Employee Engagement Tips From JetBlue Co-Founder Ann Rhoades

Ann Rhoades shares her secrets to keeping employees happy and motivated, and why it will make a difference in your company too.
June 15, 2011

Call me a snob, but I have very strong opinions about air carriers—my two favorite being JetBlue and Southwest Airlines. The reason is simple: service.

Unlike other airlines, these two companies seem to employ people with the perfect combination of cheerfulness and humor. Case and point: on one of my recent flights to New York, a flight attendant had the whole plane in stitches before take off while she read the safety instructions.

So you can imagine my surprise and delight when I picked up a newly released employee engagement book, Built on Values: Creating an Enviable Culture that Outperforms the Competition, and learned that JetBlue and Southwest employees are engaged largely because of the book’s author, Ann Rhoades.

From the late 80s to the mid-90s, Rhoades worked under the title ‘Vice President of People’ at Southwest. “The CEO and I hated the phrase ‘human resources’ and couldn’t spell personnel,” she quips. “We wanted to focus on engaging and paying attention to our people, and when you call it the ‘people department,’ those are the values it gets across.”

In the late 90s, she helped found JetBlue and simultaneously started People, Ink., a human resources consulting company. Today, she speaks on employee engagement, serves on the board of JetBlue (among other companies), and runs People, Ink. out of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

I sat down with Rhoades to learn about her career and glean a few employee engagement tips.

Q: Why are you so passionate about employee engagement?

A: My experience as a consumer is that I absolutely love great service. I’ve always broken the rules for a customer and have learned that great organizations will break rules (with the exception of organizational and safety rules) to get the customer to yes.

Q: How did you get started with JetBlue?

A: Southwest had bought Morris Air, where David Neeleman was the CEO. We were passionate about helping Morris employees find jobs and helped train people in things like computer skills and resume writing. David was impressed at our dedication.

At the end of the day, he went on to WestJet in Canada, but after five years, he asked me to come to New York and join him as a founding executive of JetBlue. I agreed and moved to New York in 1999.

Q: How did you establish your hiring model at JetBlue?

A: First, we spent two days defining what we wanted in terms of employee behaviors. We looked at existing airlines and discussed what we liked and didn’t like. We wanted to reward people, hold people accountable, and engage them for the right behaviors.

Second, we built a hiring model around those behaviors. People who behave in the one manner want to work with people like them.

We ended up doing something very unique with JetBlue. There wasn’t a New York airline. The company is based in New York and New Yorkers love New York. We wanted to build an airline that they would love.

We hired people who tell jokes naturally. We didn’t want to hire former flight attendants because they may not have been treated well in other places. Right away, we received feedback that people loved the planes, the free TVs, variety of snacks and level of service.

Q: How did Built on Values come about?

A: I never really wanted to write a book, but I do work for the Washington Speakers Bureau, and after many of my speeches, people would call and ask how to implement the employee engagement tips I mentioned. They wanted a prescriptive.

So I teamed up with Nancy Shepherdson (co-author) and put together this book. Now I feel like I can give someone an answer.

Q: How can business owners engage their employees?

A: First, define exactly whom you want to hire by looking at your outstanding players. Hire people who look and act like they do. Every person you hire in a small business is critical; every person can make or break a brand.

During interviews, ask behavioral questions such as: Give me an example of a time when you had a tough customer. What was the situation? What was the action you took to satisfy the customer? What was the result?

The ones who went out of their way to satisfy the customer will do that every time.

Second, make sure peers participate in the interview process. Have them interview the candidate separately. They want the people they hire to be successful. Every time I’ve implemented this in an organization, we’ve seen a decrease in turnover.

Third, consistently reward the right behaviors and make it known what for. Reward systems have to reward behaviors, not time in jobs.

Southwest doesn’t give monetary rewards. Instead, the CEO sends letters to your home thanking you for your behavior. I know of maintenance workers who, after many years on the job, put that letter in the pocket of their uniform every day. When people are rewarded, they stand up straighter and get excited.

Fourth, hold people accountable. Don’t dismiss people who aren’t doing well. Have a ‘conversation day’ instead of waiting for a yearly review. Give them examples of the behaviors you don’t appreciate and check back in 30 days. Those who can’t comply will mostly likely leave. Those who can comply will stay and want to stay.

Fifth, if you make a hiring mistake, take care of it right away. Get rid of them quickly, or your team will see that you are not holding others accountable.