Former CEO of Delta Airlines talks ethics with business students

A variety of business students in plaid, jeans, sweats, and suits piled into Jabs 111 on Oct. 6 at 5 p.m. Half of the room was already filled with members of the Bozeman community and colleagues of Gerald Grinstein – the chosen presenter for this semester’s continuation of the Jake Jabs College of Business and Entrepreneurship’s David Orser Executive Speakers Forum. After finishing his tour of the new business building, ‘Jerry’ Grinstein moseyed into the front of the room, noting the size of the crowd before him as he started his address.

CEO of Delta Air Lines until 2007, a former non-executive chairman of Agilent Technologies from 1999-2002, the chairman and CEO of Burlington Northern Inc, and the CEO of Western Airlines before that (among many other things), Grinstein has quite the repertoire of experience. He took over Delta when the company was in a deep financial crisis. To regain the trust of his employees, he took a serious pay cut, well below preceding executives’ multimillion dollar compensation packages and bonuses. Picking the highest paid pilot in the business, Grinstein matched his salary, telling his employees, “We are going to get out of this together.”

“The Importance of Ethics in Business Leadership,” was the focus of the lecture which he humbly introduced, saying, “a CEO lecturing on ethics is as effective as Donald Trump on humility.”

Grinstein began explaining how to make sure students find future employers that fit our values. “As you make decisions about what companies you want to join, you’ll focus on the leadership – that makes the fundamental difference.” When working for the University of Washington’s Board of Regents as they searched for a new university president, he made a list of five things that the future leader should embody. He thinks these five things are something all students should evaluate when searching for their first job, being empathy, integrity, intelligence, track record and the question: do people want to follow this person?

According to Grinstein, the management of a company should be able to understand their employees, be relatively transparent with their operations and own up to mistakes, have a practical sense of what people want, have appropriate reactions to past successes or failures, and just be someone that others want to move forward with. He urged students to be aware of their own legacies, saying:“You are now building your own track records … those are things people are going to look at.” He said that with regards to satisfaction with your jobs and employers, you should ask yourself, “Are you happy when [your boss] walks into your office? If the answer is ‘no’, now you have an idea.”

Grinstein did not approve of companies overpayment of CEOs. “You cannot justify 2000 times what the employee gets – you don’t bring that much value to it … when a failed CEO gets $27 million, it’s a scandal.” This is representative of the true culture of a company, which Grinstein says is very important to look at. “CEOs get generous salaries – I don’t know why they get bonuses for doing the right thing.” To prove how much he values his employees and cares about them, he gets on their level to build trust. On his first day working for Delta he drove up in his wife’s Prius, parked in the employee lot, took a low salary, communicated with his employees and still didn’t win them over immediately. Grinstein cared about them and wanted to make sure they knew it.

Now residing in Seattle with his wife, Grinstein finds his escape through collecting art, fly fishing, hunting and books. “We like to put a fly at the end of a line and throw it at a thing with a tiny brain and watch it outsmart us,” he said. He currently works as the strategic director of Madrona Venture Group (adding to his beyond-impressive resume) and continues to exemplify aforementioned values in his work.

The David Orser Executive Speakers Forum was created in 1988, funded by David B. Orser, to inspire MSU business students to pursue careers as innovative, responsible and ethical business leaders. The next lecture will take place in the spring semester.