Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines. Photo courtesy of Delta Air Lines

Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines – Photo: Delta

Last month, I had the opportunity to participate in a small group interview of Richard Anderson, CEO of Delta Air Lines.  Anderson is a long-time industry insider and the chief one of the largest airlines in the world. Domestically, Delta is often ranked by Fortune as one of the Top 50 most admired companies and is a long-standing member of the Fortune 500, presently occupying spot 51 by 2014 rankings.

When asked a rather mundane question about daily routine, Anderson responded with pure gold. Rather than provide a hurried, rehearsed, and insincere response that many would come to expect from a top-level executive, Anderson instead walked us through a typical day and highlighted what he referred to as his best practices.

Anderson’s relaxed and inviting demeanor is one that naturally commands attention. However, when he began reciting his secrets to success, those of us with backgrounds in business and leadership were captivated. When a Fortune 500 CEO takes their time to volunteer advice, those looking to further their own success and careers should take note.

Without further ado, Anderson’s Tips for Success…

It's okay to say no! JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

It’s okay to say no! JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

1. Know when to say “no”

Perhaps the best advice for time and workload management – know when to say no.  This is a tough lesson to learn as, in school, we are taught to be “yes men” which ultimately leads to being overextended and less effective. Anderson framed this tip in the context of declining meeting invites, which as the leader of a multi-national airline, he must receive many.

The intent of the tip carries well beyond meeting invites, however. For leaders this means trusting that you have hired and developed a team capable of being self-sufficient. For knowledge workers, it’s knowing when to push back so we can focus on those projects with the highest priority and best outcomes.  Former Microsoft CEO Bill Gates would agree: “My success, part of it certainly, is that I have focused in on a few things.”

Keep on top of things. Photo: Erin Nekervis

Keep on top of things – Photo: Erin Nekervis

2. Keep on top of things / don’t touch paper twice

Anderson noted that at the moment of the interview he had only 12 emails in his inbox awaiting attention. A quirk about Anderson – he’s a “paper guy.” He prints his emails and writes his replies via hand, an amusing holdover from an earlier generation that seems to work quite well for him.

But let’s not lose the intent of the tip, which is simply to address items as they arise and avoid “touching” things warranting our attention more than once. Of all the tips Anderson provided, this is the one that resonated with me the most. I think we have all been there, spending time dreading a task, often investing more effort and anxiety in avoiding said task than it would to simply accomplish it and move on.

Brian Tracy wrote an entire book focused around this, Eat That Frog! which teaches us to focus on doing, not dreading.

3.  Do your homework

No, it isn’t just for students. Anderson placed a lot of emphasis on this point – it’s an incredibly basic tip, but one that seems crucial to his success and image. He prides himself in being prepared, making sound decisions, and understanding the nuances of his business. This means coming to meetings having read documentation ahead of time, and not having to play catch-up in front of an audience. Interestingly enough, over the course of the interview it became clear that Anderson had even done his homework on us, the interviewers, via subtle queues in his responses to our questions. As I think about it, of all the four tips he shared with us, perhaps this is the one that best cultivates his positive image of being relaxed, confident, and able to field nearly any question in real-time as if he’d rehearsed it for days.

Of course, doing one’s homework isn’t just important in meeting preparation.  When asked about expected soon-to-be-announced business decisions, Anderson was quick to point out that Delta prides itself on making sound, calculated decisions which, as one would expect, involve a great deal of homework. Delta as an entity sometimes seems slow to react to trends. From the outside, one can quickly, and incorrectly, attribute this to slow management. Now when Delta is criticized for “taking their time” on any given issue, I see the hand of Anderson ensuring that the right decisions are made with calculated risk and a great deal of analysis.

Read to grow and be informed. Photo: JL Johnson

Read to grow and be informed – Photo: JL Johnson | AirlineReporter

4. Read

Anderson says he reads a number of hours each day and actually kicks the morning off with reading. This tip has its roots in the Japanese philosophy of Kaizen, which in this context focuses on continuous self-improvement. Read about bettering oneself, about industry trends, news, even fiction as a form of relaxation and catalyst for creativity.

Reading and, by extension, continuing to improve upon oneself is a staple in most, if not all, management tool-kits. In fact it’s Steven Covey’s 7th habit of highly effective people: “Sharpen the Saw.” Management sage Ken Blanchard says “The failure to grow sabotages the career of more leaders than anything else.” Of course, the practice of continuing to improve isn’t limited to just leaders and aspiring leaders. Indeed, professional accrediting/certifying bodies from industries as varied as insurance to medical to IT require proof of continued education.


What was great about this interview is that in roughly an hour of chatting with Anderson, he managed to reinforce themes found across a large swath of my business literature collection. Reading books by business execs and consultants is one thing, but to get reinforcement from an industry titan like Anderson, that’s the icing on the cake.

Seems a quote from another chief executive is appropriate here. This, from a former commander in chief of the US:  “Trust, but verify.”

Disclosure: Accommodations and experiences were provided by Delta Air Lines; our opinions are my own.

Managing Correspondent - Lee's Summit, MO. JL joined AirlineReporter in 2012 and has since become one of our most tenured and prolific writers. He enjoys catalyzing AvGeek excitement in others, and semi-frequent travel. While he's always looking for the next big adventure, home is with his growing AvGeek family in Lee's Summit, MO, a suburb of Kansas City. Find JL on MastodonEmail:
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Robert Nordmark

Sounds like pretty usefull advice.

jl johnson

Very useful. I’ve actually found myself trying to incorporate these into my own daily routine. Thanks for the comment, Robert.

Queen M. Livingston

Richard – I am always impressed by your knowledge, vision, and found this article to be great sound advice for me, my children, and the current Lift and Learn Team that I am working with! Thanks! You’re awesome!

Dear Mr. Johnson, This was a fabulous article with several links that will help several people improve their success ratio! Mr. Anderson is one of the best CEO’s in the world and I’m one of the lucky ones to be under his leadership. Thank you for publishing this interview in such an eloquent fashion. I just “ate my frog”.

jl johnson

Thanks for the comment, Laurie. You are so very lucky to have such a great leader.

I’ve worked very hard to be one of the “lucky ones” for many years. Mr. Anderson is incredibly well versed and educated in our industry (not to mention a few other industries). If you were able to see interview this week on CNBC, he has unbelievable response time for questions fielded from so many areas of our operations. He’s just one impressive CEO! 🙂 I appreciated your article & response. Best Regards, Laurie

Gina Henderson

Great business advice, on how to be successful and being consistent in your efforts of moving forward. I’m a Delta employee and I’ve seen so much success and growth in our company over the last 5 years. It’s quite impressive, Anderson is an industry leader. Great interview, he gave great insight.

Heidi Kessler-Carrington

Love the advice do your homework and don’t touch paper twice.

This site really has all the information I needed about this subject
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