The first time I saw United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz address a crowd was last March at the annual PRWeek awards in New York, where he was honored as the magazine’s CEO of the Year. Just one month after stepping off that stage, and for days on end, images of security staff dragging a traveler off an overbooked United Airlines Flight 3411 hijacked newsrooms and social channels throughout the world. Bad timing for the PRWeek praise? Indeed. An inadequate initial response by Munoz to the situation? Absolutely. But a leader less-seasoned than Munoz could have fared much worse.
Last week, the Arthur W. Page Society brought Munoz in to talk about Flight 3411 and more at its annual conference. Members of Page are chief communications officers of organizations $2 billion+ in annual revenues and leaders of their public relations agencies. We have committed to follow the principles of the group’s founder, Arthur W. Page, who is credited with recasting the corporate news bureau-like departments of yesteryear into the strategic communications functions they are today. Munoz walks the talk of many of the seven Page principles below, most notably principle #3: Listen to stakeholders. Few leaders have a firm grip on everything that could harm their companies’ reputations. But when the unfortunate happens, they need to listen to a variety of voices outside the inner circle, and own the problem honestly and quickly – even when they don’t have all the answers. Because authentic listening creates the trust, and trust creates benefit of the doubt until clear answers emerge. And when answers do emerge, stakeholders are more likely to accept them – even if it isn’t what they want to hear.Authentic listening creates the trust, and trust creates benefit of the doubt until clear answers emerge
You might recall that 37 days after Munoz took the job in 2015, he had a heart attack. Those 37 days were spent on the road, listening first to employees, then to customers. That genuine connection generated an outpouring of support that steeled him for what was ahead once he returned to the office: Resolving a protracted labor issue, along with the unrelenting challenges facing every leader of a large organization. Which brings me back to Flight 3411. Like all information junkies, I was glued to the 24/7 news and social sites. Where was Munoz? Getting ready to visit with employees and customers across the United system to hear them vent (and vent they did), and to make sure that the poor judgment displayed on screens around the globe did not come to define the company.
Many leaders believe that an organization’s customers are its worst critics. More often, it’s the employees. They want to be proud of where they work, so they demand that their companies do better. And they often have the best ideas for how to get there. If leaders take the time to create genuine connections in good times, they owe these employees a return visit when things go south. During Munoz’s return visits to employees after the incident on Flight 3411, he didn’t follow a script of carefully prepared corporate speak. He was there to listen and learn, and to enlist their help in creating a better customer service culture. He shared with us some compelling improvements that emerged as a direct result from the lessons of that day. It’s impossible to prove direct cause and effect. But what really matters is the challenge he put to us the next time we flew United: Ask an employee how they feel about the company, he said, and you will see true pride in the work they do and the company they joined. In Page principle vernacular, that’s called “proving it with action.” I took him at his word on my flight back from the conference and popped the question to a few employees. He was right. Leaders will never have all the information they need to make the perfect call every time. But when the going gets tough, we all would do well to take a page from Munoz’s (unprepared) script: Employees matter. Engage them in good times AND bad. Reserve the urge to defend and “enlighten” (the toughest task for most leaders).
And don’t forget to check yourself and your organization against the seven Page principles:
1. Tell the truth.
2. Prove it with action.
3. Listen to stakeholders.
4. Manage for tomorrow.
5. Conduct public relations as if the whole enterprise depends on it.
6. Realize an enterprise’s true character is expressed by its people.
7. Remain calm, patient and good-humored.