Joel Peterson: The chairman of trust

One of America’s most successful entrepreneurs talks about taking a stand

Joel Peterson doesn’t shy away from publicly taking hard stances, even when the impact might be personal. 

Knowing it’s sometimes hard to get board members to relinquish their role, he proposed an age limit (72) when he was JetBlue’s chairman of the board. Then he sold the idea by pointing out he’d be the first one who’d face mandatory retirement. Two years ago, when he turned 72, he stepped down from the board after 12 years as chairman.

He’s also tackled challenging situations in vastly different settings. He’s been teaching classes at Stanford University for 29 years, and that’s where he first met “cancel culture.” He got a close-up look when he became the target, but he didn’t back down.

My road to cancellation

A graduate of Brigham Young University and Harvard, where he earned an MBA, Peterson’s familial and entrepreneurial resumes both go back a half-century. He’s been married to his wife, Diana, for 49 years, and they’ve raised seven children together.

In the course of those decades, he’s carved out an impressive career and held noteworthy professional titles, including serving as a managing partner at Trammell Crow Co., one of the nation’s oldest and largest commercial real estate developers, and chairman of the board of overseers at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for three years. He is also the founder of Peterson Partners, which sponsors private equity, venture and real estate investment throughout the world. 

Peterson’s also a prolific writer, author of articles and several business books, including most recently “Entrepreneurial Leadership: The Art of Launching New Ventures, Inspiring Others and Running Stuff.”

Here, we talk to Peterson about building trust. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

DN: In your writings and lectures, “build trust” is a core value. What does that mean and can it be done in a politically fractured world?

JP: A lot of people have the mistaken belief that trust is this fuzzy, feel-good impression that we have, and that it’s by instinct that we trust or not. My view is that you can actually be intentional about building trust. I wrote a book called “The 10 Laws of Trust,” where organizations can actually decide to be trustworthy and to build high-trust relationships between various members. They have to communicate regularly, they have to be transparent, they have to admit mistakes. You can’t build trust overnight. It builds slowly and it can be destroyed quickly.

“People want to be a respected member of a winning team that’s doing something meaningful.”

I regard trust as a kind of magical potion that allows organizations to move quickly, to be flexible, to be innovative; the gears mesh. Everything works better in a high-trust organization. I think in society, we’ve so fractured trust that it will take some time to rebuild. It will take leadership that is trustworthy, that communicates effectively and clearly and transparently. 

I was interviewed by Adam Bryant, a columnist for The New York Times, who spent 90 minutes with me and at the end of the interview I had no idea how he’d organize it to make sense out of it. He titled the article “Joel Peterson of JetBlue on Listening Without an Agenda.” To me, that is how you start to rebuild trust. You can’t have an agenda. If you’ve ever felt somebody heard you, you trust that person. 

DN: You draw parallels between leading a business, teaching a class and raising a family. Why? 

JP: They’re all about effectively dealing with people, leading people, helping people to a better place. It’s at the center of everything.

I was talking to a major executive — he runs maybe the 150th-largest company in the world —  and I quoted Peter Drucker, who said that “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” And (the executive) said it’s more than that. Culture is everything. Anybody can copy every other thing that you do, but they can’t replicate your culture. You build it a conversation at a time, a decision at a time and an act at a time. That’s how you build a great family, how you build a great business, how you teach students. 

DN: What does good culture look like and how do you build it?

JP: I think a good culture is built on trust. And then I think you break apart trust and say people that I trust are transparent. They don’t fool me. They don’t tell me one thing and mean another, they don’t hide facts from me. They admit mistakes. They’re vulnerable. People admit they don’t know things. “I don’t know” is not a terrible answer in a high-trust culture. We have certain behaviors that you find in high-trust cultures that are really very different from low-trust cultures. 

In low-trust cultures, you see people doing sneaky things. Not telling the truth. Think about Congress and how it behaves and how dysfunctional it is. It is a power-based culture: who has the most power, and then they force their views on others. A high-trust culture is who has the best idea, who has the best decision, and we all celebrate that.

You can feel it when you’re in a high-trust culture. People smile more, they forgive more, they like each other better. They move on more gracefully.

That doesn’t mean you don’t do hard things. If you’re leading one of those businesses, you always have to make sure you’ve got the best possible team on the field. That means sitting some people down from time to time. That means trading some from time to time. The winning culture understands that.

In great businesses, all you need to know are three things: People want to be a respected member of a winning team that’s doing something meaningful. 

