IBM’s Dee Waddell wants to bring the world together through travel

"The ability to transform and impact the way people worked was when I fell in love."

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

At a family reunion in Brazil a few years back, Dee Waddell noticed something fascinating—the conversation was happening in three languages. He and his wife spoke English and Japanese, his wife’s great-aunt spoke an Okinawan dialect of Japanese, and some of his family—those who had immigrated to Brazil—spoke Portuguese and English. “We had a constant three-way translation. It was neat,” said Waddell, Global Managing Director, Travel & Transportation Industries at IBM. “The interaction around our languages told the history of our family, and how our movement around the world impacted us across generations. It’s led to a good life for many of us.”

For Waddell, it was a personal lesson in how travel brings the world together, fundamentally transforming how we perceive each other. “When people start crossing borders, they see and appreciate the diversity of other cultures,” he said. “Think about the last time you traveled. You realize that people are people no matter the color of their skin, nationality, sexual preferences, religious ideals, or whatever it may be—people cry the same way, feel happy the same way.”

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Empathizing with people, Waddell believes, is the key to making a real difference. Whether he is helping companies transform or his neighbors with an errand, he is defined by his focus on others—not himself. “It’s not about me,” he said. “What can we do for others to help them transform? If I were to look back on my life, did I make the right impact on those around me? Did I leave this world in a better place?”

“It was one of the most boring things I have ever done”

Early in career, Waddell wanted to focus on strategy. After getting his MBA, he joined a big startup incubator in Chicago and was excited to be part of a strategy team developing cutting-edge Internet companies. “I thought ‘Wow, this is really cool. I’m going to start doing real projects and strategy work,’” said Waddell. “I have to admit—strategy alone was one of the most boring things that I have ever done.” What he enjoyed was the impact of executing transformational projects and continuing to drive innovation across a company. Ending a project on strategy and then moving on to the next project felt incomplete to him.

He got his opportunity with United New Ventures, a subsidiary of United Airlines, which helped launch Orbitz and Hotwire and also managed United.com and Mileage Plus. There, Waddell led critical customer experience initiatives integrating all of United Airlines. He also took on the P&L leadership of United.com, developing the digital and mobile strategy and ultimately delivering the online products and services. This was a perfect cure to his strategy boredom, and whet Dee’s appetite to deliver on even bigger projects.

His career takes flight

United was Waddell’s first experience in the travel and transportation industry. Despite that, he could look to his wife for veteran advice — who at one time was a flight attendant. “I really enjoyed the airline. It was complex, with heavy assets and a lot of people. The challenge of having to come together to deliver one product like a seat was amazing,” said Waddell. “The ability to transform and impact the way people worked was when I fell in love.”

He later moved to Amtrak, ultimately taking on the CIO role, forging a sweeping digital transformation of a company that, at the time, was mostly paper based. “Our website was old and didn’t have electronic ticketing. We literally handed out paper tickets,” he said. “If you lost that paper ticket you were not getting on a train.” The transformation was not easy. But he persevered to deliver on the new digital vision, which included Apple hand-held devices for conductors. Customers had choices for ticket purchase. The conductors could do their jobs more efficiently by quickly scanning the new electronic tickets and creating accurate manifests. And Amtrak sold more tickets and drove more revenue opportunities.

Making the connection

When Waddell joined IBM three years ago, he knew that mobile was a powerful way to help his clients transform. Apple and IBM had joined together the previous year with that goal in mind. For the travel industry, however, there were unique impediments to large-scale transformation. “Job categories are in very steep silos,” he said. “For example, take pilots. They need certifications, training, and often have their own unions. The same thing for the on-board staff, flight attendants, dispatchers, and maintenance.” And all these siloed roles must coordinate closely to choreograph all work to make sure flights leave on time.

“An airline truly has one product,” said Waddell. “It is that seat on that plane, going to a destination right now. Everybody has to come together.” He believes mobile can help through AI, blockchain and cloud-powered apps can deliver the right information across job roles to make employees’ jobs easier. That will allow them to sell more, be safer, and provide better customer experience. “Pilots can get inspections, the flight path, weather data, fuel allocated—all of the pieces that go into a pilot’s checklist on an iPad,” he said. “Compare that to carrying 40 pounds of manuals.”

And the mobile apps created so far are winning over their toughest critics—the people who are actually using them. Waddell hears from client airline employees about how much they love using the mobile tools and are “totally passionate about how much an app has transformed their job.”

How companies can embark on their transformation journey

Transformation can get bogged down for many reasons. To overcome common hurdles, Waddell believes, companies need to be hyper-focused. “So many companies try to take on so much,” he said. “Hone in on two to three key areas maximum, whether that’s customer experience, employee engagement, or operations. We believe that mobile can play a key piece in each of these areas.”

He especially enjoys helping people change for the better: “I meet fantastic people around the world who are truly trying to transform the industry and make the world a better place.” And for Waddell, it all comes down to having a positive impact by building human connections.

“Travel and tourism can help people recognize that we’re one big family here on Earth,” he said.

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