Jeffrey Katz Transcript

A recognized leader in the travel and e-commerce industries, Jeff Katz is the founder and CEO of Journera, a platform that brings together data from throughout the travel journey to open up new possibilities for travelers and travel companies. He was previously the founding Chairman and CEO of Orbitz, CEO of Swissair and President of the global distribution system, SABRE. He is one of very few executives who has also led companies in other industries, serving as CEO and Executive Chairman of LeapFrog Enterprises, a technology-based children’s product company, as well as CEO of the web-based comparison-shopping company, Nextag.

Finding his path: Katz carves out a fit for multiple talents.

 Growing up in the wine country of Northern California, the son of Holocaust survivors, Jeff Katz wasn’t sure where he’d end up but knew he wanted agency and innovation in whatever he pursued. Engineering made a great fit with his natural aptitude for math and science, but even the infinite budget and challenging fusion projects he encountered while working early on at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory weren’t enough to offset hierarchical limitations. So he pivoted to study business and aerospace engineering at MIT. Timing is everything and in Katz’s case he finished his dual masters’ degrees just as the airline industry was deregulating. “So I went to Dallas and started working for American Airlines as an analyst. And, you know, in those days, the early 80s, … with infinite (new) degrees of freedoms, you had to decide what to do with airplanes and what kind of airplanes to buy. And that’s all a big math problem. That’s how I began in travel,” says Katz. It was the perfect fit and a great training ground.

Establishing Command-and-Control at American

 The path at first was traditional – with Katz climbing through the ranks at American by taking on managerial positions with increasing responsibility across Finance, Sales, Marketing, Customer Service. Over the course of two decades he was perpetually groomed for more and more senior roles, both conforming to the culture and evolving his own personal management style. A major differentiator was Katz’s ability to speak C-suite language and communicate across teams but also to grasp the engineering and numbers part of the airline equation. He “got” computer networking and system optimization and had the rare ability to translate that info for executive decision-makers. “Even if you can think your way through an answer, your communication skills become super-important to make sure where you’re going is followed by the people who really have to make things happen,” says Katz. Along the way Katz acculturated to American’s corporate tone – a traditional one that emphasized hierarchy, necktie etiquette and an autocratic management style. “I was a command-and-control leader,” says Katz. “That’s the way we ran things in those days: I tell you what to do, you do it and if you don’t like it, leave. It was a very harsh kind of management style.” Katz practiced that tone and mastered it, developing a reputation within the industry. Looking back, he says the atmosphere was laced with threats from competitors – both internal and external. It was intense but, says Katz, on the upside it fostered a passion for the mission. Whether driving American’s core business or growing SABRE, its subsidiary global distribution system, the drive to performance was energizing and exciting. The work with SABRE, a forerunner to the massive networked computing that would control travel bookings in the internet age, was also Katz’s first real glimpse into what was clearly on the horizon. He brought his own somewhat renegade style, but there were certain protocols you observed if you wanted to be one of the top 10 or 12 corporate decision-makers, which is what Katz desired to be. It would be some years down the line before he finally rid himself of the necktie mandate, but that day would come.

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Taking the helm on a new European playing field.

As Europe followed the U.S. into deregulation of its airline industry in the 1990s, Katz’s expertise was coveted. He was recruited to head up Swissair as it navigated the newly liberalized industry. His managerial style transferred easily. “It was authoritative. And it could be really mean, really cutthroat,” says Katz. The structures were centralized and there were only the smallest tendrils of interest in more progressive management ideas like employee participation or flexible work. The buttoned-up Swiss were still very much about the suit and tie and executing the game plan which Katz had learned at American. “The Swiss then were extremely formal in the workplace. It was a very political … If you were a management person in Switzerland, you had served time in the Swiss military,” says Katz. He loved the job of CEO and the pleasure of working with people at the top of their game. He found them to be “the best people in the country of Switzerland … inherently fun and funny and creative and meticulous,” he says. But the culture was very hierarchical and the rigidity didn’t serve the airline culture particularly well in a post-regulatory environment. The word in play at that point was “agile,” and that’s what Katz endeavored to instill, along with significant technological upgrades across the board. Things were humming along when Swissair Flight 111 (known as the “UN shuttle because of its popularity with United Nations employees traveling between the organization’s two major centers) went down somewhere in the ocean outside Nova Scotia en route from New York and Geneva. The experience’s impacts have been personal, and enduring, for Katz. His entire executive tenor shifted to a tone of compassion and empathy. The airline leapt into action, minimizing conjecture and delicately managing the raw emotions of relatives, modeling what today is the standard of care. “It’s a very somber experience, you know, a grave responsibility,” says Katz. “The initial crash process and investigation, which lasted well over a year … (is) a really harsh experience,” says Katz. “But you also learn about the magic of a great team.” He was indelibly impacted by the ongoing professionalism, compassion, focus and diligence his workers demonstrated. “It was remarkable and changed my life – actually changed me from this person who was command-and-control and essentially an autocrat to a completely different person,” recalls Katz. The true essence of leadership had been stripped bare and the most powerful parts revealed.

