He’s called the heartless bean counter, the tone-deaf numbers man who fails the basic empathy test. But I’d caution all of us to stop attacking incoming United CEO Scott Kirby before he even starts.
News of Kirby’s promotion was met by a chorus of groans from United frequent flyers, who fear an acceleration of customer-unfriendly cuts that will further disincentivize loyalty at United.
I don’t dismiss those concerns. In fact, I share them. During his tenure at United, we have seen cutbacks in domestic and international premium cabin catering, a disastrous “prosperity gospel” restructure of the employee bonus program, and despite some improvements, a devaluation of the United MileagePlus program.
Don’t think those are not at the front of my mind as he assumes this position. Furthermore, even if Kirby was the “brains” behinds United’s stellar performance over the last few years, he has not been the heart. Sometimes the best CEO is the one who can simply connect with workers, shareholders, and the public.
For all his blunders, Munoz has succeeded brilliantly in that regard. A great leader delegates and Munoz assembled a superb team, including Kirby, to transform United into a profitable powerhouse. In that sense, I see great wisdom in a head of state separate from the prime minister….a sort of good cop/bad cop approach that is certainly present in my own business and necessary in many venues.
As Munoz assumes the role of Executive Chairman, I hope he will continue to be the face of United, right down to cameos in the safety video.
Kirby Has Accomplished Much
But let’s talk about Kirby.
Give the man some credit for what he has accomplished over the last three years at United. In terms of building up United as an operationally-reliable airline with a growing domestic and international route map, he has performed very well.
I do not find comparisons between disgraced former United CEO Jeff Smisek and Kirby very persuasive, as Smisek pursued cutbacks and retreat from competition during his tenure. It was Smisek who abandoned JFK and many of the head-to-head routes with competition that are simply necessary for a network carrier to grow. Kirby’s approach has been the opposite: he has courted competition, challenging Southwest and American instead of ceding routes to them.
Furthermore, Kirby has invested in the premium hard product in a big way. Polaris retrofits are progressing ahead of schedule and new premium-heavy 767s demonstrate a willingness to cater to the premium market. He’s thinking outside the box and his strategy appears to be paying off.
- United President Scott Kirby Addresses Customer Service To Employees
- United President Scott Kirby Reflects On Customer Service
So a lot of this is about empowering you to take care of customers and do the right thing for customers, but getting all of us to start to recognize that we’ve got to change how people feel and so that they feel like we care.
We’ve got to take some of that profit and reinvest in the product that we give to our customers to get people–as Oscar likes to say–not just choosing to fly United, but loving to fly on United Airlines.
Time will tell if that is just lip service, but I am going to give Kirby a chance before tearing into him. He’s going to be the CEO whether you like him or not.
Over the years, I’ve interacted with Scott Kirby in various settings. He’s always been cordial, though not very gregarious. That’s not a character flaw, but it is a concern as he enters a more public-facing role. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt, not because I trust him, but because of his overall record and recent language on service.
But I’ll concede this. I was wrong (totally wrong) about Jeff Smisek. Over nine years ago I wrote a story entitled, “Why I’m Optimistic about Jeff Smisek Leading United Airlines“. I was just a kid then, but I could not have been more wrong. Let’s hope I am not equally blind in this case…