American Airlines
Faster and more insight-led business innovation

logo image American Airlines
Leadership With Steven Leist VP, Customer Technology at American Airlines

“We could see that throwing more people at our problems wasn’t changing things – we knew we had to do something radically different.”

Steven Leist VP, Customer Technology at American Airlines

Main challenges

  • Big 12-18-month initiatives meant that projects were often started, but hard to finish and under delivered – trying to build big things faster was getting them nowhere.

  • The technology delivery teams were discouraged and burnt out, and the rest of the business was frustrated that product and service releases took so long and didn’t solve all the problems.

  • It was painfully clear that a radical change was needed, and leaders realized they couldn’t outsource this change – they needed to own it.

  • The technology team not only wanted to become more nimble and deliver value faster, they wanted to bring their business partners on the journey with them.

How we worked together

  • The project itself started small, with a talk to technology leaders and key business partners on the importance of laying out a clear vision, defining outcomes and then getting out of the way so that people can make it happen.

  • I worked with a handful of key leaders to inspire new ways of thinking and enable each person to plot a path towards doing things differently with their teams.

  • A one-day workshop with the entire tech leadership group introduced powerful tools, frameworks and techniques that people used to develop a strategy for how their team would change in line with the vision.

  • At various stages of the program, check-ins and coaching with key transformation leaders helped them continue to shape and refine the new ways of working.

“It’s takes bold leadership and brave choices to commit to a new path. It also requires the humility to call out that what is being done today isn’t working. The team at American Airlines has surprised themselves with what they now can see is possible. Thinking big, starting small and learning fast what works and doesn’t has been the key to get them started—and scale from there.”

Barry O'Reilly, Business Advisor and Author

The difference this made

  • Setting clear outcomes and then giving teams and individuals autonomy in how they achieve these has created energy and fundamentally changed how people work.

  • The business has moved from huge, unwieldy projects to making smaller, more targeted improvements quickly, learning from these and scaling out what works – moving on from 2 releases a month to 40 in 3 weeks.

  • They’re now able to respond quickly to the unexpected – for example, installing 2100 touchless kiosks in just 6 weeks for safer, easier check-ins during the pandemic.

  • Product teams are more unified, with technical and business partners working side by side to build momentum with an understanding of each others’ priorities and constraints.

  • Morale and productivity have jumped, and people from outside American Airlines are wanting to join the team.

The key to our success

Learning by doing: you can achieve much more, much faster by making small changes, then scaling up what works and safely stopping what doesn’t, and moving on to new ideas when you’ve hit enough of your outcomes.

“I must say ‘think big, start small’ 40 times a day – it’s a strategy that’s helping not just our technology group, but our entire business become more successful.”
Steven Leist
VP, Customer Technology at American Airlines

Curious about working with me?


I set time aside every other Tuesday for informal, no-strings conversations with like-minded people. There’s no need to prepare anything or email me beforehand (unless you want to). Just be ready to talk candidly about what you’re looking for, and why.