As a former Continental Airlines employee who worked during Gordon Bethune’s tenure, the recent events at United Airlines have been disturbing. Sadly, flyers have been bemoaning United’s service long before this forced removal of a passenger. As with Wells Fargo, I’m inclined to believe that events like this are not simply a fluke; they reflect a much deeper cultural problem that has been embedded long and deep within United.
Here are three current takeaways for me from this:
- Leadership Sets the Tone: Especially in the face of crisis, leaders become the company; they are the tone! In this case and given the circumstances, CEO, Oscar Munoz’ initial response missed the mark. An early memo to employees downplayed the event and appeared fully insensitive to the ousted passenger. The company took a huge hit for this. Clearly, though, someone got to Munoz as he did an immediate about-face. He at least once, stated that the responsibility falls squarely on him. His more recent comments (April 27) show the company taking more responsibility with his use of “we” in recent communications. Admittedly, it feels a little “textbook,” but it’s the right approach.
- Organizations are Living, Breathing Emotional Systems: United’s 87,000 employees are not simply a random collection of individuals. As we come together into groups and teams, we form emotional bonds with each other. Through these invisible connections, we pass on beliefs and ways of acting. These then become deeply engrained and, as a result, very automatic. We sometimes stop thinking and just react. I would argue that this is what happened that night in Chicago recently. In fact Oscar Munoz, CEO, himself has rightly called it a “system failure.”
- Culture is King: United has long had the reputation of being the “flying Post Office.” That is, very policy oriented and highly inflexible. This was not the case at Continental Airlines under Gordon Bethune. Nonetheless, it seemed from the start of the merger that the United culture was going to rule the day. I’m not certain what efforts were made to preserve Continental’s more customer-focused culture. But whatever they were, it didn’t take by-and-large. (No doubt, there are individuals and pockets of solid thinking and service within the company.) Ultimately, though, the sheer size and influence of United’s culture has held sway.
There’s an evolving theme from all of this – “intentionality.” Especially in the face of crisis, leaders must manage themselves and their reactivity extra carefully. They must be highly intentional in their responses.
Additionally, as I’m prone to saying, organizational culture must be “by design.” Senior leadership cannot just let culture run the path of least resistance (i.e. policy police) and expect an optimal outcome. They must be clear about what beliefs and behaviors will drive the achievement of organizational success and ensure that these are instilled in the organization. Again, they must be deliberate… and relentless with this.
United has a huge task ahead of itself. And I can only hope that the learning at the top goes as deep as its cultural roots.