This is going to sound geeky, but I always travel with a copy of the U.S. Constitution. Years ago when I was living in Colombia, I found myself having a conversation with a local about our Constitution and wishing I had a copy of it. When you’re in a country where people may not have a Bill of Rights or due process, it reminds you how lucky you are as an American to be able to have what we have.
DNH: Which TV shows are on your must-see list?
Carter: “The West Wing,” “Scandal” and “Narcos.” I lived in Colombia at the time Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug lord, was building his empire and the nation was in complete political upheaval, though I was only shot at once.
DNH: What’s on your music playlist?
Carter: While I love Bob Dylan, U2 and other classic rock artists, these days I try to support new artists. Right now, The Decemberists, Florence and the Machine and Hippo Campus are my favorites. And believe it or not, I’m a fan of the new Justin Bieber album.
DNH: What is your favorite or most notable item in your office?
Carter: I’m one of the owners of the Green Bay Packers. As you might know, they’re a fan-owned team, and I have the stock certificate framed in my office. It was a gift from my parents.
DNH: Who’s your personal hero?
Carter: My son, Spencer. Spencer is on the autism spectrum. He’s someone for whom nothing has been easy, but through his hard work, he will be graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., this spring.