Jeff Katz, CEO of Journera, was founding-CEO of Orbitz during the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and then CEO of Swissair when Flight 111 was lost near Nova Scotia en route from New York to Geneva.
In this interview, we ask him about leadership styles and tactics to deploy during moments of crisis.
You've been CEO of five different companies. What are the big crises you have had to lead those companies through?
Well, I've been CEO of both large and small companies. I’ve run an airline during the tragedy of an aircraft accident where lives are lost, families lose their loved ones, and you don't really know what happened to an airplane you’ve been flying around the world.
I've was the CEO of an OTA right after 9/11 where for a time people actually thought the travel industry would essentially cease to exist.
In the U.S., every airline but one filed for bankruptcy. These are some of the experiences I have lived through.
They provide some context for the current crisis, although this current one is different and dramatically more pervasive.
Looking back, are there any common threads you have found in terms of what leaders need to do and think about during uncertain times?
There are a few common threads that occur in these periods, in different magnitudes and for different durations. The first is fear. This is happening now.
It has to be recognized. The second is the tendency for a communication vacuum to develop. Another is the tendency for a compassion vacuum to happen.
Lastly, I'll mention a desire that all people have for a plan. They don't need clarity about outcome, but they need a plan.
How do I get through the next hour, the next day, the next week? Those things are common when crisis occurs.
As a leader, during crisis, obviously you are dealing with a lot of immediate issues and potentially existential issues for your company. In the midst of all that, what are some of the big questions that a leader needs to be asking?
The first big question a leader asks is: "What do my own people need most right now?"
In fact, employees at every level have myriad questions of their own in the midst of uncertainty.
Leaders need to hear those questions early, giving their team the opportunity to express their fears and concerns. Listening is also important to letting the team present their solutions and ideas, right away and directly.
Make compassion for employees a top priority. Transparent and frequent communication is key in these times. Sometimes the news is bad, but if leaders are honest, it’s a powerful tool.
There will be the obvious questions a leader needs to ask about business fundamentals that relate to survival, cash, customers and operational considerations.
But it’s really important to also be eliciting questions and giving a platform for employees to express their thoughts, to alleviate fear and provide clarity of plan.
You mentioned compassion. What's the role of compassion when it comes to employees and customers?
Compassion can take a lot of forms. Mostly it's going to be expressed person to person, but it can come in many other forms, from written notes to talks and interviews to tangible actions that show you care.
We have seen a lot of very thoughtful video messages from travel industry leaders over the past several weeks. They are reflecting calm. They are communicating how their companies are ready for you, the traveler, with the utmost care for your safety and comfort whenever you travel.
Compassion needs to be expressed in both tone and indeeds, as we are seeing in the relaxation of policies such as change fees and cancellations.
You're seeing personal messages. You're seeing policies that are carefully calibrated to the current environment.
Honestly, we can be impressed as an industry with how nimble the very big travel companies are at making changes that are urgent for their own survival, in communicating with customers, and at showing compassion.
Leaders can also speak to the future in how they're going to build back. There will always be travel. It's not too early to talk just a little bit about a hopeful future.
You talked about getting through the current crisis with survival scenarios and by stabilizing the business. Assuming you get through those initial days, weeks, months, then what? What should leaders be thinking of next?
Well, there's certainly going to be a time when it really is hourby hour and day by day. Lockdowns and restrictions will last weeks, a month, or maybe longer. But there is a future and the future is happening even today. People are still traveling.
These travelers are the so called “point of the spear.” They're staying in hotels that are still open. They're flying on flights that are still flying. They are the problem solvers. They are the fixers of things. They are the deal makers.
They're the most important people taking care of the most important customer situations. They're out there today.
When restrictions are relaxed, they will be the first to accelerate their travel and to spread the word about how they’re treated, how it’s going, and that it’s “safe.”
After 9/11, which had a three-day travel stoppage in the U.S., I can remember being one of the first travelers out immediately. It was lonely. Lonely in the airport. Lonely on the flight. The hotels were largely empty. People were afraid.
Flight attendants and crew members were afraid. Everybody looked like a threat. Today the threat is still invisible, transmitted by a person we can’t yet identify. But back then we added enhanced screening and ahead we can envision temperature guns, swabs, and identifiers in our PNR that might say ‘fever free.’
Today's threat is invisible, but that point of the spear traveler is out there even today.
So, for travel brands, think about how you can take care of them, making their first re-engaged experiences with your brand tremendous. That is an opportunity to make the business – and our industry – healthier faster.