3 reasons all founders should get their boots dirty

Pre-pandemic, I went back to school–JetBlue University, that is–where I completed ground operations training. This qualification comes in addition to my day job as Managing Director of Operations & Partnerships at JetBlue Technology Ventures (JTV), allowing me a unique vantage point into the complex operation and hard work required to get our customers to their destinations safely.

My goal was to grow my understanding of JetBlue “from the ground up.” While the company does an amazing job of helping office-based crewmembers understand the pressures of the frontline, any corporate role comes with the inherent risk of finding oneself out of touch with the day-in, day-out work the complex operation requires.

I’m hardly alone in finding ways to bridge the gap. Many of my colleagues at JetBlue, all the way up to senior leadership, maintain frontline credentials. It is not too rare to find out that a JetBlue executive is piloting your aircraft, pouring your drinks, or even collecting your trash. In fact, many other business leaders are finding ways to get closer to their operation and customers.

After completing my on-the-job training at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), I put together the following three reflections. I hope you find them useful and find ways within your startup, corporate, or professional services firm to break out of the ivory tower.

1. On the job experience will humanize many business problems and opportunities

Ground operations crewmembers show up at odd hours rain or shine to make the magic of air transportation possible. My teammates at LAX welcomed me with open arms and treated me like any other set of hands united in our mutual objectives of loading, servicing, and moving aircraft safely. During our overnight shifts, they looked out for my safety, helped me learn, and shared stories of their professional goals and ambitions.

As a customer or office worker, it is easy to take for granted the very real human effort required to make our dream vacations come to pass, and I’m fortunate I got to see how the magic happens. The experience humanized many real challenges and opportunities of a frontline worker’s day-to-day life. Put plainly, it’s easy to make cost-cutting business recommendations without first understanding the human element or emotional impact. On-the-job experience is a great way to learn that for yourself.

2. Momentum is more easily identified and carried forward

All ground operations crewmembers are trained to move bags in a way that’s easy for the next crewmember to complete their next task, specifically with the tags up and the wheels out. As an operational planning tactic, there are obvious reasons for this: each time a bag is improperly placed, it takes precious time away from turning a plane and increases the risk of personal injury.

There is an important lesson to extract from this for all levels of an organization: when working collaboratively, make the next person’s job easier for them. Provide your colleagues, clients, and customers with the most relevant information first (just how the bag tag lets us on the tarmac know where to sort it) and then help them carry it forward. In practice, this might look like identifying stakeholders who might want to weigh in with next steps, ghostwriting a note for your colleague to be able to effortlessly send it, or making an email subject line or calendar appointment title punchy and actionable. Help whoever you’re serving to execute with ease.

3. Innovation opportunities will become quickly apparent

So many of the vehicles, carts, and other equipment that live on the ramp look like they’re straight out of the 1970s–because they are! While this field has long been dominated by few players that have exerted oligopolistic power over the market, reducing incentives for innovation, disrupters have begun to emerge. One challenge in particular is finding truly promising companies that provide automation tools–effectively bringing Tesla to the tarmac with companies like ThorDrive and Moonware–and collision-avoidance systems which can reduce ground damage and crewmember injury rates for airlines.

Where these tech opportunities exist, innovation also abounds. Organizations can cultivate a culture of innovation from the top-down by securing an executive champion to serve as an advocate. At JTV, we do this by including JetBlue leadership in our investment committee and regularly conducting proof-of-concepts with relevant teams.

Many entrepreneurs and great business ideas are born from experiencing a problem firsthand. By “getting our boots dirty,” so to speak, these personal experiences help foster our most innovative ideas and give us perspective as to whether these technologies will work.

To learn more about JetBlue Technology Ventures, visit our website and sign up for our weekly newsletter.

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Stephen Snyder

Stephen Snyder

Managing Director, Operations & Partnerships at JetBlue Technology Ventures