Fred Reid
Fred Reid

BJT Management Series: Fred Reid

Fred Reid, who is known for his exceptional command of English, is also fluent in French, German and Hindi. He has lived in seven countries over 36 years and held prominent positions at four major airlines. He was the first U.S. national to lead a major international carrier, Lufthansa German Airlines and also was the founding CEO of Virgin America. Here, a look into his leadership philosophy, his emphasis on values and his appreciation of diversity.

I spent the first 10 out of 11 years of my life in Ethiopia. I remember being acutely aware that we were the minority and were guests in someone else's country. There was no Internet, no television, no email. My first school had no walls.

Americans are kind of famous for declaring that we have good values and other people should understand our good values. There is nothing wrong with that, because as countries go, believe me, America works pretty well. But that does not mean that other countries are without merit or tremendous accomplishment.

When you are working in a country other than your own, the first thing you need to do is pay attention and listen. This is something that is easily articulated but takes effort to actually do.

Develop an attentive mind-set. Listen before you blurt things out. Try to adapt your feelings and orientation to your audience. And by the way, your audience is not just your clients. It’s your employees, too.

Even if you are an American boss of an American company with American employers and American work rules, you are probably depending on workers who are nationals of the country you are living in. It is important to understand their perspective.

You need to be real–forget the polished corporate stuff that everyone sees through. Answer the question. And if you can't, say you can't and explain why. No one likes getting an answer to a question that wasn't asked.

Language is a window into a person's soul. A big breakthrough for me doing business outside the U.S. was learning the language of that culture and being able to converse in it.

We are North-American-centric at Flexjet but we fly people all over the world. Obviously our clients come from all different ancestries. Our customers are sophisticated and humble, and 85 percent of them have made their own money in the last 25 years. They don’t take things for granted.

We have put more than a million dollars into technology, processes and training, which I call learning. Obviously pilots and mechanics are trained. But mostly what people do here is learn.

When I interview [job candidates], I look for heart. Obviously the technical skills are a requirement–like oxygen in a room. But we also put a large emphasis on values, attitudes, EQ versus IQ.

We almost always use hiring panels and usually will have someone from an adjacent department in the room. It’s like celestial navigation. You are able to look at a new person from three or four angles to see where the viewpoint converges.

Nasty, negative people are toxic for a workplace. I don’t expect people to come in skipping and bouncing up and down, but there is a fundamental attitude that goes with work, which is basic respect for other people, no matter what rank they are.

Early on, I learned that working at a peer level is just as important, if not more important, than managing up or down. You need to work across organizations instead of up and down.

Values come first. You cannot compromise on values.

Business is not all intuitive but it is not all fact-based, either. It is a human enterprise. People have feelings, and attitudes change. You can't run a business by the seat of your pants, but you also can't do it based [only] on facts and spreadsheets. You have to understand abstraction.

I gently correct people when they say, "This company is a family." In a family, crazy Uncle Eddie gets to be there for Thanksgiving no matter what. We're not a family. We are a team. If you hurt your ankle, we will pay you while you get better and you can go to the locker room and rest. But you need to run plays, move the ball. We are all equal in that regard. We all have a role to play on the team.

The whole attitude of "I'm the boss and you're going to do it my way" is pretty outdated. But on the other hand, you can't be wringing your hands saying, "Let's all take a vote."

When it comes to conflict management, I get involved right away. People get frustrated when their leaders do not get involved in visible conflict. I've come across super-capable people all my life who are so good at so many things–highly moral, hard workers, great values–but they can't handle conflict.

There have been times in my career when I have come into broken situations where I have had to totally revamp the structure. Conflict management has become easier for me over time because I have the benefit of hindsight and can see the before and after.

When there is a problem, I immediately draw a line between omission and commission.

Commission is cheating, stealing, lying, violations of trust. In those cases, you always treat the person legally and fairly and either ask for a resignation or terminate with cause.

Omissions are honest mistakes, human errors. I talk to the person, go through what happened and we talk about how we can avoid this mistake in the future and what could have been done differently in the first place.

I have always been thrilled by great communicators. I value the spoken word and I really value good writing. I value great energy, values and attitudes. In the end, it's harder to find good people and it takes longer, but you need to take the time to look at how someone will perform over years and decades.