Author Talks: How people-first leadership can make the sky the limit

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey Global Publishing’s Raju Narisetti chats with retired United Airlines chairman and CEO Oscar Munoz about his new book, Turnaround Time: Uniting an Airline and Its Employees in the Friendly Skies (Harper Business, May 2, 2023), cowritten by Brian DeSplinter. Munoz discusses the human aspect of leadership and explains how compassion and empathy can pave the way for rebuilding organizations and delivering value. An edited version of the conversation follows.

Why did you write this book?

In thinking about writing the book, what would come out of it, and what readers would get, there was so much rich content. There’s the turnaround of a megabrand corporation; health concerns and issues that I face; there’s a proxy battle; and there’s a disunited organization that had been splintered and was in a state of ill repair.

You have all of those lessons and all those thoughts that are woven into the concept of the story. But importantly, the central metaphor is in the book title, Turnaround Time, which refers to the concept of turn time: when we run an airline, how quickly an aircraft turns from finishing one flight to the next one. That is the genesis.

It is a double entendre on words there. Fundamentally, the takeaway is twofold. The concept of coming into a corporation with the need to turn it around and deliver value, the first instinct is to do a smart, strategic overview and all the tactical things that go around that. The book really focuses on the fact that you have to get a united organization with not only a viable and coherent [strategy] but also a compelling [one] that everybody is part of. So the theme that people will get out of it is my concept of “listen, learn, and only then can you lead.”

The story talks about all the information that I had and all of the obvious metrics and facts: we weren’t delivering on customer, operational, financial, shareowner value in any way, shape, or form. In a turnaround situation, there’s plenty of things to do.

The one you pick first is often a good predicate for where you might end up from a success perspective. The story really works around this concept of listening and learning from my employees before [creating] compelling strategy and the tactics that would follow.

How did a flight attendant crystalize the ‘story’ for you?

As I was on my listening tour in my first 37 days, the conversations that I had with our employees were fairly straightforward.

I was fundamentally trying to understand what they felt was wrong. Walking around with all different parts of the organization, at all hours of the day and night, because airlines run 24/7, and getting all of this information, it was beginning to get to a point where I was a little saturated with a lot of input from a lot of different people, which is what I was looking for.

But I did not have the one thing, as I said before, that we needed to start with. And the conversation with [a flight attendant named] Amy was simply me walking up to the galley and saying, “Hi, I’m Oscar. Just checking to see how things are going.” You had to be in the room, so to speak, to see the emotion. As I gently touched her and exhibited a genuine desire to listen to another human being, she broke down in tears and said those words. She said, “You know, Oscar, I’m just tired of always having to say, ‘I’m sorry.’”

As I thought through that, it was very impactful. I think of her role and her job. “I’m sorry our flight is late. I’m sorry our food isn’t good. I’m sorry our coffee sucks. I’m sorry you can’t sit next to your child. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” for all of these things that she had nothing to do with.

She didn’t make those decisions. She didn’t run the airline. But we put her in a situation with our customers to always have to apologize with really no backdrop or merit or an ability to work through that.

So the concept of me going out and listening to everybody was how we developed our strategy. It was important to appeal to their sense of strong professional pride, and then match that pride with the resources, procedures, and alignment that they needed to actually do their job.

The concept of me going out and listening to everybody was how we developed our strategy. It was important to appeal to their sense of strong professional pride, and then match that pride with the resources, procedures, and alignment that they needed to actually do their job.

That conversation really began a watershed moment that crystallized around the first step we were going to take. It was not to regain the trust of our customers, our investors, which we needed to do, but in order to get to that point, we needed to regain the trust of our very own employees. They had become disenfranchised, disengaged in the whole process, because we had left them out of it.

How do you see leadership as an act of extended storytelling?

It’s easy to say, “I know I developed this strategy because of these technical aspects, and we are brilliant in how we did that.” Honestly, we were, and my team was very good at that. But the stories I like to tell bring the reader into the emotions and feelings we were having.

