Big changes are coming to United Airlines.

Oscar Munoz, who endured a rocky start as chief executive officer of United Airlines but overcame it by most accounts, will step aside to become the airline's executive chairman next May. 

Current United Airlines president Scott Kirby will succeed Munoz as CEO.

There are so many intersecting plot lines in this move. We'll get to a few of them. 

But the word that pops to mind is unusual in corporate transitions lately.

That word might be, "orderly."

A time of tumult

Consider simply the fact that Munoz is announcing his departure six full months before it's planned to happen.

Heck, when we turn over the leadership of the entire United States after a presidential election, the transition is only three months.

Let's recap. Munoz had never run an airline before becoming the head of United. He'd been a board member at United and the head of a railroad.

Yet he was tapped to lead United in September 2015, after the ouster of his predecessor, Jeff Smisek.

That was a time of tumult. Smisek resigned after allegations of improper influence by United Airlines over the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs Newark Liberty International Airport.

(Smisek never was accused of anything, but the Port Authority's chairman was convicted of a felony.)

'Communicator of the year,' they said

A month after Munoz took over as CEO, he had a heart attack. Then, a few months after that in January 2016, he had a heart transplant operation.

I feel like people gloss over that: a heart transplant.

He went back to work in March, recruited Kirby, who had been the president of American Airlines, for the same role at United that summer. 

Things were going fine. The following March, Munoz was named communicator of the year by PRWeek.

Then, a month after that, United suffered one of the biggest PR disasters in the social media age: a passenger, Dr. David Dao, was forcibly removed from a United Express flight in Chicago, after being bumped to make room for a deadheading passenger.

It became a massive story, and Munoz's immediate response, in which he seemed to blame Dao himself for the incident, caused a huge outcry and tanked United's stock price.

People remember how you make them feel

In the two and a half years since, United has recovered. Its stock price is roughly twice what it was when Munoz took over. 

Perhaps more important, at least in my estimation, is the degree to which the airline's image and customer relationships seem to have improved.

As I'm fond of saying with airlines, it all comes down to the words of Maya Angelou:

"People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel."  

In his announcement Thursday, Munoz emphasized that his four-year tenure has largely been about being a bridge.

"One of my goals as CEO was to put in place a successful leadership transition for United Airlines," Munoz said in a statement. "I brought Scott to United three years ago, and I am confident that there is no one in the world better equipped to lead United to even greater heights."

A textbook case

I'm the first critic to jump all over bad corporate leadership, so let's give credit here.

In just about every other corporate transition I've covered lately, "orderly" and "peaceful" aren't exactly the words that come to mind:

  • There's McDonald's, which abruptly changed CEOs last month, after outgoing CEO Steve Easterbrook had a "consensual relationship with an employee."
  • There's WeWork, where cofounder and CEO Adam Neumann was forced out (although he got a reported $1.7 billion walkaway package), after the company's disastrous attempt to go public.
  • There's Subway, a private company that doesn't disclose details, but where it looks like there might have been the mother of all leadership battles before John Chidsey, long ago the CEO of Burger King, took over.

You get the point. But here, outsiders are calling Kirby a fantastic choice: one of the "top airline minds in the United States," according to Brian Sumers at the influential travel site Skift.

Who knows how things will turn out. But if your goal is to ensure a smooth leadership transition, it seems to me that United is offering a textbook case on how to make it work.

Plan as far ahead as you can, and recruit good people who work well together. Everything else is external.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated Scott Kirby's previous employer. He had been president of American Airlines.

Published on: Dec 6, 2019
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