DN: You wrote a piece for the Deseret News on your experience with some students at Stanford University trying to “cancel” you. Did that experience surprise you?

JP: I don’t think I could say I was surprised that it was developing. In 30 years — and I watched class after class come in — I could see an increasing sense of almost indoctrination among the students. They came in with baggage. They came in sensing that they were social justice warriors, that things were unfrayed, that they were going to change the world because they had the answers. And they were going to correct those of us who had been around for a long time; we’d obviously done it wrong. They were less open to things.

I saw that develop and kind of absorbed it for several years thinking, “Well, these are young people, and they certainly don’t all feel that way.” Then I had a few students say various things that were kind of surprising. And the administration didn’t say (Peterson’s) been around here, he’s won every award, he’s run big companies, you need to listen to what he has to say or at least show him respect. 

I had a student who was afraid to say anything about the Israel-Palestine conflict for fear of being called racist. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh, this is Stanford, one of the most liberal, open, wonderful universities in the world.”

I just felt like somebody has to stand up. And people are worried about becoming canceled. It’s a real thing. And it really matters to a lot of people. I’m now old enough and I’ve done enough things in life that I figure, I don’t want it, but I’m just not that worried about it. And I do believe that courage begets courage. 

If people like me will stand up and say, “This is not right,” other people will, too. There will be a backlash and we can stop this nonsense.

DN: What was the response to the article?

JP: For me, it was overwhelmingly positive. I had notes from university presidents, from trustees, from deans, from faculty, from non-tenure-line faculty and from a bunch of students. Many called me. Many dropped notes and said thank you for speaking out. 

On the other hand, on the internet, whether it’s bots or the mob or how these things are nurtured, there was a fair amount of blowback, saying, “Another spoiled white male, feeling canceled. Too bad for him. These are the people we want to cancel.” I knew that would come. ... I would have been disappointed had there not been some blowback.

I just think this is an important thing to do at this stage. A lot of people will stop short and say that putting cancellation and that value into our culture is toxic, is un-American and it will destroy the university. We’ve got to stop it.

DN: Are boycotts and cancel culture similar?

JP: Cancel culture is way more harmful. I think it emanates from the same source of anger, jealousy and the desire to harm, an ability to show power. Those things are similar motivators. But actually, if you don’t feel empowered, and you can organize people to do what you want to do, then all of a sudden you do have power.

Social media has given everybody a voice. But unfortunately, not everybody has done the research and thought about it deeply enough to really have a meaningful voice to add to the conversation. When you have social media, with everybody having a voice, and then the oligarch is saying, “We’re going to cut off the voices of certain people,” then you get this one-sided kind of dialogue among the believers. I don’t think that’s healthy.

I think the healthiest thing is for people to state a point of view and then have to defend it — have to debate it in front of everybody. The rest of us can decide what to believe. 

DN: You said you have three operating principles: It’s not about me. I have all I need. And I’m not my emotions. Tell us about them.

JP: They tell you a lot about what I needed to work on — where my flaws were. I came to recognize a self-centeredness and to remind myself several times a day, “This is not about me, I’m not at the center of this.” It’s about the mission. To remove yourself from the center, at least for me, was an important lesson. It took years to root out. 

“I have all I need” came from blaming others: (A co-worker) never finished her part of the project so I couldn’t get mine done. I remind myself I have everything I need, which tells me I’m responsible for it all. I can make it all happen. Just relax, don’t blame others and move on. 

Finally, emotions are powerful and as every human knows, we act on our emotions. A lot of our decisions are made on impulse, made quickly on feelings. I’m not discounting instinct as an element; it actually becomes better and better over a lifetime of making decisions. But the idea that you must respond to your emotion was one that I had to overcome because I always felt something.

I really learned by not acting on emotions, by sleeping on it that the next day I understood things differently. So I became less impulsive. I became more intentional. 

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DN: Any last words?

JP: These ideas, the power of trust, the power of caring and being a fiduciary, I think that’s a really important message. I’ve been an entrepreneur, and I’ve taught entrepreneurs, thousands of them and invested in hundreds of them for 50 years now. And they have a way of going about making decisions, taking risks, analyzing the risk-reward and making wise judgments that they’re accountable for.

We’re now at a place in our country where we need our entrepreneurial class to arise and help us all find these wise decisions and rebuild trust. Helping this entrepreneurial spirit is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

This story appears in the September issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

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