I tell stories about my stay in the hospital when I suffered a near-fatal heart attack and eventually [got a heart] transplant. I talk about the outreach from my employees—the mail, notes, and food—that was coming to my apartment, to my hospital room. They were exhibiting, after only a short period of being with me (37 days), this incredible level of support and desire for me to return and to finish what we had just barely started.

I had only been with these people for a short time. But that connectivity, that listening, that learning, and then determining to lead by that was a genuine aspect of [storytelling]. The way I was able to create that kind of connection was through storytelling. But embedded in there is a real, live example: another phrase I have is “proof, not promise.”

Because when we are often in the heat of the moment, we will promise almost anything. The important point for a leader is to always provide proof for that. The storytelling that I do in the book always, always has a compelling proof point at the end of it.

I listened, I learned, I provided strategy. None of my stories would be worthwhile if they hadn’t all achieved their mark.

We all need to find what I call that North Star, that direction. And if you involve people in getting to that North Star and that direction, you can have some very compelling proof points for your style of leadership.

We all need to find what I call that North Star, that direction. And if you involve people in getting to that North Star and that direction, you can have some very compelling proof points for your style of leadership.

How lonely is the CEO’s job, and can you prepare for it?

It’s a great insight. We’ve all heard the terms, “It’s lonely at the top,” and “The buck stops here.” In aviation, there’s an old saying that when you’re a first officer, you can look to your left for guidance from your captain.

You can do that. But when you’re in the left seat, there’s no one else to turn to. The only people you’ll see is that reflection of you. You are at the end of this thing. There are many [of those] moments in leadership and certainly in my tenure at United. I speak about probably one of the more meaningful and visible experiences that almost all your listeners will have remembered: the flight where one of our passengers was dragged off and beaten before one of our flights.

I talk about that, and I explain the emotion and direction and conversations that I had with myself that called upon my values, my principles, my heritage. Tennyson writes in Ulysses, “I am part of all that I’ve met.”

I have met lots of people who have given me guidance, in those darkest moments, when there was no one. [In the book] I describe an evening before going on national TV with millions and millions and millions of viewers who have seen this awful event and want to hear why it happened.

When I speak about it publicly to folks, I look at people. I look them right in the eyes and say, “All of you, all of you will face a situation of that ilk.”

It will not necessarily be that one, but there will be a situation where there is nowhere and no one else to turn to other than yourself.

How you handle that, how you manage it, and how you come across in a genuine fashion and hopefully a successful one is a really meaningful part to be prepared for. I explain my situation, all the pluses and minuses, in complete technicolor. I do that to let you know how I went through it. I do it in hopes that, again, readers will look through that and understand that there are times when there is no one else but yourself—and everything that you built up to that point in time with you as a human being, a person, and as a leader—to make that decision. I wish all of us luck in that regard because it is a daunting and challenging perspective, but also one that helps you grow immensely as a human and as a leader.

How is resilience like a muscle you exercise?

How you react to all of this is important. You use the term resilience, which is part of the equation, for sure. But I think there’s also the concept of conviction. Your personal conviction to all of this because, certainly, being a CEO, you need to develop a little tough skin.

The quarterback of the team always gets the pluses and the minuses of any situation. And at the same time, when you’re thinking about the things that you have to do, there’s never a wrong time to do the right thing. We won’t always get it right. I certainly, in that particular situation, with the dragging of that customer, did not get it right. But this is back to resilience and conviction.

You can run away from it all and hope it goes away, or you can stand up and be counted. And what I did, after a couple of days of working through all of this in my head, the concept really became one of, “I need to stand up and be counted. I need to acknowledge that the situation happened, that it happened under my watch.” Honestly, no matter what the facts are behind it, of which there are many that could easily point away from United, away from what I did or said, I point back to what everybody just wants to hear.

“Hey, you own that brand, you run it, you screwed up, how are you going to fix it?” So own up, shape up, and do something around it is part of the equation that I talk about. Because I learned from a very early point in time, in some of my other roles and jobs, that in business or if you break something, you should be compelled to fix it.

