Thomas Rajan came back to American Airlines in 2017. But his American story starts nearly thirty years ago in 1992. Rajan was eleven years old, about to emigrate to the United States from his birthplace Dubai with his family, all of whom are from India.
“Back in those days, the airlines didn’t have seatback digital screens,” Rajan remembers. “So there was a hand-drawn map displayed at the entry door that would show the routing that the flight would take. I remember looking at that map and seeing our path—this line going across this giant body of water.”
After the plane touched down on American soil, one of the flight attendants rolled up the map and as a surprise, gifted it to Rajan. He still has it to this day.
“It’s in a frame, but the ink has almost completely faded,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out how to restore it. I’ve been blessed to have this experience, where my story as an American citizen actually starts with an American Airlines flight.”
Today, Rajan serves as the airline’s vice president of global talent and total rewards, where, in addition to overseeing compensation and benefits, he focuses on attracting great talent and creating growth opportunities for American Airlines team members so that they can thrive.
It’s an industry he has a lot of experience in himself, having started as a customer service agent at America West Airlines and British Airways while studying at Arizona State University. As soon as classes ended in the afternoon, he would head to the airport and work well into the night at the ticket counter, gate, and ramp.
“Nothing against the formal education I received, but I learned more in those four years working at the airport than I did in my four years at university,” Rajan says with a laugh. “I was getting to meet so many different people from so many different parts of the world. That was electrifying and inspirational to me.”
In 2005, America West Airlines merged with US Airways, which later merged with American Airlines. Across a career inside and outside the airline, he’s viewed the business from many aspects that have given him an empathetic perspective that continues to inform his work. After all, creating and sustaining an environment where American Airlines team members can thrive is a lot easier when you’ve been in their shoes.
Rajan cites three recent initiatives that have been crucial. First was defining the airline’s purpose with the assistance of the leadership institute Chapman & Co. The massive undertaking involved assembling 150 team members in a room—a cross-section from all departments that represented the organization as a whole. Rajan and the folks from Chapman asked everyone, “Who or what is American on our best day?”
To Rajan’s surprise, most of the answers were expansive and fundamentally human: team members assisting stranded customers in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and a team member whose wife had unexpectedly passed away overseas and needed the airline’s help in transporting her body back home.
“The stories all had the central theme of caring,” Rajan says. “So that’s how our purpose was born: ‘to care for people on life’s journey.’ That became our rallying cry. It talks about our customers—people who are going to a wedding or a funeral or a cancer treatment or a business deal. Whatever your life journey is, how do we as American Airlines care for you on that path?”
“Our purpose also refers to our team members on their career journey,” he continues. “From a ticket agent to a senior leader in the organization, how can we help steward growth?”
Once American’s purpose was in place, the second initiative was providing tangible tools to help team members foster their own career growth. He and his team connected with Degreed, a learning experience platform that identifies the skills team members already have while also identifing what skills they need for their next career step. It then recommends everything from courses to articles to videos and podcasts. Its social media capabilities can also connect them with others at the organization with similar interests.
Over 15 percent of the American Airlines workforce is already engaging in some form with Degreed, with the goal of growing to at least 30 percent by the end of 2022.
The third initiative sprung from a collaboration with Harvard ManageMentor, a Harvard Business Publishing platform designed to help existing and aspiring leaders expand their skill set and foster the right team environment. Rajan completed his MBA at Harvard Business School and remembers the transformational impact that training had on him. Inspired to similarly equip leaders at scale, a program developed in partnership with Harvard specifically for new leaders at American is fittingly called Right Start, a term used in the airline business to get that first flight of the day out on time.
Although American Airlines faced a challenging year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rajan says that it’s all the more reason to invest in and support the company’s team members.
“Caring for our team took on a whole new meaning,” Rajan says. “From implementing extraordinary measures to ensure our team members felt safe, helping them access the right benefits when they or their loved ones were sick, guiding them through challenging financial decisions, and more recently facilitating access to vaccines for our critical frontline workers, we found new ways to keep living our purpose.”
Rajan’s external partners have seen his drive to care for his team and the American Airlines family. “Thomas’s life and career experiences, together with his sense of hunger to make a difference in family, society, and communities, honed his mission in leadership to put people first, even in uncertain times,” notes Shane Graham, senior vice president of Aon Health Solutions.
Rajan has been moved by the resiliency and adaptability of the entire American Airlines team, who strives to make every customer’s flight as meaningful as his own was back in 1992. “Before COVID-19, our number-one flier would have been an investment banker or a globetrotting consultant,” Rajan says. “But while we’ve been in the pandemic, some of our top fliers have been people delivering organs for someone waiting for a transplant, or someone on their way to fix a power plant.
“Essential travel still had to happen, making the clarity of our purpose all the more important,” he continues. “I’m so proud of and grateful for our team members who still showed up every day to take care of our customers, take care of each other, and really help the business pivot to what we all believe will be a new standard of service—a new standard of care.”