Crisis Management

Name: Shirley W. Bridges
Title: Chief Information Officer, Delta Air Lines; President and Chief Executive Officer, Delta Technology
Location: Atlanta
Age: 60
Power Play: Used communication sills to keep technology operations secure during a bankruptcy
How would you describe your leadership style?
Servant–leader is how I always describe my style. My job is to make sure that my team has everything they need to do their jobs, whether it’s training, removing obstacles in their way, or additional resources.

You were named CIO of Delta just two weeks before the company’s bankruptcy filing. During that time the company cut billions in costs. How did that affect your team?
The technology team had three big events. First, we had the loss of our CIO, who left for a different organization. Then we went into bankruptcy and then, to meet some of our targets, we did an outsourcing evaluation. All of those things came one right after the other. That’s a lot for one organization to absorb. It was very challenging. Any one of those was enough, but you put all three of them together and it was like a perfect storm for us. The one thing that we had to leverage was the fact that I had been here for a while so people knew me, they trusted me. My biggest job was to over-communicate about everything that was happening. There were a lot of hard decisions that had to be made. It was a troubling time for everybody.

How did you prepare your team for what was coming?
We had to make some hard calls in several areas, but we tried to communicate all along the process. We put up Websites, where we promised the employees that we would give them updates every two weeks. We didn’t want the whole water cooler rumor mill to develop. The employees wanted frequent communication. That was my promise to them, and that’s what we did. Every two weeks we put up something on the Website, and every other month or so, we’d pull everybody together and have “all hands” meetings where I would stand up in front of them and stay there until they got all of their questions answered.

Does leading during challenging times differ from leading during periods of calm?
It requires you to leverage everything you know. A long time ago I started to study the leadership principles of [author] John Maxwell. When I was in this period, it required me to use all of the lessons that I had learned about trust. People don’t buy into a vision; they buy into a leader — then they buy into the vision. So if you haven’t built trust throughout the organization, then no matter what you stand up and tell the people, they’re not going to buy into it. They’ve got to buy into you first. So my first step was making sure that everybody knew me, trusted me, and understood where I was going. Then, once I explained where we were going, they might not have liked it, but they understood it and