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“Culture is the DNA of the Company”: An Interview with JetBlue’s SVP of Talent, Rachel McCarthy

On last year’s list of the best companies to work for in the US, JetBlue secured an impressive spot in the top 25, coming in at number 21. In 2017, however, the low-cost airline buckled its seat belt, secured its tray table and soared all the way up to the number 3 spot.

So what is it about JetBlue that has led to such impressive results? The company’s focus on community service, its dedication to diversity and a family feel among colleagues have all received praise from employees in reviews published on Indeed. But perhaps one employee summarized it best: “The culture in JetBlue is like no other. They really value their employees and their customers.”

The word “culture” is bandied about a lot these days. But at JetBlue it goes much deeper than providing great snacks and game rooms to employees. To learn more, we spoke with Rachel McCarthy, JetBlue’s Senior Vice President of Talent & Learning.

A culture of crewmembers

JetBlue was founded on “bringing humanity back to air travel,” says McCarthy. At the very start of the company, the founders put the firm’s mission in the forefront, identifying five core values that JetBlue would stand for: safety, caring, integrity, passion and fun.

“They help form the foundation of who we are,” says McCarthy. These five values are realized in interesting ways. From interns to the CEO, everybody at JetBlue is a “crewmember”, while managers, directors and executives are “crewleaders.” A philosophy of “servant leadership” keeps crewleaders in close contact with crewmembers.

“As a senior leader, you’re there to serve your crew,” McCarthy explains. “Our executive team’s offices are exactly the same size as a director’s. We have a very open plan office here in Long Island City, and the offices are all in the center. We do not have the windows. We let our team sit by the windows.”

Crewleaders also get hands-on to make sure their teams are successful. Senior leaders can also be seen working shifts on planes and in airports, tagging bags or helping customers carry their luggage.

“We help check customers in at the airport. We’re serving food at barbecues on holidays for our crew, or running food to the gates at Thanksgiving,” says McCarthy.

You can even find senior leaders putting on blue gloves and picking up trash in the planes.

“It doesn’t matter what level you are in the company, the expectation is we all pitch in and we’re a team and we’re going to work together. So, everyone cleans the plane.”

The importance of “giving back”

A wider sense of community is also crucial to JetBlue’s distinct culture, where “giving back” is an important value.

Not only do employees go on team volunteer outings (planting trees in Long Island City, for example), but they can also enjoy the company’s annual celebration recognizing team members who’ve logged 150+ hours of service in the past year.

The company’s commitment to service also involves directly giving back to employees. In fact, JetBlue has its own nonprofit – the JetBlue Crewmember Crisis Fund, which is dedicated to delivering financial assistance to employees in need.

“When we had Hurricane Sandy, there were things we did to help our crew get back on their feet,” says McCarthy. “When things go wrong, we’re there to support our crew.”

A commitment to diversity

Based in New York City and serving a diverse customer base, JetBlue’s leaders understand the importance of seeing this diversity reflected among its crewmembers.

To support an inclusive culture, the company has several crewmember resource groups, including Blue Conexión, Vets in Blue, Jet Pride and Women in Flight.

For instance, says McCarthy, “With our “Women in Flight”, we have an event in the hangar where our female pilots, technicians, inflight crew, ground ops crew spend time with young crewmembers’ daughters, talking about aviation and possible careers.”

“We also do a lot with schools, both in New York and other areas to encourage education about aviation at a young age.”

In fact, says McCarthy, JetBlue is always asking “How can we encourage even more diversity?”

“It gives us better perspectives, different points of view, which is always helpful. We don’t want everyone to think the same way,” says McCarthy.

Learning from JetBlue’s Success

If you’re hoping to enhance your organization’s culture, consider some of JetBlue’s top strategies, which you can put in place even if you’re working with limited resources.

1. Define your core values

JetBlue’s founders knew culture would be key to the company’s success, so they sat down together and clearly articulated what the company should stand for.

Those values – safety, caring, integrity, passion and fun – have guided the company for the past 17 years and continue to point JetBlue’s leaders in the right direction.

Your business will have its own definition of its mission and culture, but identifying what it is that you stand for will provide you with a solid foundation to build upon.

2. Let your language reflect who you are

Don’t like the way the words “employee,” “manager” or “duties” sound? Replace them with terms that reflect your company’s goals, values and sensibilities.

For instance, not only are all employees at JetBlue crewmembers, but the the firm’s “headquarters” is known as the “support center.”

In other words, service is built into the firm’s day to day language. Details like this can have a meaningful impact on an employee’s attitude and outlook.

3. Be transparent

McCarthy says she loves to see community service on applicants’ resumes, because it signals that they’re likely to be a good fit at the company: “If you share the same values as JetBlue, this is going to feel like coming home.” 

This focus on finding people who will feel at home informs JetBlue’s interviewing process and continues into  orientation sessions, where current employees explain the best aspects of certain roles, as well as the more challenging parts.

“When we bring on our new crewmembers, a couple of us will say: Please bear in mind, this is an operation, it’s 24/7, you’re going to work weekends— and we’ll understand if you need to leave now.”

Sometimes people do leave, says McCarthy.  “And that’s fine — because we want to make sure we have people who are really committed to living the JetBlue mission and vision.”

4. Weave culture into the fabric of your firm

McCarthy cautions against misunderstanding culture as perks, or, in particular, the idea that it can be implemented in a clumsy top-down fashion.

“To me, the culture is the DNA of the company, what fuels us. It’s not one thing, it’s woven throughout a number of things.”

This ranges from the culture of servant leadership, to how crewmembers serve in the community, to corporate social responsibility programs that crews can take part, to educational programs for staff and beyond.

The good news is that “culture” need not be exclusive to Fortune 500 firms.

“It’s really around staying really closely connected with your crewmembers, or in other companies’ cases, their employees,” says McCarthy. “Because you can do that regardless of how much money or people that you have.”

Whoever you are, whatever your line of business — you can always find ways to stay connected with your crew.

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About Mildred Blankson

I am a Human Resource Professional with a Masters Degree in Human Resource Management. I have several years of experience in Human Resources and i hope this blog will be a great resource in helping you find the perfect job or candidate that you seek.

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