JetBlue Airways Chairman Told Me Two Ways to Help Your Career to Takeoff

I recently interviewed Joel Peterson for my Leadership Lab podcast. Joel has a long history of successful growth capital investments in a variety of industries. He currently teaches at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business, serves as Chairman of the Board of Overseers at the Hoover Institution at Stanford, and is engaged on numerous Boards. In May 2020, Joel stepped down as Chairman of the Board for JetBlue Airways after spending a total of 20 years on the Board. Joel is the former Managing Partner of the Trammell Crow Company and is the author of the recent business book, Entrepreneurial Leadership: The Art of Launching New Ventures, Inspiring Others, and Running Stuff. 

To say that Joel Peterson knows a good deal about business is an understatement. He’s negotiated billion-dollar deals, rose to the top of large organizations, launched a successful business, and interacted with CEOs around the world. Joel knows A LOT about business and what it takes to lead a successful career.

During our conversation, I asked him what advice he would give people who are starting their careers or looking to make a transition. He offered me two smart ideas that are worth your consideration.

Smart Career Idea 1: Go where nobody is going

When Joel graduated Harvard Business School, many of his friends and classmates headed into consulting and finance. However, he went a different route and took a role in commercial real estate. It worked out amazingly well. He joined the Trammel Crow Company where he played a major part in turning the business into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Joel shared that many shied away from commercial real estate because they saw it as a deal business and not very professional, but as he told me, “I always found it interesting to go against the grain.”

Joel said that as you look at industries and consider how to go against the grain, pay particular attention to how technology will influence each industry that you study. If you find an industry where technology is playing a large and expanding role, you’ve uncovered a place where change is underway. “Anything that is changing lends itself to opportunity.”

Here are four steps to help you to put this idea to work in your career.

  1. Research the internet for industries poised to grow. Yes, even in a COVID 19 world, some industries are going to do well and outperform the broader market. Don’t believe me, just Google “Industries poised to grow” and see what you learn.
  2. Analyze the results of your research to see what options you find personally appealing. Don’t worry what other people find attractive, consider what you find attractive. As Joel set, go against the grain.
  3. As you narrow your list of options, envision what entering a specific industry might lead to over time. Ask yourself what jobs people hold, what companies they work for, and what opportunities lie ahead. Consider how economic, regulatory, political, and other factors might affect the opportunities.
  4. Reach out to people who are currently in your selected industry(ies) and ask to talk about their career and what they’ve learned along the way.

Smart Career Ideas 2: Be willing to sell

Joel encourages everyone to go into sales. He recognizes that many are hesitant to take on a sales role, but insists that, “you will never learn more about a market, about how people make decisions, and about how to be persuasive,” than you will if take a sales job. He further adds that working in sales will teach you how to be a “problem solver and a great listener”.

My experience suggests that what Joel told me is true. Throughout my career, I’ve had roles that come with a sales goal. Those roles also come with a great deal of frustration, struggle, and experience. The latter of which makes it well worth the effort. Plus, if thinks work out well, sales jobs come with plenty of success.

Let’s face it, to some extent, everyone is in sales. Joel’s advice is to embrace that reality and take on the challenge.

Here are a few steps to help you to put this idea to work in your career.

  1. Reflect on the sales roles that you’ve filled in the past. If you can’t think of one, think harder. You may not have sold a product or service, but you’ve likely sold a concept, idea, or argument idea to a friend or family member. Consider what you liked/didn’t like about the experience.
  2. Reach out to three different sales people working in three different industries. Ask each to meet with you to talk about their experiences, how they spend their day, and what they like/don’t like about the job. Bring your ‘liked/didn’t like’ list from step one with you and talk openly about your thoughts.
  3. Now, after reflecting and reaching out, ask yourself this question. If you had to follow Joel Peterson’s advice and take a sales job, what would that job entail? What industry which you focus on? What would you like to learn from the experience?
  4. Search for sales positions that align with what you’ve learned about yourself and apply for several of them. Go through the interview process with an open mind and see where it takes you.

The reality is that many people say they want to lead an organization someday, start their own business, or run a nonprofit. All of these positions and many more require you to sell. You might as well start now.


Photo by Matt Ridley on