Category Archives: MBA

Modern mentoring

Foster’s mentoring maven, Susan Canfield, discusses how the time-honored practice has evolved, and how you can get involved

Mentoring is having its moment.

An ancient concept, the powerful exchange between expert and apprentice is experiencing a surge in the public consciousness. Mentoring is a buzzword in business. Columnists hold forth on its virtues. And formal programs proliferate at b-schools.

Canfield_Author_ColorThe Foster School’s MBA Mentor Program was one of the first, and it’s still one of the best. The long-time director of this national model of mentoring, Susan Canfield, has become a nationally recognized authority on the subject. We asked the author of Mentoring Moments: Inspiring Stories from Eight Business Leaders and MBAs to enlighten us on mentoring beyond business school.

What’s new to learn about the ancient art of mentoring?

Susan Canfield: Plenty! Mentoring has evolved in recent years. Traditionally, people viewed themselves as either a mentor or a mentee. Today we recognize that we can be both at the same time and throughout our lives. It was once assumed that a mentor must be more senior and experienced than the mentee. In fact a mentor can be anyone from whom you can learn. In the past it was common for the mentor to choose the mentee and structure and drive the relationship. Now we know it is better if the mentee chooses the mentor and drives the relationship. Finally, mentoring used to be seen more as a formal, ongoing relationship. Today we know it need only last as long as it is useful and may be based solely on observation.

I titled my book Mentoring Moments because, after many years observing mentoring relationships and conducting interviews on the subject, I learned that mentoring moments can come from formal programs and one-time meetings. They can come from family, friends, colleagues and even people we hardly know.  They can come from hearing wise words and seeing wisdom in action. In fact they often come when we least expect them and most often need them.

What do you think accounts for the growing interest in mentoring?

A number of factors. People are seeking ways to accelerate their learning as they navigate more frequent career changes and face life’s challenges. Baby Boomers are arriving at a time in their lives when they want to give back. Universities are finding mentor programs attract prospective students, enrich their students’ academic experience, and provide them with career insights and connections. And businesses are seeing evidence that mentoring brings bottom-line benefits and addresses the issue of knowledge transfer before those Boomers walk out the door.

What are the hottest mentoring trends?

There are several. In reverse mentoring, younger recruits provide senior staff fresh perspectives and feedback—and maybe even a few tips on social media. Group mentoring, a trend we’ve pioneered at Foster, is an efficient alternative to one-on-one one relationships. And our experiments with speed mentoring have received unexpectedly rave reviews from both participating students and mentors. When a mentee prepares ahead and comes with specific questions, you’d be surprised at how valuable a short, focused meeting can be.

Mentor graphic-editWho should seek a mentor? Only the young and inexperienced?

We can all benefit from a mentor—or many mentors—throughout life. It’s a relationship that enhances our learning and growth, no matter what age. And, if we’re lucky, mentors inspire us as well.

My vibrant, still-learning 94-year-old mother has a number of informal mentors. One is Grace, a 99-year-old friend who travels, has an active social life and gets up early to swim every morning. Grace is an informal mentor and inspiration to my mother in how to continue aging with grit and gusto.

Stewart Parker (MBA 1981), a Foster MBA Mentor who founded Targeted Genetics, says that you can get along without mentors, but it may be harder to fully realize your opportunities and potential. Mentors make it easier to have perspective and a healthy approach to life.

How do you find a mentor?

We can seek mentors in formal programs (at work, school or community organizations) or create them informally on our own.

Formal mentoring programs in companies, for example, can run the gamut from being available to all employees to only being offered to select, high-potential managers. Increasingly mentor programs have become more widely available because of growing evidence that they help attract and retain talent, contribute to employee engagement, enhance training opportunities, and support leadership and diversity initiatives.

Informal mentoring opportunities are all around us and are often there just for the asking. If you are open, curious, and eager to learn, then it is natural to seek conversations with people you want to learn from. Avoid starting with “will you be my mentor?” Instead, ask for advice or feedback about a specific question or problem. One conversation over a cup of coffee may be sufficient. However, if you would like to meet again, you may eventually use the word “mentor.” Or maybe not.

At Foster, we encourage our MBAs to take advantage of our formal MBA Mentor Program and seek informal mentoring opportunities as well. Better yet, I recommend creating a mentoring network consisting of diverse people with unique experiences, skills and perspectives that can be your guides in different parts and stages of your life. This dynamic approach might include a combination of ongoing mentors and others who move in and out of your life as your interests and needs change.

How does a dynamic approach work?

Chris Howard and Richard Tait.
Chris Howard and Richard Tait.

A great example is Chris Howard (MBA 2007), founder of Fuel Capital, a San Francisco venture firm. As an incoming MBA student, Chris immediately impressed me with his networking savvy. He knew the power of creating a mentoring network—including faculty, staff, peers, alumni and members of the business community—that he called his “board of advisors.” He was very intentional about what he wanted to learn and finding people he wanted to learn from.

Along with this fluid board of advisors, Chris took full advantage of our formal mentor program and chose Richard Tait, co-founder of Cranium and founder of Golazo, as his mentor. Both Chris and Richard were seeking a goes-both-ways mentoring relationship, and they clicked immediately. Eight years later, they’re still learning from each other and regularly return to Foster to speak on their powerful mentoring relationship.

Chris would be the first to admit that all of these relationships helped him turn a pre-MBA career in advertising into a successful second act in venture capital.

What do exceptional mentees contribute to a great relationship?

Great mentees take initiative and maintain contact with their mentor. They know what they want to learn and they actively drive the relationship. They prepare for meetings. They are honest about challenges at work and in life, and are open to feedback. They respect their mentor’s time. They express appreciation and lend mentors a hand when they can. They create a network of mentoring relationships. They pay it forward and seek opportunities to mentor as well.

In short, great mentees are hungry to learn and appreciative of all the wisdom they can observe, hear and absorb.

Who should be a mentor? And why?

Anyone who wants to facilitate the professional and personal development of another should consider mentoring, not only for the sake of the mentee but also for their own growth and opportunity.

Studies from the pioneering corporate mentoring program at Sun Microsystems found that mentors are 20 percent more likely to receive a raise, and six times more likely to be promoted. And, according to several longitudinal studies cited in George E. Vaillant’s Aging Well, those who mentor—seeking to better the world not only for themselves but for others—effectively triple their chances of being joyful in their 70s.

Outside of formal programs, how do you go about offering mentorship?

The short answer is: be someone people want to learn from.

In fact, you may already be mentoring and not even know it. Many of the senior executives I interviewed for my book mentioned learning great lessons from their bosses and leaders by simply observing their actions and behavior. In addition, these executives were encouraged to stretch and grow professionally by someone who believed in them. In many of these situations, the word “mentor” was never used.

How can you become an exceptional mentor?

Exceptional mentors see the relationship as a two-way street. They create an atmosphere of trust. They genuinely enjoy mentoring. They listen deeply and ask insightful questions. They give honest feedback. They are vulnerable and willing to share their own setbacks and how they overcame them. They see abilities in mentees they may not see in themselves. They discuss and help mentees set goals. They facilitate connections. They provide role modeling for work and life. They inspire mentees to be their best selves.

We may not all be born with the mentor gene but we can certainly strengthen our mentoring muscles with guidance, good role models, practice, and a genuine desire to get better. I have seen this among our MBA mentors, many of whom have been guiding and inspiring our students for a decade or more.

Read more about the Foster’s MBA Mentor Program, an internationally-renowned model of modern mentoring.

Learn more about mentoring at Foster or how to purchase Canfield’s book.

The very model of a modern mentor program

The Foster School launched its MBA Mentor Program in 1999 to offer students a broader and deeper understanding of business through regular meetings with business leaders from a wide array of companies and industries.

Though it’s a voluntary program, more than 250 full-time and evening MBAs each year take advantage of the golden opportunity to learn from one of 86 senior executives about careers, companies and industries, and to discuss the keys to effective leadership, overcoming challenges and finding long-term success.

