Joel Peterson of JetBlue on Listening Without an Agenda

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This interview with Joel Peterson, chairman of JetBlue Airways and founder of Peterson Partners, an investment firm, was conducted and condensed by Adam Bryant of The New York Times.

Q. Were you in leadership roles or doing entrepreneurial things when you were younger?

A. We lived in a little town in central Michigan. I grew vegetables when I was 11 years old, and hired my little brother to deliver them around the neighborhood. That was my first entrepreneurial experience.

I always had a job. We were very middle class. My father was a geneticist, and biology professors didn’t make much money, so we had to work if we wanted spending money. I had a paper route, I was a dishwasher and a busboy. Between high school and college, I worked in a biochemistry lab, and I met these Ph.D. students who had messy apartments and wanted them cleaned. So I hired some people and started a business doing that.

Tell me more about your parents. How have they influenced your leadership style?

My mother was a homemaker and was the kindest person I’ve ever known. She was very social, and never said an ill word about another human being. My father was a bit of an introvert. He liked spending time with his plants and writing papers. I see elements of both of them in me, but I don’t think I’m like either of them.

What about early leadership roles for you?

I’ve always ended up in leadership roles. I remember being the safety patrol captain, which was a big deal in sixth grade. I became student body president in junior high school, and I was the student body president in college.

It wasn’t about me saying, “I want to be the leader.” If you get people rallying around a cause or something that needs to be done, you end up leading that cause, whether you want to or not.

Did you have an idea of what you wanted to do right out of college?

I went directly to business school right out of undergrad, and it was all new to me because I’d never taken a business class. I went to the placement office and saw a 3-by-5 card on the bulletin board there from Trammell Crow (the real estate developer), which said, “Looking for somebody fluent in French to go to the French Riviera to develop space.” And I thought, “Come on. My high school buddies would never believe this. Are you serious?” So I ended up going to the French Riviera, and stayed in France for a couple of years.

And you were in management roles right away?

You are more of an orchestra leader. You have to buy land. You have to get it permitted. You have to get financing. You have to get design done. You have to get contractors and subcontractors. It’s sort of a virtual organization. It’s a great way to learn how to lead, because you don’t really control everything.

And after France?

The late ’70s were a really traumatic time for the real estate industry. I had done an analysis of our financing, and people were impressed that I had figured it out. So they invited me back to the States to be treasurer. A few months later, the C.F.O. left, so they put me in that role. I was 29. It was baptism by fire.

That is a big step. Did they tell you why they were giving you so much responsibility at a young age?

At the time, I wasn’t quite sure why, but I think people tend to trust me. In turnarounds, particularly when you’re having to deal with lenders and partners, having high trust is probably the most important element of it. I wasn’t great at the technical parts of the job, but I had a lot of lawyers and accountants who reported to me.

Can you parse that a little more for me? What did you do to make people trust you?

For me, a lot of it is listening. I’m a really good listener. It’s not a technique — I’m really interested in what people have to say. But it does develop trust as a byproduct. If you’re authentic, open, you call things as they are, you really are direct and you listen well, that develops trust.

And you can’t have an agenda. When you have your own agenda when you’re listening to someone, what you’re doing is you’re formulating your response rather than processing what the other person is saying. You have to really be at home with yourself. If you have these driving needs to show off or be heard or whatever, then that kind of overwhelms the process. If you’re really grounded and at home with yourself, then you can actually get in the other person’s world, and I think that builds trust.

How do you hire?

At Trammell, we used to say we hire for brains and heart, and we’ll give them experience. That has been a guiding principle for me. You’re not going to change somebody’s I.Q., and you’re not going to change their character. We really try to assess those, but the third element I’ve added is judgment. Some people can be really smart and have high character, and they just have no judgment. They don’t know big from little. They don’t know the elephants from the ants.

And how do you screen for that?

I ask a lot of “why” questions. I’ll ask people to tell me their story, and then you’re listening for inflection points. Everybody changes course, and the great question then is why and why again and then why again. Once you start to understand why people have done things, you can pick up a lot about their judgment.

I also find that people are often moving toward things or away from things. I like people who are moving toward things. I think when people are moving away from things all the time in their narrative — like getting away from a boss they hated — that’s a judgment question to me.