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“I play the long game”

Former Partner Michelle Horn, CSO of Delta Air Lines, discusses why the current challenges in the travel industry also present exciting opportunities.
Michelle Horn headshot
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When former Partner Michelle Horn (ATL 95-18) joined Delta Air Lines this March as its Chief Strategy Officer, travel bookings were beginning to slowly recover but were still far from pre-pandemic levels.

Never one to shy away from a challenge, Michelle was excited by the opportunity to help steer an iconic brand through an industry crisis.

She talks to us here about her goals for Delta, the specific McKinsey skills and experiences that are helping her achieve them, and her best travel story.

* * *

You became CSO of Delta at a very challenging time for airlines and the travel industry in general. What made you want to take the role at such an uncertain time?

I play the long game – I took this role not because of where we are now but where I think Delta can go. We have a great organization, brand preference higher than this industry has ever seen, and a leadership team that really wants to look forward and figure out how to stand out even further.

All that creates an absolutely exciting challenge for someone in a strategy role. The opportunity to come in when things are as disrupted as they are means that the whole leadership team is working closely together, which is key to being able to move fast.

We’ve had to be open to thinking about almost everything differently. Ninety percent of bookings went away in two days [at the beginning of the pandemic], so we can't really talk about marginal change; we have to talk about the big moves. The chance to do that on the upside as well is really exciting.

What do you think is your biggest challenge, and what do you enjoy about tackling it?

The industry is not yet returning the cost of capital. This is a really hard problem. We have to balance having a long view and big ideas while asking ourselves about the steps to take right now that will get us where we want to be.

Not every day is better than the previous, but for the most part, every week is better than the last. Every little bit is a win. There is excitement, a sense of possibility, a sense of good things to come, even now when it's still really a fight.

Delta is a solution-oriented, committed place. I can absolutely say if you're going to spend the pandemic working at an airline, Delta is the center of the action. Health care is also the center of the action. [Delta hired a Chief Health Officer in January, a first for an airline.]

Customers are coming back in different ways, and we’re trying to figure out how to serve them best. It doesn’t all involve analytics; there's a lot of judgment in it, which is interesting. To be here at this particular airline at this time is completely fascinating.

What is your most ambitious goal for Delta?

There is an opportunity to harness all of the data that we have in order to drive more value for our customers and for Delta. We know a lot about our customers that will help us serve them better – we just haven't figured out how to fully tap into it at a game-changing level. There's a lot that we can do to help you with your travel that isn't necessarily at the point of entry, but from the home on the front end and beyond the bag pickup on the back end. 

There's a huge opportunity in the digital and data space to make a lot of that happen. I'm particularly loving that, because when I was an Associate at McKinsey a long time ago, I worked on one of the first digital efforts at a major airline. That work gave me a love for frontline change and resulted in some things we still do today. It also creates a significant point of departure for a big new chapter.

How do you apply what you took away from your time at the Firm to your CSO role?

There are two big things you have to be able to do at Delta. One is that you have to take a really complex problem and structure it, because this is a complicated industry. You can't just roll out a problem and simplify it all that often. But being able to structure a question that can be analyzed and answered is really important. That is a classic McKinsey skill.

And second, Delta is an unbelievable network – because we’re an airline, every decision connects to everything else. The network connects to the fleet, which connects to the gate plan, which connects to the staffing plan, which connects to the customer service experience. And what goes wrong in one city impacts what happens in another.

To get almost anything really moving forward, you have to be able to bring a large group of people together and really listen to them, segment the issue, and drive toward an answer. That is also classic McKinsey.

Also, I spent a lot of time flying when I was at McKinsey, so I saw how a lot of problems connect pretty quickly to the frontline and having that perspective and total respect for how hard that job is helps a lot.

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Michelle and her family in Botswana

If you could get on a plane and go anywhere in the world right now, where would you go?

I would probably go to Vietnam or Thailand. That’s on my list to do once travel really opens up.

What’s your best travel story?

I have a great McKinsey travel anecdote. I was traveling to Turkey on a weekend to be there Monday, and if I'd thought about it, I would have worn a different outfit that day, because I was going straight to the airport from my son's soccer game.

There was a problem with my connections, so instead of going Atlanta-Amsterdam-Istanbul, which was my plan, I ended up having to take four flights. It was one of those rare occasions where I was going for quite a long time – I was going to be there for about ten days, so I had checked bags. By the time I got to Istanbul, of course I had no bags. I waited at the airport until 1:00 a.m. Then, a Partner in the Istanbul Office, a friend of mine, sent me a text. He said, "It sounds like you're not going to have your bags. So I went to the store, and I bought you an outfit for blue shoes and one for black shoes, and they're hanging in your hotel room."

It was a really kind thing of him to do. And a special shout-out to a colleague on the conference team who saved me by loaning me her size 7 shoes to match the outfits since I was wearing running shoes!

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

I’m really proud of where McKinsey is now – with a compelling set of skills that are much broader and deeper than the Firm I joined. At the same time the core of the place feels quite the same. Whatever part I played in that, from working on the strategy to developing and supporting great people, makes me proud. Being part of that journey and their success is just a thrill. 

A Delta Air Lines plane flies in front of a range of mountains
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