The program has been so successful that director Susan Canfield regularly fields inquiries from the world’s top business schools—Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, Chicago, MIT, to name a few—when they are considering installing or improving their own mentoring programs.

Canfield attributes the Foster program’s exemplary status to six differentiating qualities:

Leadership – The Foster School leadership—including Dean Jim Jiambalvo and Assistant Dean Naomi Sanchez—is a strong supporter of the MBA Mentor Program, providing essential backing and resources.

Longevity – At 15 years, it’s one of the oldest continuously running MBA mentor programs in the country.

Innovation – Foster has been on the vanguard of trends such as group mentoring, speed mentoring, reverse mentoring and promoting mentoring networks.

Efficiency – Mentoring software facilitates the logistics of mentor-student matching and students who serve as lead contacts synch schedules and organize preparation for meetings.

Flexibility — Within the program structure is a great deal of latitude to adapt based on the needs and wishes of mentors and students.

Commitment – The program is powered by a potent renewable energy—senior executives who serve as mentors year after year. “Our mentors say they get more than they give,” Canfield says. “They enjoy hearing what’s on the minds of future business leaders, they like being asked the tough questions that help them reflect on their own career and decisions, they are energized by being around bright and eager minds, and they enjoy getting to know other mentors who share their same commitment. Foster is lucky to be in the midst of many generous alumni and a giving-back business community.”

Read more about how modern mentoring has evolved, and how you can get involved.

EMBA students experience global business up close

International study trips have been offered as an option to Executive MBA students for many years. As the direct and indirect impact of global business on companies of every size has grown dramatically, the EMBA Program has responded by establishing this “International Immersion” experience as a required course in the curriculum. In 2014, all second year EMBA students participated in one of three study trips offered by the program, traveling to Brazil, Vietnam or Germany and the Czech Republic for an intensive week of visits to local and multinational companies, business schools, non-profit organizations and government agencies. Among the goals of the International Immersion: To offer students a firsthand experience in analyzing and understanding the business environment in these countries and stimulate insights into the potential opportunities and challenges of operating in a global context. Along the way, students broadened their cultural horizons, sampled local cuisine, and deepened their collegial bond. In this post, they share their experiences in words and images.

EMBA students tour a BMW factory
EMBA students visit a BMW plant in Berlin.

“I was so thankful to be taken out of my comfort zone and placed into a unique situation.” – Matt Gleason (North America 16)

Ho Chi Minh City
Traffic is a challenge for Hanoi commuters, too.
Old bomb crater in Vietnam
Students visit an old bomb crater in Vietnam, where the wounds of war are slowly healing.

“I left Vietnam with a sense of wonder about the growth potential of this small nation. While still a relatively poor country with major infrastructure issues, the population seems primed for incredible growth. I look forward to following the progress of Vietnam and its people.” – Andy Wolverton (EMBA Regional 31)

El Boticario
Students visit the headquarters of O Boticário, one of the world’s largest cosmetic companies, in Curitiba, Brazil
Casa de Cultura
EMBA student Ali Donway makes new friends at Casa de Cultura in São Paulo.

“Brazil is a land of contrasts. The vibrant culture, fast paced environment and economic growth are contrasted with extreme poverty and rampant crime. Looking back on my week in Sao Paulo and Curitiba I can honestly say that I saw the “true” Brazil. I was exposed to the culture in the form of the food (delicious) artwork (vibrant) and people (optimistic and friendly). I also learned a tremendous amount about the business of Brazil. I came away from Brazil with new connections, friendships and lifelong memories.” – James McBride (EMBA North America)

EMBA students tour the DAF plant
Students get a look inside a Brazil factory that produces trucks for DAF, a PACCAR subsidiary.

“The opportunity afforded by this cultural and business immersion was truly a unique opportunity that would never have been possible by simply visiting a country or culture on one’s own agenda.” – Charles Baer (EMBA North America 16)

Learn more about the Executive MBA program at the Foster School of Business.

