United CEO Scott Kirby appeared on Marketplace yesterday, one of my favorite radio programs. While the interview was fairly predictable, the final question evoked an answer I wasn’t expecting.
United CEO Focuses On People
Kirby was interviewed by Kai Ryssdal. Questions touched on another airline bailout, layoffs, stock buybacks, the future of business travel, and United’s new carbon capture program. Kirby’s answers were nearly word-for-word identical to what he told CNN last week.
But Ryssdal’s final question touched on a more personal side. Noting that Kirby is known to be a “hard-charging, elbows out, straight-ahead kind of guy,” he asked how being the new CEO at United has changed him.
Here’s Kirby’s answer:
“It absolutely changes you. The level of responsibility is important. You know, coming into the top job, particularly at this moment, during the crisis, you know, will be the defining event of my career. It emphasizes why I’m sure I already knew this, but doubles down the emphasis on people because so much of what I’ve done, almost everything that I’ve done in the last eight or nine months, has been about safety, about health, about finding out what the right policies in a really uncertain environment, to take care of people.
“It’s been about minimizing the devastating impact on our employees. It’s been about making sure that we take whatever steps are required to make sure that we can get all the way through the crisis and have these great jobs available for everyone on the other side.
“I’m not sure if it’s the title or the timing, but the combination of those two things are certainly a potent reminder of my main job is about people and taking care of people. And if I focus on that, you know, we have 100,000 great people at United Airlines, and they’ll figure out how to take care of running the airline, taking care of each other and our customers.”
His answer is fair. In fact, it’s pretty good considering it was on the fly. And I also recognize that many United employees have been around decades longer than Kirby, forcing him to walk a fine line.
But I do think hoping employees will “figure out how to take care of running the airline” is a dangerous, if I am correctly reading into Kirby’s words. Kirby may not be the unifying figurehead that Oscar Munoz was, but he has very ably led United through the pandemic with the sole goal of survival in mind.
I don’t always see eye-to-eye with Kirby on some of the cutbacks that United has embarked on with both the onboard soft product and MileagePlus this year. Nevertheless, he is the leader United has and frankly the leader United needs right now. Kirby has stressed at several points how important service is to moving United to a top-tier carrier. Now he needs to lead and inspire, with the goal of creating a consistent (positive) experience across the network, on every flight, in every interaction.
Of course you need troops to execute a battle plan, but it is Kirby who is the general and it is Kirby who runs United. But he must do even more. He needs to show the way forward in the big things and the little things and ensure his employees have the tools they need to actually take care of customers. Setting people up for success and not failure is the foundation of a good leader. People cannot work without tools. Investing in the customer is investing in employees.
Kirby is facing the battle of his career. But he must do more than minimize the devastating impact of the pandemic on employees. He must move forward in a shrewd way that carefully balances employees, customers, and shareholders with a goal of creating an airline that will be even more resilient than before. Consistent customer service is the key to unlocking that goal.
You can read or listen to the entire interview here.
image: United Airlines