Moving on to start Orbitz as a changed human – and leader.

When Katz decided to launch a new travel software called Orbitz right around the Millennium, he brought with him the pioneering spirit necessary for an online tech platform (then a space just barely lifting off) as well as a new kind of leadership style. “I was taught in the hierarchical world of airlines that I grew up in, (but) I’d become a lot more open and emotionally vulnerably,” says Katz. Tragedy had a clarifying impact and also, unfortunately, proved sound preparation for what lay ahead. Barely a year after Orbitz launched its software, 9/11 occurred. The ascension of terror roiled the travel industry and sent much of the world into paralysis. “It was a shock. We thought the world was over,” says Katz. “I would get calls from senior airline executives who would say, ‘Jeff, it was nice working with you.’ They thought were dead.” But in fact the situation yielded an unexpected rebound opportunity: The moment for self-booked budget travel had arrived. People were uneasy about the future of the geopolitics and the economy, but one thing they could control was their flight, rental care and hotel bookings. With thousands and thousands of adopters migrating to e-commerce platforms of all kinds, Orbitz appeared at exactly the right moment. The threat of terrorism was a shock to the global travel industry. “But what happened is, a few days later, we could see in the numbers that people didn’t stop traveling,” says Katz. “They just all became budget travelers. And guess what the best site for budget travel was?” Orbitz was the tool of the moment.

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Managing through tough times.

Katz took away two key lessons from the jolts he rode out at both Swissair and Orbitz. The first is, operate with a strategy that makes sense at every level to everyone on the team. That’s No. 1. But nearly co-equal, says Katz, is making sure that your core team is of the highest caliber. He points to all the greatest business success stories and what they have in common: A visionary base of deeply committed founding members who set the bar high right out of the gate. Foundations that solid generate enterprises ready to grow and excel. And what are those ingredients critical to your A Team? Honesty and integrity. It might harken back to his more autocratic days, but Katz is uncompromising on this point: “Say what you mean. Do what you say. And if you don’t, you’re gone,” he explains. “That’s how harsh you have to be sometimes at a startup that may not survive.” Also right up at the top of the list is strong communication skills, which determine success no matter the domain. Katz also emphasizes choosing team members who have superior skill sets – whether they are developers, marketers, product managers or any other role across the enterprise. And finally, use metrics to validate that that top talent, communications and skilled execution add up to demonstrable results. 

How Katz deployed his new management style at Orbitz

First off – neckties were out! He also encouraged a far more open, communicative workplace environment than he’d previously experienced. Katz personally wrote an email – “Good Morning, Orbitz” – weekly without fail to ensure his employees knew exactly where things were. He was forthright with observations and what was on his mind. Katz also instituted a twice-daily meeting – known as a stand-up or ops meeting – that took transparency to the level of sharing all the company’s nitty-gritty details – whether code or a customer service challenge – so that all team members were moving forward together in sync. “We’d sit in this room – as many as we could squeeze in – and people had to talk. You had to be honest about what was going on – good, bad or indifferent,” says Katz. Some found the practice high-pressure, but it kept everyone on the same page during an intensive time of growth and development. There were, says Katz, “some command-and-control moments, because you’re trying to get a company off the ground. But ultimately people loved working at Orbitz.” It was a sort of fraternity built on rigor and pride.

What Katz’s management style looks like today.

While perhaps not a total warm-and-fuzzy, Katz in 2022 has traveled far from his managerial roots. He has evolved along with corporate leadership practices generally to embrace a more human-centered methodology. Rather than a reign of fear and terror, Katz’s workplaces today are collaborative. People know more about his personal side and he’s happy to host an online cocktail hour that features anniversary celebrations and shared pet stories. “It’s certainly been a personal evolution, but I also think it’s a management style evolution,” he says. The shift is particularly well suited to Katz’s latest startup, Journera, a tech company that partners travel providers, marketers and technologists to bring together a real-time view of a traveler’s journey. It features a secure and private exchange of shared customer data to elevate travel experiences, strengthen loyalty, increase direct engagement and facilitate operational efficiencies. Katz is loving the company’s bootsraps intimacy and the 100 percent focus on strategizing for success. People who have known Katz over the long haulthink I’m like some weirdly transformed person,” he says, “and they’re never really sure if the scary version of me is going to come back out.” It’s unlikely. Constant evolution has been a hallmark of Katz’s career, influenced in no small measure, he says, by some wonderful mentors he has picked up along the way. And he has of course also been indelibly shaped by Swissair Flight 111 and the aftershocks of 9/11. Whatever your stratosphere of wealth or achievement,” says Katz, “It doesn’t really matter. This you learn from tragedy. At the end of the day, you know, it is about humanity.”

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The #1 challenge for organizations right now is how to attract and retain talent. Organizations are stuck in old ways of thinking about work and they are struggling! In my new PDF, I outline 7 ways the workforce is changing and what you and your organization need to do to adapt. The Great Resignation is The Great Opportunity if you are willing to take action! Click here to download the PDF.