Leading across boundaries: complexity

The Fall  2014 Leading Across Boundaries (L.A.B.) session focused on the topic of dealing with “complexity” in the workplace. In a recent global study, both CEOs and MBA students identified dealing with complexity as a major area of challenge in their work.  Bruce Avolio, Mark Pigott Chair in Business Strategic Leadership and Executive Director of the Center for Leadership & Strategic Thinking (CLST) describes complexity as;

“1. When you have a lot of competing and difficult priorities to choose from and not all the information you need.
2. When you are trying to lead systems that have a lot of moving parts and you are trying to figure out how to integrate them to get things done.
3. When you have lots of competing priorities and have to determine how to get each done with limited resources.”

During the session, a panel of business leaders (Beth Schryer, Director 737 Business Operations for Boeing Commercial, Karen Clark Cole, CEO & Founder of Blink UX, and Nick Dykstra, Finance Director at Intellectual Ventures) sat with a group of ten MBA leaders to discuss the challenges they have with dealing with complexity in their current leadership roles. The panel then provided their strategies for dealing with complexity and responded to questions posed by the MBA leaders in attendance. Soleil Kelly, Foster’s MBA Association (MBAA) Leader and Bruce Avolio moderated the dialogue.

See photos of the event below:

FallLAB

 

 

 

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FallLAB3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

L.A.B. sessions enable MBA students to discuss topics of interest with business and community leaders while  developing their own leadership skills. The sessions are sponsored by MBAA and CLST. Visit CLST’s website to learn more.

A view of Japan from the top: event with Former US Ambassador to Japan, John Roos

Guest post  by Nick Dwyer, Foster MBA Candidate, 2016

Before enrolling in the full-time MBA program at the Foster School this fall, I often heard full-time business students characterized as “day students”. But with the vast number of engaging presentations, speakers’ series, networking opportunities and other evening events at our disposal, I now realize this was a misnomer. While I’m not currently taking any evening classes, my on-campus education rarely ceases before 6PM.  Perhaps my most notable example is the evening of November 20th, when I had the opportunity to hear from the former US ambassador to Japan, John Roos.

tateuchi_2014-roos-062
Ambassador Roos came to the Foster School as part of the Tateuchi Foundation Asian Business Distinguished Speaker Lecture, a series of annual speeches by business leaders focused on presenting US-Japan business opportunities.

By partnering with the Tateuchi Foundation, we can honor the legacy of Mr. Tateuchi’s business success and further the Foundation’s goals of promoting international understanding, knowledge, and relations.

The event is made possible by the Tateuchi Foundation, a family foundation charged with building bridges of understanding between the United States and Japan. Given this mission, its unlikely there is a more fitting presenter than John Roos, who served in his role as ambassador to Japan from 2009 to 2013.

One of the most interesting points of Ambassador Roos’ presentation was his atypical professional background for an ambassador. Unlike most American ambassadors to Japan, John Roos never held a significant public office before his ambassadorship and was not a political figure in Washington, DC.  Before Japan, Roos was a lawyer in Silicon Valley, where as CEO he led a premier technology law firm.

He explained that he was such an outsider that his wife quipped that he “didn’t have a chance in hell” before formally receiving his nomination for the post. But his less than common background was appealing to President Obama, who appreciated his experience in technology and innovation and his understanding of Asia-Pacific business. “But most of all, it was just a matter of trust” Roos confirmed.

tateuchi_2014-roos-120As someone who has always been interested with the economy of Japan, I particularly enjoyed watching Ambassador Roos interact with Japanese students in the Q&A part of the evening. What emerged was a major difference of opinion between the state and potential future of Japan. Several students commented they felt pessimistic about the future of Japan, given the weak economy, the high population loss, and the high national debt. Ambassador Roos reminded them that Japan is still the third largest economy in the world and that 90% of the world would trade places with them. When asked what is the best characteristic of Japanese business, Roos stated that “quality and attention to detail permeate the whole society” and there is a very high level of service, which can continue to drive the Japanese business.  He also sees the Japanese business culture beginning to address its lack of entrepreneurial thinkers and businesses, which will be key for future economic growth.

