Published in January 2016 issue

Newly appointed United CEO Oscar Munoz is good at capturing people’s attention. In recent weeks, he made a bold move that hit the headlines: apologizing to customers and employees.

Rohan Anand

His letter was brief and concise and, right from the get-go, Munoz admitted that, as United marked the 5-year anniversary of its merger with Continental, the company had not lived up to the expectations that had been promised in 2010. He said that his mission was to win back the trust of customers and employees through constant engagement and feedback and to make an impact through hard work, which would, in turn, achieve small, measurable victories on a day-to-day basis.

To get that process in motion, he ended his letter by urging readers to voice their feedback on, to “make it happen.” The way Munoz phrased this sentence in his letter comes across more as a request than as a simple invitation. That made a huge difference, and it clearly worked.

Munoz has received thousands of messages and is responding to a few of them personally.

Perhaps it is a coincidence that, during the same month over 20 years ago, in October 1994, Gordon Bethune, shortly after becoming CEO of beleaguered carrier Continental Airlines, had taken a similar step by opening the doors of the Executive Suite at Continental’s headquarters in Houston.

In his bestseller, From Worst to First, in which he recounts Continental’s remarkable mid- 1990s turnaround, Bethune describes the atmosphere in the E-Suite feeling like “a snake pit” when he walked in for the first time. Opening the doors was a giant step forward in showing employees that things were changing at Continental.

Now, of course, Munoz can rely on advancements in technology to listen to his customers and employees in real time via internet feedback forms. Yet, the principle remains the same: he has no fear of the good, the bad, and the ugly that must be voiced. It takes real emotional intelligence for the CEO of one of the world’s largest airlines to personally lend his ear to what an everyday Joe has to say.

But listening is only half the battle; Munoz also has to respond to the feedback, however painful, critical, and demoralizing it may be. Sugar-coating, as practiced heavily by his predecessor, is not an option.

In a memo addressed to his employees in September, Munoz recounted a personal conversation he’d had with a group of ramp employees at Chicago O’Hare airport. He said that the skepticism and distrust in the room were palpable even as heads were nodding at him.

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He went on to mention how other ad-hoc conversations held at United hub stations with Pilots, Flight Attendants, and other personnel were ridden with emotional highs and lows. He experienced how employees felt about the state of the airline and about the levels of satisfaction with their careers at United. He did not omit this from his memo to employees; rather, he explicitly stated that the responses he’d received had ranged from the despondent to the somewhat hopeful. Few had given glowing remarks.

This isn’t easy to hear for anyone in a leadership position, least of all for a CEO of one of the world’s largest airlines. But Munoz made it clear in his letter that two weeks of station visits, conversations, and anecdotal insights inspired him to make an actionable list of objectives aimed at alleviating the burden for his employees.

Among them: seeking input from front-line employees, who can put themselves in the customers’ shoes to verify whether specific changes make sense; adopting a forward-thinking mentality (shades of Bethune’s ‘Go-Forward plan’ at Continental), by which the airline focuses as one entity, rather than two mashed-up route maps with ‘subsidiary-level thinking’; reviewing any initiatives suggested by outside consultants and discarding those that add little to no value; and, finally, providing employees with the right tools to do the right work at the right time.

His writing, albeit direct, is seasoned with the proper dosage of emotional maturity that provides a healthy and reassuring level of confidence in his leadership ambitions. None of his wording appears to be superfluous, skittish, or self-flattering. Furthermore, he’s not afraid to bring himself to the same vantage point of his front-line employees, acknowledging that they had been lied to by previous management and that their high level of dissatisfaction was justified.

Again, that makes a huge difference.

The challenge faced by Munoz, unlike Bethune, is that he is now at the helm of a company that is still largely functioning as two separate workforces that have had varying levels of experience with regard to leadership/employee relations. Pre-merger Continental was accustomed to a much stronger and healthier state of leadership/employee relations from the top-down. That had crumbled abruptly as soon as the merger had transpired. United, conversely, was accustomed to a highly toxic leadership/employee relations culture, and that legacy of animosity had spilled over to the Continental side. In other words, the deterioration in trust was acute for one group and chronic for the other, but what is consistent between the two groups is a hybridized culture of resentment towards leadership.

Removing the poison is a slow process, and it can be a painful one. But, as Munoz appears to realize, change will not take place in a day: per his words, this race is a marathon, not a sprint, and he’s ready to take his team forward. Concluding the letter with “Come with me” is perhaps something that had never been done by an airline CEO, regardless of the company’s financial, operational, and organizational state.

The good news for Munoz is that, unlike Continental in 1994, when Gordon Bethune stepped in, United is at least somewhat financially healthy, which removes a big burden to address. What is worth noting is that few of Munoz’s letters, internal or external, have included the shareholders in the addressee field. Put simply, this shows a top-tier commitment to prioritizing people over profits, and may be a promising early indication that he and Gordon Bethune are cut from the same cloth, albeit being 20 years apart.

So far, Munoz has done a fantastic job in getting peoples’ attention. Getting his employees behind him and building a sustainable momentum will be the next, and arguably most challenging, task at hand. I sure hope his health allows him to deliver as promised. I’m curious to see what he’s made of.