by Kim S. Nash

American Airlines CIO on Stepping Down Amid Bankruptcy

Dec 15, 20115 mins
AnalyticsCIOEnterprise Applications

In this Q&A, CIO Magazine Hall of Fame member and soon-to-be ex-CIO of American Airlines Monte Ford talks about technology influence, cultivating future leaders and feeling sad.

New Year’s Eve brings Monte Ford a bittersweet resolution.

After 11 years as CIO of American Airlines, Ford plans to step down Dec. 31, as the company reorganizes under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. American’s CEO, head of operations and head of employee relations are also out. Mobility, analytics and other IT initiatives helped push American consistently ahead of rivals United and Continental in customer satisfaction. But Ford, a CIO Hall of Fame member, says his most lasting accomplishment is how he developed his staff.

You joined American Airlines in 2002, after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. You’re leaving as U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq draws down. There’s been a recession or two in between and the airlines are everyone’s favorite industry to hate. Has it been a wild ride?

A decade ago, we talked about all the things we needed to do at American and how Sept. 11 had a devastating effect [but] we were still going to do these things. We were trying to integrate TWA, which was pretty big. Sabre was selling its IT business to EDS.

Monte Ford
Monte Ford

Not that I’m the best leader ever, but the people we were able to assemble really met the challenges. We came from a place where we had lost our technology leadership and outsourced our thinking to a place where we’re thought leaders. Now mobility, networking, back-end systems — these things set us up to support the customer of the future.

Through these tumultuous years, how did you get the money to pay for all the IT you use?

Every year, we gave ourselves a challenge: to self-fund the new things we needed to do, by taking whatever million from operating expenses. In the last two years, we had the lowest operating expenses we’ve ever had. Some people, when money gets tight, will back off on innovation because they’re hunkered down. We had the opposite philosophy. That’s the time you need to spend most [on innovation].

Everyone was okay with that?

We developed relationships with the business units that gave us the credibility to make these decisions. If you’re constantly justifying your existence, you are in less good position to do your work. Initially, it was, “Can we even come to strategy meetings?” Now, we’re doing presentations in those meetings.

What is your most lasting accomplishment at American?

The development of people. The focus has to be not on looking back but forward. Back is not where innovation and creativity come from. Always move people forward. I like to rotate people into different areas so they’re not getting stale.

Take a really good person and the second they create a high-performing team is when you take them and put them somewhere else and let them do it again. And one of those high performers steps up and leads that team. It’s my turn to rotate. Every really good leader should know when it’s time to step aside. Most CIOs stay in the job for four years. I’ve been here 11. It’s time.

What do you wish you’d known about leadership 11 years ago?

I wish I knew as much about how to develop people as I do today. But the only way to know that is to do it. How you reward people makes a difference. In IT, we’ve always paid people what they deserve to be paid, even in difficult times. Salary is a statement.

But how you treat them, recognize them and promote diversity in the workplace all matter. Diversity is not just how many men or women or Hispanics and African Americans. It’s how open you are to suggestions from people who don’t have your background.

Your successor is Maya Leibman, who has worked at American for 17 years, most recently as president of the AAdvantage customer loyalty program. What are you and she talking about these days?

I got Maya out [of IT, where she helped launch curbside check-in and self-service kiosks] into the business units. She’s a very smart and very talented individual with a great personality. Maya has a different style than I do but philosophically, we agree.

What’s next — teaching, consulting, another CIO role?

I think I have opportunities in all of those. I want to live so that I create a void when I leave. I want there to be a hole in the planet where I was. A CIO like me at a big company has a higher calling. Not only as a matter of integrity and how you live your life but how you treat people and manage in times of need.

A CIO like me is supposed create an environment where innovation comes first. I’m supposed to find and pick small, young companies. When guys like me are willing to go with a different provider or a new technology or take a chance, those staid IT companies function better and [later] produce better products. The innovation I want to promote is not just at American, but across the IT industry.

What do you think your last day will be like?

I’m going to spend that day with Maya, talk with her about all the things she’s done, encourage her, embolden her. It’s going to be a very, very sad day for me, but I’m sure Maya and I will share a few laughs and hugs. Then I will sigh and relax and set my phone down. If Maya calls, I’ll answer.