While Japanese business was a major conversation point for the evening, Roos also discussed a number of geopolitical issues, including the thorny relationship between Okinawa and the United States, the dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, and North Korean threat to Japan. He also described the biggest challenge of his ambassadorship; the 2011 Japan earthquake and tsunami. The link between national security and economic wellbeing was not lost on the ambassador, as he frequently pivoted between both topics.

In all, Ambassador Roos painted a complex yet optimistic picture of Japan and Japanese businesses. His belief in the country is illustrated by his current position on the board of directors at Japan’s largest electronics company, Sony. While Japan has to overcome it’s shrinking population and stiff competition, his ambassadorship allowed him to see up close what makes Japan so dynamic.

While I certainly don’t wish to underestimate my daytime classes and activities, Ambassador Roos certainly demonstrated that learning about global business doesn’t necessarily slow when the sun sets at Paccar Hall.

 

EMBA Skamania 2014

EMBA stuents arrive at Skamania The Executive MBA experience kicks off each fall with a five day residential program at Skamania Lodge on the Columbia River east of Portland. Away from the distractions of daily life, first year students immerse themselves in intensive instruction, collaborative projects and bonding with their fellow students. Here are some snapshots of this year’s residential session, with comments by students on the value of the experience, including a challenging class with the inimitable Charles Hill, Professor of Management & Organization and the faculty director of the EMBA Program.

Students studying at Skamania

EMBA students networking at Skamania

“The rapid pace of learning at Skamania was outstanding. The professors provided ample material to read, contemplate and absorb in preparation for five consecutive days of class. During the daily sessions, students were required to recall significant portions of the assigned material to examine precepts of micro economics, finance and leadership.”

EMBA student presentations

Professor Charles Hill in the classroom

“Charles comes at you as-advertised – fast and intense – with questions requiring that you to not only read the assigned material, but also to think deeply about it.  This deep thinking will get you about 60% of where you need to be.  From there, you have to take a deep breath, sit on the edge of your seat and lean into it.  Fortunately, the intensity of Charles’ class session is matched by his love of teaching and fair approach.  It won’t hurt too badly.”

EMBA study groups

Charles Hill

“The intensity at residency was unreal. Long days, amplified by classroom encounters with professor Charles Hill out of Scared Straight resulted in a searing educational experience. I’ve never learned more in a shorter time period. The fear of failure in the classroom quickly dissipates as everyone participates, and gets not-so-politely corrected by professor Charles Hill.”

EMBA student presentations

Charles Hill

“There were three constant thoughts that ran through my head while at Skamania and in the Charles Hill hot seat:

  1. No matter what you do, do not criticize the text or mention that it might be a little dry because the guy standing in front of you (Charles Hill) wrote it.
  1. If I look him directly in the eye maybe he won’t see me …. darn it, that didn’t work!
  1. Everyone is watching  so here goes nothing! Please be the correct answer, please be the correct answer….

On a serious note I remember thinking how interesting his class was and that despite being exhausted what a good job he did keeping us all engaged in the class. Additionally I recall thinking how impressed I was with the caliber of the professors and how lucky I was to be a part of such a smart and talented cohort, Skamania was a very humbling experience for me.”

EMBA students networking

Skamania at night

“Skamania overall was a tremendous opportunity to sit through several intense days of class and brush away the mental cobwebs.  More so, though, it was an opportunity to spend focused time with your new classmates and teammates.  A great time to start some shared experiences and friendships of a kind that are harder to find the older you become.”

Learn more about Executive MBA.

Is an MBA worth it?

When Dan Poston, Assistant Dean of Masters Program, recently addressed a group of prospective students interested in pursuing an MBA, he argued the practicality and attractiveness of MBA degrees to employers. “When recruiters recruit for MBAs,” Poston said, “they’re looking for someone who has been trained across all the different business disciplines.” Poston also discussed the Foster School’s full-time and part-time options, the enviable job-placement skills of MBA Career Management, and the high caliber students who enter the programs. Likening the process of selecting an MBA program to choosing a cruise, Poston believes that a positive MBA experience relies largely on the people you (the student) share it with. “You learn just as much from the people who are in the program with you,” he said. Watch selected clips from his talk below.

