Working in HR, David Klein has gone from worldwide TV retail to the nation’s largest cruise line to a major airline. Through it all, the leader has made himself into the kind of vital strategic partner business leaders look to for dynamic results. Klein’s playbook is simple: he takes calculated risks, creates structure, reinvents processes, embraces challenge, and looks to make a broad impact by building diverse teams. By following these steps, he’s integrating HR, building culture, and elevating the team member experience at Spirit Airlines.
Taking Calculated Risks
After graduating with a degree in psychology with a minor in business, Klein wanted to combine his interest in people with a passion for entrepreneurial thinking but wasn’t sure exactly how. He discovered the world of industrial and organizational psychology and enrolled in West Chester University of Pennsylvania’s Master of Arts program. It was the right move.
“I started to see how processes could alter and improve behavior and attitudes in the workplace, and I’ve carried those lessons throughout my entire career,” he says.
In the second year of Klein’s master’s program, he was asked to support the study of a national bread company suffering from major absence issues. They interviewed leaders and employees to develop a plan to identify root causes and address the issue. The project presented the chance for Klein to see the results of his efforts on a business and people, and further demonstrated that he was on the right career path.
Like many HR leaders, Klein has learned what makes him tick. His top five strengths on the CliftonStrengths 34 are communication, discipline, arranger, includer, and maximizer. He likes creating and implementing a solid foundation teams can build upon. “Structure is very important,” he says. “But I don’t like being confined to structure—I like creating holistic pathways to structure.”
Klein spent nearly ten years at QVC, where he led one of the most successful change initiatives in company history and ultimately served as director of human resources. He then went to Carnival Cruise Line. As director of talent and learning, he developed and introduced processes to develop and retain more than forty-thousand shoreside and shipboard employees These efforts covered initiatives for team members from sixty-six nationalities on twenty-six ships.
Working across diverse industries like media, travel, and hospitality gave Klein the opportunity to import best practices and bring a fresh perspective to each new challenge. He first joined Spirit Airlines in 2019, where he now oversees the Spirit Talent Center. In this role, he is on a mission to reinvent how the company attracts, engages, and develops employees.
At the time, Spirit was at the top of a growth cycle as the company had been adding dozens of planes, multiple destinations, and hundreds of employees each year. In 2020, the airline placed a massive order for 150 Airbus aircraft.
As he came to an innovative company in a notoriously traditional industry, Klein looked share his vast experience and expertise. “Large organizations can be siloed, but I wanted us working cross-functionally on a daily and even hourly basis,” he explains. “I’ve always worked in guest- facing industries, and it is this cross-functional integration that helps us create an experience that enables our team members to create an amazing guest experience.”
With that in mind, Klein set out to revamp talent acquisition, talent management, talent development, and team member experience as an integrated talent cycle. In doing so, he emphasized two key areas—diversity and inclusion and corporate social responsibility.
While he was busy reinventing processes, Klein also worked to build relationship and the HR brand across Spirit. He’s an approachable leader and self-described trash TV junkie whose open-door policy invites and encourages feedback.
“I hope people always feel comfortable coming to talk to me,” he says. “While the focus is driving exceptional business results, mixing in conversations about TV or personal passions leads to lasting and authentic relationships which fuel open dialogue, sharing of ideas, and innovation.”
Just as Klein and Spirit were gaining momentum, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the company and its entire industry to a halt. HR used the foundation of trust that Klein and others had built to have difficult conversations and launched a pulse survey to track needs related to well-being, performance, inclusion, benefits, and compensation.
Spirit used the survey results and met the moment by creating and improving initiatives like its leadership program and the Better Spirits Fund, which offers financial assistance and travel benefits for those facing financial or family hardships.
Making an Impact
The hard work is paying off. In early 2022, LinkedIn recognized Spirit Airlines as one of the top employers in travel and hospitality. For Klein, it was validation of his approach.
“People haven’t yet discovered Spirit as a great employer unless they happen to know someone who works here,” he says. “But we are proud that the industry is figuring out what we’ve known all along: that Spirit truly is a special place.”