Delta CEO Ed Bastian hosted a one-on-one conversation with Merck CEO and Chairman of the Board Ken Frazier during Delta’s annual LEAD session, providing Delta leaders across the operation with an opportunity to learn about how leadership at scale equals culture from two seasoned, values-based CEOs. 

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has produced a challenging year like no other. During the conversation, Frazier shared how he has approached leading through these tough times – noting the importance of stopping misinformation, offering hope and showing kindness. 

“Our people are going through incredibly difficult times. I think it’s incredibly important for leaders to show through their gestures and their words that they actually care about people,” Frazier said. “Kindness goes a long way at a time when people are so isolated. The virus itself is a health problem, but the emotional and mental toll that this has taken on people – including our own employees – is something that I think we should not overlook.”  

The vulnerability from the pandemic has also exposed inequity in society that’s been there for hundreds of years. Following the death of George Floyd and global injustice toward the Black community, leaders across industries asked what more their businesses could do to impact meaningful change. In response, Frazier signed on as co-chair of OneTen, a coalition committed to ensuring that Black Americans with the skills and aptitude to earn success also have the opportunity to achieve success. 

Comprised of leading CEOs and organizations, OneTen will combine the power of American companies — including Delta and Merck — to upskill, hire and promote 1 million Black Americans over the next 10 years into family-sustaining jobs with opportunities for advancement. 

“The private sector is what reinvents the U.S. over and over and over again – it has the talent, resources and infrastructure to actually make massive social change,” Frazier said. “For Black Americans, one of the big challenges is access to well-paying jobs, which becomes an intergenerational problem in the Black community. We wanted to challenge ourselves to look at the way in which we employ people and look at whether or not there are certain structural barriers to Black Americans.” 

Read more: Ed Bastian memo: Taking action on racial justice, diversity 

Bastian and Frazier discussed how additional efforts to solve for equity* for a certain population ultimately benefit all people.  

“I get asked the question often about why OneTen focuses primarily on Black people – and I say, first of all, we’re only starting there. We intend to go beyond that because, from my perspective, this country is about creating equal opportunity for all people. I also believe that when you tear down barriers that disproportionately effect one group of people, you actually open it up for everybody,” Frazier said. 

He continued, “Here’s an analogy that I use: New York many, many years ago decided that it needed to make cut outs at every intersection so that people in wheelchairs could cross the street. But if you walk around New York, what you see is people pulling bags behind them or pushing carts – those people make use of those cut outs too. By taking away a structural barrier for handicapped people, we actually created better access for everyone.”  

As vaccine roll out continues across the U.S., Bastian remains confident that the airline industry will continue to recover as they become more widely available. During the conversation, Frazier shares his thoughts on the vaccine development and deployment – sharing optimism in the face of these unprecedented circumstances.” 

“I’m very convinced that by the end of this year, we will be back to a stay of normalcy,” Frazier said. “I think people will be comfortable getting on airplanes, ground transportation, staying in hotels and visiting their loved ones. I, for one, am looking forward to getting on a Delta plane.”  

Due to the enormous response to the enhanced early retirement and departure packages that were offered in 2020, with 20 percent of people choosing voluntary exit, Delta was able to avoid involuntary furloughs for flight attendants and ground-based frontline employees in the U.S. As a result, Delta has had many leaders step up into new roles. Before answering questions from Delta leaders, Frazier shared some powerful advice. 

“The most important thing is to understand why you want to be a leader and to have that self-awareness. A lot of that comes down to understanding the higher purpose of the company in which you lead, because it’s that higher purpose that inspires the people that you lead to show up every day and give that discretionary effort,” Frazier said.  “Those of us who are leaders start to make a mistake when we start to think it’s about power and prestige – so I think the most important thing is to have, what I call, the servant mentality.” 

Watch the full conversation above or at the link here.  

*Delta defines “equity” as an approach that considers unique barriers and provides people with resource that fit needs and individual circumstances. 

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