 

Alaska Airlines and Foster EMBA

A special relationship

Brad Tillden in an EMBA classroomBrad Tilden knew it was a long shot. As a young finance executive at Alaska Air Group in the mid-1990s, Tilden made the case to his CFO that sending him to the Foster School’s Executive MBA Program would be a sound investment. “The company wasn’t flush in those days, and we had always taken a conservative view on costs,” he recalls. “So I didn’t expect the answer to be quick or positive.”

But after conferring briefly with then-CEO John Kelly, Tilden’s boss came back and simply wrote “OK” on his proposal. “I was thrilled,” says Tilden, Alaska’s current chairman and CEO.

So began a long and symbiotic partnership between Alaska and Foster that goes far beyond the company’s significant philanthropic investment in the school.

The EMBA Program has become a de facto executive training academy for Alaska leadership. To date, 22 of its most promising executives have graduated from the program. Many now serve in senior roles at the company, including Tilden (EMBA 1997); Ann Ardizzone (EMBA 2008), vice president, strategic sourcing and supply chain; Karen Gruen (EMBA 2010), vice president, corporate real estate; Kris Kutchera (EMBA 2009), vice president, information technology; Andy Schneider (EMBA 2009), vice president, inflight services; Joseph Sprague (EMBA 2007), senior vice president, communications and external relations; Shane Tackett (EMBA 2011), vice president, labor relations; Shannon Alberts (EMBA 2005), corporate secretary; and Diana Shaw (EMBA 2013), vice president, customer service.

And though former CEO Bill Ayer’s (MBA 1978) MBA came from Foster’s full-time program, he has brought his formidable expertise and insight to teaching the EMBA’s powerful “CEO and the Board” course for nearly a decade.

Tilden says the impact of this cohort of Foster-educated leaders is evident throughout the firm: “Having a critical mass of people with a common education and disciplined approach helps us frame issues and execute solutions more quickly.”

“The EMBA Program has played an important role in developing high-performance leaders at Alaska,” adds Ayer. “The classes, the teamwork, and the networking opportunities add up to a unique learning experience. In a business where people are the only sustainable competitive advantage, a Foster EMBA provides a critical edge.”

True North

Keeping the customer as its lodestar, Alaska Air Group navigated a turbulent decade to emerge as one of the marquee companies in the Pacific Northwest

Alaska Airlines plane in the skyAlaska Air Group recently moved into to the Fortune 500, that ultimate collection of the nation’s elite businesses, that manifest marker of size and success.

It was no small feat for a comparatively small, independent carrier to join the big boys in an industry marked by brutal competition, rampant consolidation, and chronic crisis. And it was even more remarkable that Alaska sustained its growth through a decade of Herculean trials.

So you might expect this momentous milestone would call for some serious celebration at the company’s south Seattle headquarters. Some bottles of champagne, perhaps. A press release, at least. Did they even pause to savor the achievement?

“We celebrate a lot of things,” says Brad Tilden (EMBA 1997), the chairman and CEO of Alaska Air Group. “But we didn’t really celebrate joining the Fortune 500.”

The understatement adds up when you consider it comes from a man possessed of a pilot’s cool and an accountant’s good sense leading a company with roots in the Last Frontier.

“It’s like compound interest,” Tilden adds. “Somebody had a really good idea 82 years ago, and we’ve been working at it year after year.”

 

Alaskan roots, American dream

Linious McGee's three-seat Stinson
The roots of Alaska Air Group: Linious McGee’s three-seat Stinson.

That somebody was Linious McGee, who began flying passengers and cargo in his three-seat Stinson between Anchorage and Bristol Bay back in 1932. A merger, two years later, with Star Air Service created Alaska’s largest airline, eventually renamed after the state.

At the industry’s deregulation in 1978, Alaska was the 24th largest airline in the US. And it was just beginning expansion into the Lower 48. By the end of the 1980s, Alaska Air Group had added regional carriers Horizon Air and Jet America. It had enjoyed nearly two decades of profitability and sustained growth. And it had earned a reputation for superior customer service.

Economic prosperity and low fuel costs kept Alaska growing through the 1990s.

