United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’s Off-The-Mark Management

united airlines
United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz.

Sometimes competence should matter, not just character.

Given the #metoo headlines lately and other forms of misconduct, it’s been easy to forget that. So let’s take a second to thank Oscar Munoz for reminding us. His recent no-show performance as CEO of United Airlines is a needed admonition that when it comes to successfully running a large, complex organization, it isn’t enough to just not be Harvey Weinstein. You also have to do a good job.

Thanks to Munoz, this old-school idea may yet experience a needed renaissance. On his watch, United and its “Fly the Friendly Skies” tag line have become the go-to punchline for late night comics and industry analysts. Amid animal cruelty charges, battles with its passengers and miscues with the financial community, his response was… silence.

It isn’t just dogs stuffed in overhead bins and left to die or sent to Japan by accident. When United infuriated customers by taking away the right to have a single bag stored in the overhead bin, there was no comment from Munoz. When United President Scott Kirby abruptly announced in March that the company would be replacing employee bonus payments tied to operational goals with a new lottery program in which qualified employees would be eligible to win prizes, Munoz was similarly silent, even as employees neared revolt.

“This isn’t a referendum on character. At this point, it’s just about basic competence.”

Meanwhile, United’s management confused analysts when it appeared unprepared to explain planned 6 percent increases in capacity that reversed the consolidation plan laid out during a poorly executed merger with Continental.

Munoz hasn’t always been silent, of course. When video appeared of a bloody customer being wrestled from a plane because he wouldn’t surrender his seat to a late-arriving United employee, Munoz did speak up. But his first instinct was to defend the abuse and the bizarre corporate policy and horrific employee decision-making that fueled it.

Make no mistake: This is not about PR missteps. This is about misguided management and the board’s failure to do something about it. Unthinkable as it is now, under the leadership of legendary CEO Ed Carlson, United Airlines once led the industry in reputation, performance, customer service, employee morale and even food service with their own admired in-house catering. Now United ranks last among major U.S. airlines on J.D. Power’s consumer rankings.

That’s not mismanaging the message. That’s mismanaging the company.

Perhaps the board is gun shy to do something about it. After all, Munoz was drafted by fellow United board members to take over in the aftermath of Jeff Smisek’s failure running the company, and two bad picks in a row might implicate them in the company’s woes. They need to get over it. This is a very sophisticated board that knows its duties of loyalty and diligence are to owners, customers and employees—not management or preserving their own reputations. Circling the wagons to protect their second mistake in naming Munoz would be a terrible error.

This isn’t a referendum on character. At this point, it’s just about basic competence.

Jeffrey Sonnenfeld
Jeffrey Sonnenfeld is senior associate dean, leadership studies, Lester Crown professor of leadership practice, Yale School of Management, as well as president of the Yale Chief Executive Leadership Institute and author of The Hero’s Farewell and Firing Back.

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