On Monday night, CEOs from round the globe gathered at the Nasdaq Marketsite in Times Square to celebrate Delta Airlines’ Ed Bastian, the winner of the 2023 Chief Executive of the Year Award. The evening paid tribute to Bastian’s comeback from Covid-era challenges that hammered the airline’s revenues down to 10% in the early months of 2020.
We’ll have the full video of the award presentation out soon; In the meantime, have a look at the above video of a Q&A session at the end of the night featuring Salesforce’s Marc Benioff, the trailblazing tech mogul and 2022 CEO of the Year, and Bastian, who shared the stage to discuss, quite candidly, their unique strategies for steering through turbulent times, providing attendees with a masterclass in resilience and adaptability. They’re interviewed by Chief Executive editor Dan Bigman and Ted Bililies of AlixPartners, who serves as an advisor to the CEO of the Year selection committee.
Here are some of the highlights:
• Having faith is critical in difficult times. “I think when you’re the CEO of a company, you can have a vision, you can have values, you can have of your business plan, but at a very deep level, you’re gonna have to have faith,” said Benioff. “There’s some things you cannot learn in business school. You can learn how to write a vision statement, what your values are, what your methods are gonna be, and how to operationalize them, how to overcome your obstacles. But at the end of the day, you have to find that part of yourself that is gonna guide you forward so that you know and have faith that you will ultimately succeed.”
• But so is having the courage to change direction when mistakes are made, said Bastian, who heard from irate customers after making major change to the Skymiles reward program earlier this year. “We did not get it right. There was a lot of feedback that I heard. I said, ‘We gotta adjust, we gotta call a course correction.” It wasn’t easy to come out and say that. It’s a bit humbling to say it. It’s a great test of our vulnerability. [But] people don’t like following super humans. They like actually following transparent, authentic, vulnerable people.”
• Benioff had a similar awakening when activist investors told him that Salesforce margins weren’t where they should be. “That required us to take a good hard look in the mirror. That’s a hard thing to do as a CEO. As Ed said, there are moments where you have to say, ‘Ok, we’re gonna have a beginner’s mind.’ I think having a beginner’s mind is probably the most difficult thing to have as a CEO because you are so committed to your vision, your faith, your trust.”
But they did it, said Benioff. “We said, Yeah, we agree and this is gonna be hard. This is gonna be difficult. This is gonna be something incredibly uncomfortable, but we’re gonna have to take this action and we’re gonna have to transform from where we were exactly a year ago sitting in this room and end up to where we want to be right now. I think if you had asked me a year ago if it was possible that we’d raise our margin 1100 basis points in 12 months, you’d say no. No software company had ever done it before. And yet in the last quarter we exited with 31% margins. And it had to be done. Sometimes when it has to be done, you can have all the greatest ideas, done everything right, but nope—you’re gonna have to make that change.”
• And that old adage about it being lonely at the top? “I think that’s such bullshit,” said Bastian. “It’s only lonely at the top if you’re a crappy CEO—because that means no one’s following you.”