Airlift’s secret sauce: empathy as the core management philosophy.

August 28, 2021

In the long run, Airlift views culture as a rare form of sustainable competitive advantage. Technology, operations and partnerships can be replicated by other key players; culture, however, is incredibly hard to replicate. The fact that we are sharing this in the public domain is a reinforcement of our belief that culture is, indeed, hard to replicate.


There’s a fun twist though. Airlift’s team is composed of diverse individuals. We see this diversity in terms of personality traits, age, educational background, experience, domain expertise, beliefs, worldviews, gender, lifestyle choices and more. How then do you build a culture that gets diverse individuals to operate in the same way?


Our answer is: you don’t. Instead, you build and scale a culture that celebrates diversity and bets on people’s unique potential, superpowers and ways of operating. As soon as we acknowledge these differences, we change the conversation. Now, instead of trying to force commonalities, we seek to understand and learn from one another and broaden our perspectives. Airlift’s management philosophy can therefore be summarized in one word: empathy.


When we think about policies to introduce, or systems to set up, we ask ourselves: is this making Airlift a place that we would love to work at? What would our team want? What would our customers want? We solicit feedback from the different people directly impacted by said policies and systems. Gathering feedback and communicating ideas to understand how others feel and what they value is the empathy that defines Airlift’s management philosophy across various contexts.


Specifically, we share below five ways in which Airlift’s management practices are built with empathy as their underlying principle. These are a product of learning from one another on the team, sharing our past experiences of working with some of the most talented individuals across the world, and of standing on the shoulders of others who generously shared their learnings with the world, including Henry Ward, Dale Carnegie, Andy Grove and many others.


1. Managers look for the presence of individual superpowers, and not for the absence of weaknesses.


With a diverse team, one size cannot fit all and should not be made to. Airlift’s approach is to focus on people’s superpowers and play to their strengths, rather than pushing them to ‘overcome their weaknesses’. To empathize and understand teammates, managers take a sincere interest in getting to know them. What drives them, what are they afraid of and what makes them happy? If someone isn’t performing well, managers maintain a positive focus on what the teammate excels at to design their scope of work accordingly.


2. Management is best viewed as a service function.


At Airlift, managers serve their teammates, guide them, make time for them and are generous in their appreciation. When the team wins, managers push credit to teammates. When the team struggles with a challenge, managers look out for them and take responsibility. Managers delegate the work that they would love to do rather than delegating what they would not want to do. Management at Airlift requires being selfless and committed to seeing others succeed.


3. Managers explain the ‘why’ and don’t dictate the ‘how’. 


At Airlift, everything we do is aligned with the broader mission. Managers convey the rationale behind a particular initiative to convince teammates on the ‘why’ before they encourage teammates to autonomously think about the specific ‘how’. Teammates are free to work in the day or at night, at home or at the office — they are evaluated based on impact, and not based on facetime.


In doing so, managers empathize with teammates who may have different ways of working. Managers give them room to innovate, leverage their unique ways of thinking and return to the table with original ideas that give everyone (including managers) something to learn from!


4. Managers lead with humility and learn from teammates.


At Airlift, if a manager is learning from their direct report, this is celebrated as a win for the manager. They have successfully recruited and scaled someone who uplevels our existing ways of thinking. Managers lead with humility and empathy. When someone invests high levels of effort into something, managers see this and share detailed feedback. When someone delivers well, managers push credit to them and learn from them. Managers also reach out proactively to solicit feedback for their own improvement.


5. Managers show vulnerability — they are authentic and forgiving.


We all make mistakes. If we’re not making mistakes, we’re not doing enough. The best managers are unafraid to show vulnerability and share their mistakes with others. In doing so, they develop stronger relationships, foster mutual empathy and help teammates feel comfortable with making mistakes, seeking forgiveness and driving innovation. In fact, one of our values is to seek forgiveness, and not permission.


In doing the above, managers at Airlift aim to cultivate leaders and to enable teammates to be the best version of themselves. They encourage teammates to think deeply about things, to challenge ideas, to reason from first principles and to fight for informed viewpoints that uplevel the status quo. To do so, we must lead from a place of empathy and create space for people to operate in ways that work best for them, where they can play to their strengths. 


We can’t wait to meet those who will bring (even more) unique, thoughtful perspectives to the table. If you are a passionate individual looking to be bet on and given the opportunity to make a difference, we want to hear from you: