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Les McKeown's Predictable Success Blog

  • February 21, 2007
  • minute read

JetBlue: That’s Not Turbulence, It’s Whitewater 

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David Neeleman, the founder and CEO of JetBlue, says he’s “humiliated and mortified” by the almost complete breakdown of his company’s operations last weekend.

Well, I have news for you, David – you should be happy.

Not by the breakdown, or it’s impact on your customers, of course: but be happy because the recent embarrassment is a sure sign that your organization is finally making it’s transition from Fun to Whitewater.

Next stop: Predictable Success – so long as you handle this transition correctly.

As with most founders, Mr Neeleman loves his company, and when something awful happens, like last weekend’s meltdown, it feels for all the world like their darling child is dying.

The truth is, it’s just growing up – and experiencing growing pains like any other adolescent.

So the challenge now is – how quickly – and effectively – can Mr Neeleman manage his organization through Whitewater?

Again, like most founders, Whitewater will be the first time he will really doubt his own abilities to run the business effectively, and again, part of the Whitewater pattern is that other’s will begin to doubt him too.

However, Mr Neeleman faces an additional challenge:

In addition to the usual ‘Fun to Predictable Success through Whitewater’ transition pattern, JetBlue has to deal with is what you might call ‘consolidated Fun syndrome’ (CFS).

Like SouthWest Airlines before it, and Google at present, JetBlue hasn’t just progressed through the ‘Fun’ stage of development – it’s actually incorporated ‘Fun’ as a core part of it’s DNA.

Organizations with CFS find it particularly hard to accept the challenges of Whitewater, because getting through Whitewater to Predictable Success means, for them, giving up much of what they hold most dear – moderate anarchy, lack of hierarchy, creative chaos.

Amazon and eBay are two examples of organizations that have proved it can be done – they both showed evidence of CFS early on, but managed to mature into Predictable Success organizations in due course (one – eBay – only did so by having the founder, Pierre Omidyar, hand over the reins. Jeff Bezos at Amazon has made the impressive personal transition to becoming a Predictable Success CEO).

Dell and Gateway are classic examples of organizations that have failed to make this transition, and as a result, have their founders (Michael Dell and Ted Waitt) popping in and out as chief executive every few years as their organizations yo-yo in and out of Whitewater.

What about it, David? Can you make the personal and organizational transitions necessary to take JetBlue through this Whitewater into Predictable Success?

The next 18 months will be critical – watch for any of the following to happen:

  • The ‘Shore-Up’: An ‘industry-steeped’ veteran is appointed COO with Neeleman keeping the CEO reins (bad – rarely works);

  • The Puppet Installation: An ‘industry-steeped’ veteran is appointed CEO with Neeleman stepping up as executive chairman (very bad – almost never works. See Dell and Gateway);

  • The Handover: An ‘industry-steeped’ veteran is appointed CEO with Neeleman stepping down (better – stands a chance of working – see eBay);

  • ‘Going Back To My Roots’: An ‘industry-steeped’ veteran is appointed CEO with Neeleman taking a role as ‘Chief Customer Maniac’, or ‘Chief Brand Builder’ or some such role (better still – stands most chance of working: see Gates / Ballmer at Microsoft, Semel / Filo & Yang at Yahoo, Schmidt / Page & Brin at Google…so far);

  • The Personal Transition: No ‘industry-steeped’ veteran is appointed anywhere visible. Neeleman goes quiet for 6 -12 months while retooling his management style, and emerges as a Predictable Success CEO (best, when it can be done: most satisfying and prolonged success model: see Jobs at Apple, Bezos at Amazon, Welch at GE);

Watch this space for more commentary on how (and if) David Neeleman and JetBlue work out their transition from Whitewater to Predictable Success…


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