An All-American Leader

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Growing up around a family-owned business, establishing a tireless work ethic, and pursuing an early career as a teacher helped shape Jessica Tyler’s "open book" leadership style.

Long before Jessica Tyler became an airline executive, she was an educator. "My earliest understanding of relationships and engagement came from being a teacher and coach," says Tyler, who in June 2020 took on a double role at American Airlines (AA)—president of the cargo business and vice president of airport excellence.

"As a teacher in my 20s, I quickly came to see that the only way to get the most out of someone, to help them fulfill their own potential, is to have a relationship with them," says Tyler. Even today, she spends part of each week talking one-on-one with employees, getting a sense of who they are and where their talents and interests might take them next.

During Inbound Logistics’ own recent one-on-one with Tyler, we learned how she’s leading AA Cargo through a digital transformation, the pandemic, and beyond.

IL: How did growing up around a small, family-owned business influence your career?

My father spent years in corporate leadership before he and my mother opened an art gallery and custom framing business. They worked seven days per week for almost 40 years. Their work ethic made a tremendous impression on me. So did their ability to reinvent themselves over time, responding to new competition from big-box stores and learning to draw traffic to their website.

They taught me to never stop learning. I’m known for asking a lot of questions; I get that from my father.

IL: What’s one incident from your early career that helped shape you as a leader?

When I was assistant principal at a middle school, one teacher seemed to have a horrible attitude. The students didn’t like her and she didn’t like the students. My first reaction was, "Why are you a teacher if this is how you feel every day?"

But over time, as we developed a relationship, we were able to connect her back to her purpose and passion. As a corporate leader, I’ve learned that if you don’t take care of the people who take care of the people—in that case, the teacher who took care of the students—you have no hope of success.

IL: You spent several years leading AA Cargo’s digital transformation initiative. What changes did you achieve?

We went on a multiyear journey to streamline and upgrade our IT landscape. That resulted in replacing about 90 systems, some of which were 40 years old and based on green screens and command-driven software. In their place, we now have a modern, end-to-end system to manage everything from booking to invoicing and all the logistics in between.

For shippers, the new system provides a better customer experience and more detailed shipment tracking. There’s more capability for electronic communications, and our website offers more self-service transactions, such as route searches and claim submissions. We also have better booking capabilities. And that’s just the beginning.

IL: What’s your leadership style?

I’m a pretty open book. As a leader, I have to be clear about what we do and why we do it. And I have to work on the assumption that most people show up at work wanting to do a good job. They want to feel that they’re part of something bigger than they are, and that their talents and strengths matter. This has helped me in many difficult situations.

For instance, our digital transformation was some of the hardest work I’ve been part of. There were tears and long nights and weekends. There were moments of little hope that things would work out. In times like that, it’s important to ask, "Why are we doing what we’re doing?" and "Are we surrounded by people we trust and support?" The most important part of leadership is being open and transparent about all that.

IL: What are your strategies for nurturing talent?

I’m a big believer that growth for talented folks is rarely a planned thing. It’s important to help others understand what they do best and see how they can apply their talents in new ways, whether that’s through projects, special task forces, or outside opportunities.

I make a point of spending time with our folks, and encouraging other leaders to do the same, to learn about their interests and help connect them to opportunities within the organization. I also want to learn about people’s experiences and backgrounds. That helps us bring greater diversity to our teams.

IL: What has been one of your best days since you took on your new roles at AA Cargo?

One recent highlight was the day I did a video town hall with our team at Los Angeles International Airport. During the pandemic, I’ve missed spending quality face time with our teams across the world. In that meeting, it was great to look people in the eye, hear what they were thinking, share our plans for the near term, and say thank you.

IL: With whom would you like to switch jobs for a day?

A front-line leader at American—for instance, the customer service manager who supports the teams that load passenger bags. Switching with that leader to understand all that someone in that role goes through in a day would be a valuable experience.

IL: How do you spend your time outside work?

My husband and I have three sons, ages 15, 13, and 10. They’re all athletic and into multiple sports, so that keeps us busy. I like to escape sometimes by reading mindless fiction. We also do a lot of volunteering along with my parents. But right now, there’s nothing more important than making sure our boys know how to be responsible, helpful, caring, and kind people when they grow up.

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