Find the right people, not just right processes.

I was just settling in on my JetBlue flight from New York to Houston as a flight attendant walked through the cabin greeting passengers. She met me with the standard smile and “hello” but when she made eye contact with the business traveler next to me she said, “Great to see again, Mike” and continued her stroll down the aisle. “You have to travel quite a bit to be on a first name basis with the flight crew,” I said to him. “Well,” he said “It helps that I started the company.”

Mike Barger is a founder of JetBlue Airways. He served as its head of flight operations, and created JetBlue University, the award-winning corporate learning process that provides training and development to all JetBlue crew members. In other words, everything you like about JetBlue—their clean and efficient planes equipped with satellite TV, and their consistently kind, helpful crew—is all connected to the work Mike has done.

And there he was, sitting next to me.

As a leader I marvel at organizational effectiveness. It’s hard enough for me to get my family to the movies on time without one of us crying. So how in the world does someone get a team of diverse adults—especially in a large company—to embrace the same goals, to develop complementary skills, and to embody the same, right attitude in their tasks? How do we help our people, be they on a softball team, a church staff, or the entire crew of an airline, to live as a consistent and effective organization? These are central leadership questions.

Not wanting to miss a learning opportunity I turned to my neighbor in row 12 and asked him. I expected to hear something about development opportunities, team building exercises and annual reviews. “For example,” I said, “every time I fly JetBlue the pilot emerges from the cabin, grabs the microphone, and personally greets the passengers—thanking us for flying and giving us an overview of the journey ahead. How do you, as the boss, make sure that happens?” Without hesitation Mike said, “It’s not about finding the right processes for your people. It’s about finding the right people for your processes.” He went on to say that the secret to so much of JetBlue’s success was not in developing and organizing their employees for success, but first and foremost inviting the right people on to the team.

The point was this: you can teach skills and tasks, but it takes a lifetime to shape someone’s values and a miracle to change someone’s heart. “I could stop any crew member on this plane and ask them right now what our core values are and each one would be able to answer that question, without fail,” Mike said. "That’s not just because of our training. It’s because we made sure, before they joined our team, that they embodied those values." can teach skills and tasks, but it takes a lifetime to shape someone’s values and a miracle to change someone’s heart.

As leaders we must always value training, development and team building. They're indispensable. But we must keep in mind that the effectiveness and consistency we’re looking for is part of a process that starts long before someone has a role to play and pay to receive.

What are the core values of the team, the staff, the organization you’re building? Can you describe the heart that everyone must have in order for your objectives to be met? And what would it look like to not only provide training that cultivates this heart but to have a process that finds, welcomes, and hires those that already possess it?

As we exited the plane Mike and I exchanged the standard pleasantries. As he smiled and wished me the best, I noticed he was cleaning the seat-pocket in front of him—not only taking care of his trash but neatly arranging the magazines. As I got up I passed a flight attendant who was doing the same to an entire row. She glanced up just long enough to catch my eye. She smiled and, just like Mike, wished me the best. 

This article was originally published for LCEF at