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One morning a few weeks ago I was scanning my only source of world events, Google News, when an article by Gregory Karp of the Chicago Tribune caught my eye: “United CEO Talks Coffee, Bags fees and Lousy flights”. Most anyone who knows anything about me understands my love for Southwest Airlines and my disdain for all other major airlines.  I was actually surprised that I was intrigued to read anything about United; however, I am glad that I did.  When I clicked the link to the story, a picture displayed with the following caption, “United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz is focusing on the importance of people — United customers and employees.”  I thought to myself, Can this be real or is it more corporate speak from a newly appointed CEO?  In search of an answer, I kept reading.

The article pointed out that Munoz has inherited a daunting set of challenges with United starting with   his predecessor, Jeff Smistek, having recently been ousted for suspicion of fraud. United – is still struggling to regain ground from its bankruptcy in the early 2000’s and has ranked poorly in customer satisfaction for years.  In the most recent J.D. Powers 2015 North America Airline Satisfaction Study, United came in dead last.

CEO Munoz had recently flown on United Airlines and experienced what he called a “lousy flight” or what I refer to as the “flight from hell.”  If you fly frequently, you’ve probably had a similar scenario play out at least once.  In his situation, the flight was overbooked causing customers to be angry and frustrated and gate agents to be rude.  Munoz chose to fly in coach, not first class, experiencing the cramped seats first-hand.  Once the plane left the gate, they were delayed on the tarmac and when they landed, it was hurry up and wait there too for an available gate and later for their luggage.  And yes, all of these issues happened on one flight.  However, Munoz said in the article that as he was talking to a fellow passenger while waiting for the baggage, he was expecting to hear a string of complaints, but the individual instead shared praise for the flight attendant who had been so kind and remained positive during the flight.   Munoz said at that moment he realized that a focus on people, employees and customers, is what was going to make the most dramatic positive impact on the company.

Here are my favorite quotes from Munoz during his discussion with Karp.  I have put these in descending order like Letterman’s Top 10 list saving my favorite for last!

#5 “Simply put, we haven’t lived up to your expectations. … That’s going to change.”  How refreshing that a CEO admits that his company has not met expectations.  Leaders are aware, accept and are accountable for the actions of their organizations.

#4  “The key is not always improvement, which suggests doing the same things better, but innovation, which means doing things altogether differently.”   Leaders understand that sometimes a total reconstruction needs to happen rather than just a remodel.

#3 “Triple-Ds – disenchanted, disenfranchised and disengaged. Those three are just killers in regards to a business that is service-oriented. I need to get those folks reconnected … the people part is my first priority.”  Leaders grasp the correlation between people and performance.  When people are plagued with the Triple D’s, positive results are impossible.  Leaders do everything possible to prevent the Triple D’s by making people their first priority.

#2 “Everybody on that flight remembered that… (Jenna). The process and systems and investments and all that stuff? Those are all wonderful … but what I’ve got to start with is people.”  Unfortunately many companies focus all their efforts on tangible things they feel they can control like systems, processes and monetary investments; however, what is overlooked is that it is people that make or break the results of those tangible items. Leaders know people are what makes their organizations tick.

#1 “For now, people have a little bit of a lighter step, and seem for the first time in a long time to have a little faith in what we’re doing,” he said. “And I haven’t even done anything specific, except to say they are important.” Bravo!!  At the end of the day, people simply want to know they matter and that you care.  Leaders influence outstanding results by ensuring people know they are important.

Thank you Oscar Munoz for touting People Leadership.  I am excited to watch how your leadership unfolds and the impact that is has on United Airlines.  Who knows maybe one day I will love your airline as much as Southwest.  Talk is cheap, demonstration is priceless.

Update: Since writing this post, Oscar Munoz suffered a health challenge and is on a leave of absence.  My thoughts and prayers are with Munoz and his family.  I wish a speedy and complete recovery and look forward to seeing how things progress when he returns to work.

Reflection Question: What do you think about CEO Munoz’s thoughts on reconstructing United Airlines?

Call for input:  Got a leadership question or concern?  Submit it to me and I will do my best to cover in my weekly blog or leadership insight!

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