You can’t fix everything, and not everything that’s broken is your issue. But there are certain things, in this particular case, where it was. So resilience and conviction were two of those things where when I went on TV and they asked the question, how did this happen, of course, as media tends to go, they’re excited about the possibility of yet another CEO standing there saying, “Well, golly, let me tell you why it wasn’t my fault and this person and that person …”

For many reasons that I describe in the book, that was not going to be who I was. And that’s not how I was raised. I just said, “It’s my fault. We let policies and procedures, important policies, get in the way, get in the way of not treating another human being like they should [be treated]. And for that, I am culpable, I am liable, and I will fix it.”

You know what? It’s under my watch, it broke, therefore I broke it, and I’m going to fix it, and there’s no one else to blame other than me. And it worked from my perspective because that’s who I am. Many people disagreed with how I handled that. Nevertheless, it wasn’t important because I can sit here many years later and tell you and tell your listeners how important it is for you to be that honest, genuine, empathetic person who isn’t looking to blame anyone else other than yourself for the event, and more importantly, how we’re going to fix it.

You say, ‘I joined United to change it, and in the end, it changed me.’

It’s almost metaphysical. I came into an organization after many years of being aware from a board perspective, from many successes at previous organizations where we had turned around companies.

Therefore, it’s easy to come in like you are the savior. I always talk about how important it is to not let the organization that you’re coming into feel like they’re inferior, or that they don’t understand where they’re going.

Honestly, what they lack, what they haven’t had, is true, genuine leadership to force them in the right direction. I talked about United being a host of wandering nomads in the desert.

They are comfortable or confident that that’s where they need to go. Unfortunately, in an organization, if everybody’s pulling or going in different directions, we’re not going anywhere. And that’s why it’s important to find this concept of a North Star and get people aligned with it.

Fundamentally, for me, this book is a story about all of those events and how they all came to roost within me. It’s a story of all the various crises and proxy battles and business issues that we faced, how they all crystallized to create a really strong team, a unified group of 100,000 people who work across 70 different countries.

It’s a story of all the various crises and proxy battles and business issues that we faced, how they all crystallized to create a really strong team, a unified group of 100,000 people who work across 70 different countries.

And to find it compelling and convincing to the 160 to 180 million customers who use the product every year, that’s the combination that for me, all the learnings that I had, that have changed my approach to how I do a lot of things. Leading with heart, compassion, and with a true ear and a genuine desire to hear from the people who work for you is a fundamental reason, and all of us in leadership can take away and use to our own benefit.

Can airlines generate sustainable and inclusive growth?

Sustainability is something that unfortunately has become increasingly political and divided with lots of different viewpoints, and everybody has their experts. I have always chosen not to approach issues like that from a social perspective, although it’s very important as a social issue.

I don’t approach it as a purely financial issue meaning, “Oh, my God, we can’t afford it.” There is compelling evidence, and I think one of the things that I was able to do is to convince folks around the world, in the aviation industry, how important a topic sustainable aviation fuel is.

At some point in time, this social movement against fossil fuels is going to catch up with us as some of the largest consumers and the largest producers of carbon emissions.

And can you do something? Of course, you can. Will you do something is quite another question. And convincing people to think about this broadly wasn’t a sustainable, green, better-planet environment. It became more of a business aspect in the aviation industry; fuel is usually your second-largest expense line under your P&L [price-and-loss line item], and it is by far the most volatile.

Imagine a future, in the case of sustainable aviation fuel, that if there’s enough demand created by the industry, people will invest in R&D; they will invest in organizations that can actually provide that fuel.

And the benefit to the airline industries is having a fuel basis that is consistent from a price perspective. Yes, it might be higher initially until we get better capacity, but over time, it’s going to be a static price. That has benefit in the sense that we can run our business a little better—valuations from an equity perspective are easier.

That was, for me, the compelling way to talk about it as opposed to going down the political route or the planet route, which, again, are important points. But from a business perspective, how to talk about these things in a way that people will listen proved very fruitful.

Today, a few years later, the aviation industry writ large is very focused on this with significant investments, sustainable aviation fuel. United Airlines in particular is one of the prime leaders in the country, not just in aviation, with regards to their focus.

And again, to your question, a balanced focus, not at the cost of shareholder value, not at the cost of any of these things.

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