A few days ago, Business Insider posted an article on how United CEO Oscar Munoz is aiming to transform the carrier into America’s Best Airline.
This was one of the more candid pieces of journalism that has surfaced to the general public about the chaotic and confounding end to United’s 2015 fiscal year. Within a span of 5 weeks, United former CEO Jeff Smisek resigned amid a federal corruption investigation, to be replaced by Munoz, who then suffered a heart attack one month into the job. Then, Munoz received open heart surgery and eventually, a heart transplant.
Thankfully, United was not in any dire financial straits, but culturally and politically, it was about as bad as it had ever been until that point. It needed a leader at that point, much less one with a life-threatening heart condition.
But the article depicts a cogent timeline of some of Oscar’s major accomplishments throughout 2016, on the back of recovery and resilience. Over a year has transpired since he came back to work, and a lot of good things are coming out of the New, “New” United. Agreements among its formerly-contentious labor groups. Improvements to its operations and on-time performance. New international routes. New in-flight products. Enhanced strategic initiatives. Most of all, United employees appear to be excited to come to work each day and inspired and motivated to do good work. Happy employees play a key role in high-performing and successful organizations.
Surely, more good things are to come on top of all the good things that Munoz is doing at United. There will also be some obstacles to face, as is the norm in the airline industry, as well as continued organizational changes as Munoz strives to place the right people in the right places to tighten the belt in areas where United has been lagging. Recruiting Scott Kirby from American Airlines was perhaps one of the biggest indications that Munoz is very serious about fixing some of the commercial gaps at United.
But what’s interesting is that the tides have turned as far as media spotlighting on Jeff Smisek vs. Oscar Munoz. In the beginning, the attention (mostly negative) was all on Jeff, and for a long period after, very little was known about Oscar. Now, many people feel as though Jeff’s exit from the industry is a foregone conclusion.
Maybe it’s for a good reason. Jeff left with a $37 million severance package despite the fact that he was involved in a political scandal, not to mention, was highly disliked by United’s employees, shareholders and customers alike. A lot of people were angry that Jeff even left on these terms, given that many people during his tenure at United were laid off, let go or resigned. And made some particularly egregious decisions in the months leading up to his departure from United by returning $320 million to shareholders in stock buybacks, while also outsourcing thousands of union jobs at 28 stations as a cost-savings measure.
Truthfully, little is known about Jeff as far as what is currently occupying his personal and professional time. Various sources on the inter-webs have suggested that the best chances of a possible, “Jeff-sighting” in public would be on a United flight, given that he has lifetime benefits on his former employer.
But at the same time, the same sources have said that his appearance isn’t what it once was, and that unlike current and former CEO’s of global airlines, few people, if any, are approaching him, including United employees who recognize his appearance.
Whether or not this is true, it did get me thinking about how no sum of money is vast enough to compensate for spending an incalculable amount of time simmering in the aftermaths of professional failure.
When Jeff Smisek was CEO of United, I was a relentless cynic against his leadership style. In fact, one of the most read and commented blog posts I’ve ever written was when I advocated for him vacating his position at United roughly 22 months prior to him doing so in real life.
I was angry, upset and emotional. I was tired of watching United fail as a customer and an elite. As a yoga instructor, I am prone to oversharing, because personal shares are encouraged between instructors and students. As a blogger, I also like to share a lot, and also sometimes may overshare on this blog.
But in reflecting upon all of the spite and resentment I held towards Jeff Smisek back in the day, and still do to some extent, I cannot help but feel a sense of sympathy for the guy, given my own history and experience with failure.
Of course, Jeff Smisek is way further along in his professional career than I am. He also has held high-level leadership positions and has decades of knowledge of legal environments and the consequences of unethical behavior which do not absolve him from the mistakes he made in his career.
But he also probably failed largely because he was a poor fit for the CEO position at United, and Continental before it, right from the outset.
If you read Gordon Bethune’s book, “From Worst to First,” which I tend to soapbox often as an outstanding memoir of providing insightful leadership during desperate times at a failing company, you’ll see that Jeff is actually recognized several times in an extremely positive light. As a lawyer, and an alum of Princeton and Harvard law, he is an exceptionally bright person. Gordon Bethune, who has an excellent bullshit reader and places a tremendous value on People skills, servitude and trust, clearly saw something valuable in Jeff.
Even with a $37 million golden parachute, there is nothing that money can provide that perhaps plugs the same level of accomplishment, and achievement, of knowing that you personally earned the respect of someone like Gordon Bethune.
For Jeff to have lost that over the course of several years, with a final blow culminating September 8, 2015, is not a pretty ending to a chronically sad journey.
With or without the money, Jeff Smisek may not be in a good place right now psychologically. While psychology is not the focus of my industry writing, I do like to make comments on leadership styles and weigh-in on the personal and emotional well-being that can become invariably under attack when pressure is high. Because, at the end of the day, we’re all humans.
I’ve failed so many times in life. Sometimes, I wonder if net-net, I’ve failed more than succeeded.
But, that’s largely due to the fact that I’ve had other opportunities open up that allow me to climb back, move on, learn, grow, exercise my mind and body and try again.
When you’re forced to resign from the world’s largest airline, often times, that could mean the end for your career. If you’re as bright as Jeff Smisek is, then not being able to exercise the left part of your brain must be lonesome. Imagine building up your credibility and knowledge for years in an industry that requires a very highly specialized set of skills, only to have it start to sour when you’re put into the wrong role.
Perhaps the onus was on Jeff, particularly when things got really bad at United in 2012, that he may have been a poor fit for the job. Maybe desperation, combined with a hint of arrogance, were what prevented him from seeing the broader picture to step aside and find a replacement that would be a better fit for leading United. We cannot completely discount the fact that he tried, but he also failed so many times that it was becoming a painful spectacle to watch.
Nonetheless, when things end the way it did for him, it leaves room for the evil part of the right side of your brain (both have their pros and cons) to take over and have an unhealthy effect over one’s psyche.
If this is the case, then I have one sentence to say to Jeff:
I’m sorry for what you’re going through.
Jeff, if you’re reading this, I said some really nasty things to you back in the day. But I also did say at one point that I’d like to treat you to beers sometime, and that offer still stands. Because I know that we all have something we can learn from each other, whether we’ve been friends all along or had some moments of intense discord and antipathy.
I know you’re a smart guy. I still feel like you could teach me a few things.
I hope things are going well for you.