When I first became a parent, friends asked me how it was going. The best answer I came up with was that, "all the cliches are true."

  • Time goes by faster than you can imagine.
  • You love your kids more than you knew you could.
  • You figure things out because you have to. 

That was my experience, anyway. And, I've been bemused to discover that in business, a lot of cliches wind up being true, too:

  • If you're not solving a customer need, you don't have a real business.
  • If you're not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you've shipped too late. 
  • A leader's most powerful tool is the ability to inspire culture. (Put differently: "Culture is leadership at scale.") 

Today, we're going to talk about Business Cliche #3, so to speak. The opportunity comes to us courtesy of Scott Kirby, the CEO of United Airlines. 

It's the kind of lesson that led me to assemble my free ebook, Flying Business Class: 12 Rules for Leaders From the U.S. Airlines.

In short, I think business leaders in any industry should follow what the leaders of the the airlines do--not because they're always right, but because of the sheer wealth of case studies and learning opportunities they provide.

So let's go to Kirby and culture, prompted by a video for United Airlines employees that he recorded last week. Matthew Klint reported on it at the airline site Live and Let's Fly

The overall message has to do with Kirby's vision to get United Airlines through the pandemic, with a goal to "become the world's number one airline." 

But I want to focus on a short passage about honesty, transparency -- and the single most important word, to my mind, culture:

"[T]his culture change about customers is going to be the key to our success. Because we need customers to choose us, not just because we have the best schedule, not just because we have the frequent flyer program, but even when everything is equal, even when the schedule, even when the price are equal."

So much to unpack in this short paragraph, all revolving around that single word.

The airlines are hurting, as a result of the pandemic and the severe downturn in travel. But at some point, things will recover. They're working to grab market share, and adjust or reduce their workforces, and figure out how they'll emerge better in a year or two.

The thing is, whether they like to think of themselves this way or not, airlines are in a commodity industry: the business of transporting people and cargo, each assigned to a specific space, over various distances.

So, their competition is largely defined around the edges--customer experiences, marketing efforts, small advantages on the acquisition of other commodities, like fuel and airport gates. But there's something else. 

I started thinking about this a lot maybe six months or so before the pandemic, when the head of the U.S. Navy SEALs tore into his subordinates over a series of lapses, and announced a hardcore, back-to-basics effort to restore pride, honor -- and yes, culture.

Kirby has a military background. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy and served on active duty before becoming an airline executive. So, perhaps he's especially attuned to this idea of culture.

Of course, I can't know if he'll be successful. But I do know this: The leader of any big organization reaches the point where he or she can't possibly know or monitor everything going on in the company.

You can't be there to inspire people to do the right thing all the time. So, you have to do it another way.

Sure enough, the most powerful tool at your disposal is the ability to shape culture. And one of the keys to doing that is the direct and repetitive one: making speeches like this, and delivering the same consistent message, over and over and over and over and over.

All the cliches are true. And all other things being equal, the business leader in any industry who establishes an employee culture that puts customers first, will have a leg up on everyone else in the industry.