Peer pressure caused college student Joanne Smith to fill out a job application to be a flight attendant on a whim. Never could she have imagined that impulsive decision would eventually lead her to become the highest-ranking woman at one of the world’s largest airlines.
Soon, Smith earned her wings and began flying up and down the California coast with Swift Aire. After graduating from California Polytechnic State University, she worked for the airline until it went out of business during industry deregulation. From there, she moved into sales and marketing roles at other regional carriers and later bigger airlines.
In 2002, Smith joined Delta as the Vice President of Marketing and Customer Service for Song, the airline’s former low-cost carrier. She has worn many different hats at the company, including Vice President of Marketing and Senior Vice President of In-Flight Service, leading the airline’s 20,000 flight attendants.
Now as Delta’s Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer, she is responsible for the oversight and support of talent management and development, HR policies and programs, as well as preserving the airline's unique culture of positive engagement with its 80,000 employees.
“Looking back at my career, I certainly wish I could have joined Delta sooner, as it’s the first company I’ve truly loved. I liked my other jobs, but I saw them more as just work”, she said. “But then again had I not had other experiences, I wouldn’t have the same perspective to know how truly great this company is.”
In a recent interview with Delta News Hub, the executive and mother of two shared insights on her leadership approach, who inspires her and how Delta's culture helped pull her through some of her darkest days.
Delta News Hub: What's the most important thing you're focused on right now?
Smith: My primary goal as a leader is to support Team Delta. First, I want to support and empower my team of Human Resource professionals to be trusted and innovative business partners who help our company achieve the Flight Plan and our long-term business objectives.
With the transition to Ed Bastian as CEO, our team is focused on supporting his four strategic platforms: delivering continued operational excellence, building upon our brand, accelerating the airline’s globalization and making long-term investments in our employees, customers and community.
To accomplish these goals, HR will be implementing new technology and infrastructure systems, nicknamed Project Horizon, by the end of 2016. Over the past several years, we have focused on delivering an industry-leading technology experience for our customers. Now, we are focused on enabling a best-in-class experience for our employees. More than 30 separate HR systems will be upgraded and either consolidated or phased out.
DNH: What do you see as the top priority for Delta?
Smith: Our biggest challenge and opportunity as a company is to continue our momentum. The balanced approach to running our business has been the recipe for success, and we have to sustain that and build upon it.
We need to hire, promote and retain the best people and continue to be focused on making Delta a great place to work and a great airline to fly. With the results we’ve seen over the past couple of years, it’s easy to let our foot off the gas. We can’t do that.
Luckily, continuous improvement is in our DNA. It’s the opposite of complacency. When you build continuous improvement into your company’s DNA, you’re never satisfied with what you’ve achieved… you’re always looking for how to do it better. And above all, we need to continue to build upon the great culture we have. It is truly our culture that has fueled our success.
DNH: What do you think makes a successful leader?
Smith: There are two key, critical attributes of a Delta leader: servant leadership and an orientation toward driving results. If we focus on those two common traits, we can continue our momentum and meet our objectives.
I would say I’m a collaborative leader. I like to listen to others’ ideas and get as much info as possible before making a decision. I also believe in taking risks. You learn a lot by error. We should celebrate what we learn from mistakes just as much as we celebrate our victories.
DNH: What’s been your greatest challenge or career setback and how did you overcome it?
Smith: The merger with Northwest in 2008 was my greatest professional challenge. At the time, I was Senior Vice President - In-Flight Service. My team had to successfully merge two massive flight attendant groups. One was unionized, while the other wasn’t, and each had different technology, different aircraft types and different training programs. And for an added layer of difficulty, Richard wanted it completed in less than a year.
All of us assigned to this monumental task were gathered in a room. I am sure I looked like a “deer in headlights” and really didn’t know where to start. But we just took it one step at a time. We had a Northwest person and a Delta person on every project and had this “adopt and go” philosophy in order to get it all done on schedule.
In the end, it was one of the most successful mergers, not just in airline history, but of any corporate merger. The tenacity, perseverance and optimism at this company pulled us through it.
I’ve also had personal setbacks, and as I see everywhere at this company, the Delta culture and the Delta family really pulls you through. Ed has said before that Delta shines brightest during the darkest of days. He’s right. So many people across the company rally around people in need. Colleagues at every level of this company will go above and beyond to help another, from emotional support to monetary means via the Delta Care Fund.
DNH: What’s your greatest achievement and how has it shaped you?
Smith: Getting that merger completed in the In-Flight division was a great achievement for all of Delta, and I especially take pride in that. Approaching change with empathy and understanding can really help you, as opposed to the “my way or the highway” approach, and communication is critical.
