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Cole says humility, perseverance and results make a successful leader

Growing up in High Point, N.C., Shawn Cole learned the importance of perseverance and optimism from an early age when his world got turned upside-down.

When Cole was 10 years old, his father unexpectedly passed away from cancer, and with his older brothers and sister already out of the house, his mother raised Cole and his younger brother by herself.

Shawn Cole, V.P. - Corporate and Financial Planning“She brought us up to be positive and to understand that we control our own destiny. Just because you get dealt a bad hand doesn’t mean there isn’t good in the world. She set the groundwork for where I am today,” he said.

Now, Cole, Delta’s Vice President – Financial and Corporate Planning and Executive Sponsor of Delta’s Black Employee Network, applies those learnings to his leadership style daily to help his team overcome challenges and achieve results.

After graduating from college and three years at accounting firm Arthur Andersen, Cole was recruited to Coca-Cola, where he spent ten years of his career learning about team building and strategic thinking. When his mentor, former Delta executive Cyril Turner, recruited him to the airline in 2008, he said it was his best move of his career.

“Not because of a title, compensation or even the chance to work with Cyril again,” he said, “but because of the challenge to improve processes, build a sustainable and durable business model, and build a team based on the lessons I learned over the last 15 years. And, the opportunity to become part of the Delta family.”

Finally able to exhale after Delta’s Q1 earnings report, Cole talks to Delta News Hub about the airline’s strategy to remain on top, his view on leadership and what inspired him to get to where he is today.

DNH: What is Delta’s strategy to ensure the airline continues to be successful?

Cole: We’re really focused on sustainability and durability. The U.S. has been on a nice economic run for a while but at some point, we know something will happen to the economy. We have to make sure we’re able to weather that storm and ensure stability for our key stakeholders: our customers, our employees and our shareholders.

If we’re able to look after our employees, they’ll look after our customers, and our shareholders will be taken care of because we’ll be generating the returns and making people want to invest in Delta for the long-term. That’s evident by the Warren Buffett/Berkshire Hathaway investment that was disclosed earlier this year.

DNH: What’s the most important thing you’re focused on right now?

Cole: Working on the long-term strategic vision of the airline. At Delta, we’re very focused on achieving the goals of the 2017 Flight Plan [the company’s strategic goals] and abiding by guidelines laid out in Rules of the Road [Delta’s core values], but we also need to make sure that everyone is focused on the right goals over the next several years, not just this year.

DNH: What do you think makes a successful leader?

Cole: You’ve got to be humble – I really learned that as a kid. At ten years old, I loved being with my mom and my father, but then all of a sudden my world turned upside-down because we didn’t expect my father to pass away. You can be on top of the world, but it all can come out from under you when you least expect it.

It’s also about helping other people around you. We all want to get results, but a good leader brings his or her team along with them. It’s about celebrating those team victories and letting people know when they’ve done a good job. You’ll attract people who want to do good work for you.

Lastly, you’ve got to get results – quickly and accurately. That’s why we’re all here. Ask anyone on my team what my two favorite words are…

[Cole calls out from his desk to a colleague walking by and says, “What are my two favorite words?” “Speed and accuracy!” the colleague calls back.]

There you are.

I might be a people-person but if I’m not getting results, it doesn’t matter in the end. A good leader has a thorough understanding of the organization’s objectives, achieves those objectives and then communicates those objectives to his or her team so they can reach and surpass those expectations as well.

DNH: What’s been your greatest career challenge and how did you overcome it?

Cole: Some of the biggest learning experiences I’ve had involved getting tough feedback, but each time made me focus on improving and seeking feedback more often to keep improving.

When I ran track in high school, we’d say, “No pain, no gain,” and that’s true when it comes to taking feedback as well. It’s about conditioning that muscle. You have to understand that it may sting, but it’s going to help me grow in the long run; it’s going to increase my endurance and help me learn how I can clear this hurdle a little easier next time.

DNH: What’s been your greatest accomplishment?

Cole: Seeing people on my team do things they never thought they could do and leading a team that goes on to doing bigger and better things.

DNH: Who inspired you to follow your career aspirations?

Cole: My mother was my role model based on her ability to stay positive all the time and telling me and my siblings to stay focused on the big things in life. She inspires me. 

Bonus questions…

DNH: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Cole: I like to run and spend time with my family and friends. Every morning, I wake up at 4:45 a.m., check the weather and news and then I’m out the door. It gives me time to think about the day ahead and figure out what I want to accomplish.

DNH: Where’s your favorite place to travel:

Cole: Hawaii, by far. I’ve been there five times before working at Delta and probably five times since. I grew up in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s and “Magnum P.I.” was one of my favorite shows.

DNH: What’s something you wouldn’t travel without?

Cole: My music and headphones.

DNH: Where do you want to travel but have never been?

Cole: Australia.

Finance leader on value of tough feedback: ‘No pain, no gain’DNH: What’s your favorite item in your office?

Cole: Aside from my Rules of the Road, I have a photo with Muhammad Ali. I’m a big fan of his, and I had the honor of meeting him in 2000 in Chicago before a Delta flight back to Atlanta. His story is amazing – the hard work, the focus, the challenges and ability to embrace all people around the world.

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