But Tilden, who joined the company from Price Waterhouse in 1991, says that Alaska Airlines was growing almost despite itself. Friendly service masked a declining efficiency of operations. Complacency had crept in, a culture of good enough, not great.

As the century turned, Alaska’s internal vulnerabilities were about to be mortally tested.

 

Turbulence

The century’s first decade began in tragedy. The January 2000 crash of Alaska Airlines flight 261—half of its 88 victims being employees, family members or friends—sent the tight-knit company into mourning.

It was only the first of a litany of trials to challenge both airline and industry. Shortly after the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, the attacks of 9/11 altered air travel forever. The SARS scare of 2003 followed. Then oil prices spiked just as the financial crisis shook the foundations of the global economy.

Amid the external pressures, Alaska Airlines faced a litany of contentious labor contract negotiations beginning in 2003. Strained morale brought a dip in performance. There were simply too many late flights and mishandled bags.

“Alaska was burning through the goodwill it had earned over many decades,” says Bruce Avolio, director of the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking at the University of Washington Foster School of Business.

A new case study by Avolio, Chelley Paterson and Bradford Baker chronicles Alaska’s decade of dilemma. Survival would require absolute transformation—modernizing operations and slashing costs—without sacrificing the legendary customer service experience that had made Alaska Alaska.

“There was an increasing recognition among the leadership,” says Avolio, “that the course they were on could not continue.”

 

Crossing the Rubicon

The situation demanded decisive action. And fortunately, Bill Ayer (MBA 1978) had risen up the ranks to become CEO in 2002.

“At a time when this business required a person of tremendous courage,” says Tilden, “Bill was the perfect leader.”

Ayer never wavered from hard—and sometimes heartbreaking—decisions. The first set the tone for the company’s transformation. Amid an epidemic of default that swept the major carriers, Ayer declared that Alaska would not seek bankruptcy protection.

“We figured out what our costs needed to be for us to be viable and said to ourselves that we simply have to get there,” recalls Tilden, then CFO.

Among the difficult moves to ensure the company’s survival were a painful round of layoffs, the outsourcing of some ground operations, and some pragmatic dealing for concessions from the unions.

“The choice to stay out of bankruptcy helped the company downstream,” Avolio says. “By not destroying people’s pensions and protecting this covenant with their employees, Alaska’s management salvaged a degree of trust.”

That trust would prove vital.

 

Fix Seattle, then the company

Alaska Airlines plane flying over SeattleIf cost cutting took toughness, improving performance took smarts. There was a lot to fix, but Ayer and Tilden chose, wisely, to first fix Seattle, Alaska’s largest hub.

“We identified the basic things we needed to improve upon to be successful—safe operations, on-time performance, low fares and great customer service,” says Tilden. “And we focused relentlessly on them.”

Applying lean methodology and measuring every task, performance began improving immediately, first in Seattle and then throughout the network.

“Once they fixed Seattle, Alaska demonstrated what can be accomplished in its other cities,” says Avolio.

The dramatic transformation has been widely confirmed. Alaska has been rated highest in customer satisfaction (among traditional network carriers) by J.D. Power seven years in a row. It’s been number one in on-time performance four years running according to FlightStats.com. Outside dubbed Alaska its “Best Airline” in 2014.

Alaska has earned highest marks in just about every category awarded: air cargo handling, delivery and logistics, technology, maintenance, sustainability, philanthropy, loyalty program, employee satisfaction—even friendliness to pets.

And aggressive expansion to the East Coast, Midwest and Hawaii when others retreated has made Alaska one of the fastest growing companies in the industry.

 

The importance of being Alaska

That growth has lifted Alaska into the Fortune 500. The company may barely have noted the milestone. But Seattle should.

Alaska’s ascendancy adds another industry leader to the region’s increasingly diversified economy, according to Suresh Kotha, the Olesen/Battelle Excellence Chair in Entrepreneurship at the Foster School.

“Having another service-based company like Alaska become a dominant player in its industry creates jobs, broadens our economy and buffers us against the kind of cyclical downturns we used to face.”