Anyone that goes through something like that comes to realize you should appreciate your mistakes and failures as much as your successes, and I think that really does help shape you.
DNH: What words of wisdom or career advice would you pass on to others?
Smith: I have a lot of people asking me, “How do I get to that next job?” I always tell them to focus on being great in the one job that they’re in. Take on more responsibility and shine bright in your current role by being optimistic and providing solutions and solving problems.
Second, be open to new opportunities, new risks. The greatest learning experiences are when you take risks and big challenges. Get out of your comfort zone.
Third, if possible, surround yourself with people you enjoy working with. You may not enjoy each and every assignment, but if you focus on building relationships with colleagues who can help make the job enjoyable, you will be far happier.
DNH: As the only female member of the Delta Leadership Committee (a small group of the company’s top executives) why do you think we don’t see more women in the upper ranks of corporate America?
Smith: The boardroom dynamic is changing with this next generation. We’re already seeing more women advancing into C-level positions than we have seen in the previous decades.
Delta wants to have more women in senior leader positions. We need to fill the pipeline with diversity. Diversity is not just gender and race anymore. It’s culture, backgrounds, etc. I think inclusion will make Delta an even better airline. We aren’t going to see massive change overnight; we just need to see progress every year.
DNH: What do you enjoy doing when you have the opportunity to step away from the job?
Smith: I love to go hiking with my dogs, and when I have a lot of time, I like to cook for my daughters.
I try to spend as much time as possible with them, even though they’re both farther away than I’d like right now. My oldest is 23 and in college at my alma mater in California, and my other daughter is 20 and a student at the University of Georgia. She has just returned from studying abroad in Prague.
Aside from my day job, I also serve on the Board of Directors for Atlanta Habitat for Humanity, the Dean’s Advisory Council for Orfalea College of Business and as an Advisory Board Member for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
DNH: What’s your favorite travel destination?
Smith: I have so many! My favorite vacation I’ve ever taken was to South Africa. That was truly life-changing. I went on a safari. Everyone should try to do that at least once in their lifetime, and Delta flies there!
But I can’t go there all the time, so my favorite destination to do on a routine basis is to go back to my hometown of San Luis Obispo, California. I also love a good road trip to the north Georgia mountains and Lake Burton. There’s nothing better than summer on the lake in Georgia.
DNH: Where do you most want to travel but never have been?
Smith: I would love to go to South America, especially Machu Picchu. The Galapagos Islands and a cruise to Antarctica are also on my list. There are also dozens of places in the United States I’d love to see.
DNH: What’s one thing you would never travel without?
Smith: My iPad because it’s my connection to everything. I take it with me on every trip, wherever I may roam. I leave my running shoes at home, so I have an excuse not to have to exercise. But I always bring good walking shoes. And I never leave home without my favorite hand lotion.
DNH: Which TV shows are on your must-see list?
Smith: Only one right now: “Outlander”… now that “Downton Abbey” is over. I really miss it! My latest binge-watch addiction was “Bates Motel.”
DNH: What’s on your music playlist?
Smith: I listen to one radio station: NPR. I love classical, rock and jazz music, so my playlist is a hodgepodge… anything from Andrea Bocelli to Aerosmith.
DNH: What’s the last book you read?
Smith: I just finished “Bossypants” by Tina Fey. So, my go-to for a beach read would be something light… a comedy. And if I have more time, I really love delving into a historical novel… like one of my favorites, “Pillars of the Earth.”
DNH: What is your favorite or most notable item in your office?
Smith: I have two African prints that my brother painted hanging up in my office.
There’s also the Adweek New York Changing the Game Award from 2014. It has my name on it, but the award is really for our 20,000 flight attendants and recognizes the outstanding job they have done to make this company proud.
DNH: Who’s your personal hero?
Smith: There’s a bunch of folks who are truly selfless… people that I try to be more like. One of them is a flight attendant here at Delta. I won’t give him a personal shout-out, because it would probably embarrass him, but he’s the kindest, gentlest, most optimistic person I know and always puts others before himself. Thank you, you know who you are.
I really have admired the bosses I’ve worked with over the years, especially Richard and Ed. But the one who stands out most and had the greatest influence on my career was former Delta COO Steve Gorman. He was my boss for seven years out of my 37-year career. Steve was a great leader but one I didn’t see eye-to-eye with on a lot of issues. When I first started reporting to him, I thought I would have a hard time with that, but I found it was one of the best experiences. He could give you direct, critical feedback, but deliver it in the most kind, respectful way… a way in which you would leave his office going, “I think he just told me I could be doing a better job, but I feel great about it!”
My daughters are also my heroes in a way. I’m so proud of how confident, responsible and independent they are.