JetBlue’s Ann Rhoades on Creating a values-Centric Culture

By Aliah D. Wright Oct 2, 2014
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LA​S VEGAS—Want to consistently be seen as an employer of choice? 

Develop a values-based culture, according to Ann Rhoades, founder of HR consultancy People Ink, author and member of the JetBlue Airways board of directors.

Rhoades delivered a general session speech on Sept. 30, the first day of the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM’s) inaugural conference for aspiring leaders, Emerging LEAD(HR). 

Sessions throughout the two-day conference center focused on three HR competencies—communication, relationship management and business acumen.

“This conference is about you. It’s about the future of HR,” SHRM President and CEO Henry “Hank” Jackson told the nearly-400 attendees. “The HR profession is undergoing a major evolution right now. Business is changing and employers are demanding HR adapt to that change. The role of human capital management will change more in the next five years than it has in the past 30.”

Rhoades said: “I’ve seen a lot of change. I’m excited to tell you stories of the great companies I’ve had to work with,” adding that those companies all had one trait in common: Each company was built on values.

But how do you do that?

First, start by “describing who you want to be,” she said. The next step is “getting the right people in the room,” and that includes senior managers. “You can do it in your own department first,” but creating a values-based culture works better if it’s companywide, she said.

Putting People First

Companies that have thrived under this model include online shoe and clothing retailer Zappos, technology company Juniper Networks, Southwest Airlines, and JetBlue, where Rhoades was the founding executive vice president of people.

“It’s all about creating a value that is built on the right principle,” she said. Using a litany of examples of companies that go above and beyond for employees and customers, Rhoades painted a picture of companies that thrive despite change because they put people first.

“One of the things great companies do is consciously design their culture,” she said, “and those that do start with a purpose. They have principles and values, and they are the best performing ones.”

For example, “One of the things we decided when we started JetBlue was we were going to bring humanity back to air travel,” she said, adding that the company consistently pays attention to its culture. The airline prides itself on service and puts customers’ needs ahead of the bottom line. For 10 years in a row, J.D. Power and Associates has ranked JetBlue as the highest in customer satisfaction among low-cost airlines in North America.

Rhoades encouraged HR professionals to be risk-takers—even if that means risking their jobs. “There are other jobs,” said. “People count on you in HR to have integrity.”

Echoing the sentiment of other speakers throughout the day, she encouraged HR professionals to learn all aspects of the business, so they will be taken seriously. Rhoades also encouraged them to think creatively when faced with what may seem insurmountable challenges.

“When we thought the Affordable Care Act was going to cost us $15 million over the next few years, we created [a wellness program consisting of] coaches for our people that saved us 11 percent last year by giving individual coaching to people with health problems,” she said. 

Participation was so successful that other organizations are “now looking to us as the model.” While much hand-wringing has been done by other organizations over the implementation of the new legislation, said Rhoades, “values-based organizations look at things differently” and adapt.

On Hiring Talent

Companies should also shift their focus to hiring people who are both skilled and have their personal values in line with the organization’s values. “If you don’t get the right people on the bus, nothing else works. Spend the time hiring the right people. Hire people that have the competencies and behave in a way that mirrors your values.”

Rhoades said companies should use behavioral-based interviewing that includes asking about “behaviors around the values. Ask questions not just about the behaviors you want to see, like behaving like a team player; ask for examples around values.” For example, if one of your organization’s values is about caring, ask job candidates to give an example of how they would care for their customers.

"We have flight attendants help us hire pilots, and customers that help us hire flight attendants. Involve your people in recruiting and hiring. They will help make it successful,” she said. HR should “hold people accountable for their values and then reward the right behaviors.”

Finally, Rhoades encouraged HR professionals to make sure they have focus groups “on the roll-out of your values, to get more insight on what you’re doing right and wrong. Who rolls them out is critical. Don’t make this an HR project. It’s a project for the entire organization.”

Aliah D. Wright is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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