Should a CEO Be a Nerd About Their Company’s Products?

Speaking of Ben Schlappig at One Mile at a Time, he had a post last week that I’ve been thinking a lot about. The gist:

American Airlines CEO Robert Isom appeared in court yesterday as part of the current Department of Justice case. While being questioned, the topic of JetBlue Mint came up, which is JetBlue’s business class product. Isom claimed that he has never flown JetBlue Mint, and doesn’t know if JetBlue Mint is lie-flat. He then clarified that he understands that Mint is JetBlue’s domestic first class, but “can’t speak to all the amenities they include.”

Here’s the part that I’ve been thinking about:

I’ve had the opportunity to interact with quite a few senior airline executives over the years, and I find that their knowledge about competitors is typically one extreme or the other:

  • Some airline executives literally couldn’t tell you the first thing about their competitors, and have no knowledge of their passenger experience, fleet, etc.
  • Some airline executives know literally everything about their competitors, down to being able to tell you how many seats competitors have on specific planes

I find there are very few executives who are just kind of in the middle, as it’s pretty polarizing. Either they know virtually everything about competitors, or nearly nothing. Without naming any names, I’ll say that generally speaking there’s a high correlation between airlines that have a great passenger experience, and airlines that have executives that keep very close tabs on the competition.

If you ask me, every CEO of a US airline offering a premium product should have to fly JetBlue Mint, to see how good seats, service, Wi-Fi, entertainment, food, and drinks, can be on a domestic flight.

As someone who flies business class on American a few times per year, I am zero percent surprised that Isom doesn’t know or care about the experience flying American’s competitors.

The sentiment Schlappig expressed above isn’t airline-specific. I think it comes down to the classic idea of a “businessperson”. That an executive can just have a knack for “business”. That an MBA trains a would-be executive to run any sort of company. That’s probably the sort of executives who run most companies in most industries. But I don’t think it’s how excellent companies are led. Excellent companies, in any industry, seem to be led by executives who live and breathe whatever it is their companies do, and they stay up at night and wake up in the morning thinking about how to lead their industries in quality.

If the CEO’s primary perspective on the company is via spreadsheets — if it’s all just P&L to them — that company is not going to excel at quality. Or if they do excel at quality, they won’t for long.

Tuesday, 11 October 2022