How Delta's Keyra Lynn Johnson Delivers DEI Results
November 14, 2023
How Delta's Keyra Lynn Johnson Delivers DEI Results
Sitting down with Huge global chief DEI officer Toni Lowe, Johnson reveals her tactics for building a truly representative workplace, and the power of brand purpose.
Words by Toni Lowe
Photos courtesy Mecca Gamble
Delta Air Lines has been a global leader in commercial aviation for the better part of a century. And though market analysts may be slow to acknowledge it, part of the company’s current success must be attributed to Keyra Lynn Johnson, Delta’s chief diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) officer.
Johnson is the rare leader who understands that DEI is neither a stand-alone initiative nor a collection of concepts that exist in isolation from one another. To deliver on this truth, Johnson has assembled a team of top-tier DEI practitioners who bring not just passion but deep skills that drive meaningful, measurable change across an organization with nearly 100,000 employees.
Johnson epitomizes what it means to make Huge Moves, even when that means pursuing progress over perfection. She urges organizations to focus on sustainable change rather than immediate or flashy goals. On this busy morning, Johnson appeared at the Delta Flight Museum, located steps from the world’s busiest airport, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson — where Johnson’s career began as a customer-service agent — with unwavering poise and an infectious smile. It was the look of someone walking seamlessly in her purpose.
I hope that as you read excerpts from our recent conversation in Atlanta, you learn not only how to walk in your brand’s purpose, but to ensure all your people — not just some — are walking with you.
This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Over a 29-year career at Delta you’ve held 11 positions, from a customer-service agent at the gate to the C-suite. What are some lessons you’ve learned over such a tremendous trajectory?
I’d start by saying Delta has changed a lot in 29 years. But for me, the constant is a culture of care. People are often taught that ‘corporate’ means something depersonalized, and that just hasn’t been my experience. Starting out almost 29 years ago, working oversold flights to Honolulu, I quickly learned the art of negotiation, the art of serving others, the art of meeting customer expectations.
That experience as a frontline employee made me insanely interested in our employee communications model. It’s why I became passionate about corporate communications. My outlook is: Nothing is wasted. That’s an attitude I’ve brought to my current role. Because my professional experiences here have been so varied, I can lean on them to have a lens on the broader employee population.
We believe that Huge Moves are not made in isolation. How have you gone about cultivating allies and securing buy-in to achieve great things together?
I don’t have to convince the vast majority of our employees why this work is important. The bigger challenge, like at any company, is making sure the middle of the organization is behaving in a way that shows we not only believe it but we do it.
The idea that any individual office can do this work alone is laughable. Delta’s really embraced the idea of not treating the work as a bolt-on to the business. It’s not ‘We are Delta Air Lines and we believe in diversity, equity and inclusion.’ It’s ‘Delta Air Lines believes in diversity, equity and inclusion.’ That orientation makes all of us stakeholders.
You’ve worked in recent years to foreground equity. Why elevate that specific element?
In 2017 we put more rigor behind our work. The events of 2020 accelerated our strategy, and we actually pulled equity forward. So instead of looking at equity as an outcome of diversity and inclusion, we realized that perhaps we had to anchor our strategy in this concept. I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that the ‘E’ sits in the middle. It is the anchor.
If I ever changed my title, it would be to chief equity officer, but I don’t want my CEO to think I’m coming for his job. [Laughs.] Elevating ‘equity,’ though, that gave the word power. It caused us to think differently about our business. Our benefits offerings are different. We think about pay structures differently. We think about career mobility differently. Do you really need a degree for that job? We think about how skills can be the focus, so that we remove unnecessary barriers that have kept people out of the industry. An equity mindset has really unlocked a part of our strategy.
DEI practitioners are currently navigating a lot of pushback, particularly as their companies face financial and political pressures to deprioritize the work. How does this phenomenon register with you, and how do you keep Delta tethered to its commitments?
I always say that when you employ more than 90,000 people, society comes to work. That’s why it’s important to have these commitments, this sense of purpose. A company’s values are like an insurance policy that anchors everyone before the headwinds come. And they will come. If you’re just getting started with this work, I understand why some people are blowing to the right and the left. I feel good that we’ve been able to stand firm, because this is one of those years. But standing firm has a lot to do with the fact that we’ve stood up.
The other thing we’ve noticed is a lot of people have started using 2020 as this measuring stick. In some ways, 2020 was a sprint that could not be sustained, and right now, you’re seeing people struggle to find a sustainable pace. People slow down, and now maybe they’re jogging. That might make people look and say, ‘Well, they’re no longer committed.’ And I’m thinking, ‘Well, no, maybe that pace was not sustainable.’ If you think about sprints, they’re all about scoring a quick win. This work is not a quick win. I just need to know that people are still facing in the right direction. They’re not standing still. They’re still moving.
Toni Lowe is the global chief diversity, equity and inclusion officer at Huge.