He’s referring to the not-so-distant past when a slowdown at Boeing threatened to shut down the city. But today Seattle enjoys a far healthier balance of manufacturing, service and retail. The region is home to nine of the Fortune 500 plus other powers in a wide array of industries including aerospace (Boeing’s continued strong presence, plus a galaxy of suppliers), software (Microsoft, RealNetworks), retail (Amazon, Starbucks, Costco, Nordstrom, REI, Eddie Bauer), truck manufacturing (PACCAR), trade (Expeditors International), forestry products (Weyerhaeuser), and clusters in telecommunications, biosciences and gaming.

A successful airline adds to the economic diversity. “It’s making Seattle one of the nation’s best places to do business,” Kotha says.

Avolio adds that other companies could learn a great deal from Alaska’s customer focus and level-headed navigation of crisis “with discipline and focus.”

The other lesson of Alaska, he says, “is that the essence of great leadership is building a sense of ownership in employees and customers.”

 

People power

Ayer asked a lot of Alaska Air Group’s employees to save the company in its darkest hour. And those employees stepped up.

“We are the only legacy airline not to have filed for bankruptcy, thanks to the determination of our people,” he says. “What we learned by doing the hard work ourselves bodes well for our future.”

In 2012 Ayer passed the controls to Tilden, a new kind of leader for a new chapter in Alaska’s story. His focus today is on fine tuning the customer experience.

Tilden is continuing to foster Alaska’s celebrated culture of innovation that delivered the industry’s first online ticket sales and check-in kiosks, and is now developing apps to remove the anxiety from travel. “The goal today is to be the easiest airline in the world to fly by 2017,” he says.

Of course, technology can only do so much. People make the difference. While continuing to cultivate top management prospects in the Foster Executive MBA Program (see sidebar), he’s really trying to push the airline’s leadership to the front lines.

“The big opportunities going forward will come from consistent execution and delivery of service across every airport and every employee,” says Tilden.

To that end, he has initiated two company-wide programs to engage every employee and empower them to lead. It helps that they have a vested interest. As the profit-sharing program that Ayer and Tilden started during the lean days of the mid-2000s begins to pay handsomely, the link between airline performance and personal prosperity is easy to follow. That’s good for everyone’s bottom line.

“If the employees want us to be a great airline, we’ll be a great airline,” Tilden says.

 

Further frontiers

Alaska Airlines plane flies over a mountainThe airline industry seems to have stabilized, and Alaska is all systems go, elevating both its standards and goals. An exemplar of corporate responsibility, it’s also a pillar of philanthropy in the larger community—and especially at the University of Washington.

“There is a really special culture at Alaska,” Tilden says. “A real sense of mission, that what we do for the communities we serve—the infrastructure we provide businesses, the connections we provide families—is important.”

“What makes me proudest is the company’s outstanding performance since I retired,” says Ayer. “The team is executing better than ever and, as always, there’s no shortage of challenges. The reality is that there are a lot of factors that are not controllable, so those that are must be very well managed.”

Tilden is ever vigilant. Or, as they like to say in Alaska’s HQ, “Brad’s never happy.”

He’s seen the perils of complacency, especially when most of the challenges ahead are yet unseen.

“In some ways, the challenge was simpler ten years ago,” notes Avolio. “You knew all of the things that were broken; you just had to fix them. Today, you don’t know where the market is going. There are a lot of question marks.”

One certainty is that fierce competition will come from smaller airlines and the big ones (which keep getting bigger through consolidation). Most immediately, Delta is making a significant incursion on Alaska’s prime West Coast territory.

But Tilden believes that Alaska Air Group has found the secret. And it’s not at all sexy. “What’s going to help us succeed over the long run is continuing to do the basics well,” he says. “We need to be safe. We need to be on-time. We need to offer low fares. We need to provide great service. Those things are 100 percent in our control. And I think if we get them right, we’re going to win.”

 

Additional reading:

Alaska Air Group has long leveraged the Foster Executive MBA Program as a de facto training academy for future leaders, beginning with current CEO Brad Tilden (EMBA 1997). Learn more about the special relationship between Foster’s EMBA program and the Alaska Air group.