United’s former Executive Chairman and CEO talks to Brunswick’s Jayne Rosefield about managing the airline’s turnaround and hard-won lessons of leadership. From the Brunswick Review.
Oscar Munoz became CEO of United Airlines in 2015, following 10 years as a member of the parent company’s board. He brought a diverse background to the role, having held senior positions at telecoms Qwest and AT&T, consumer brands Coca-Cola and Pepsi, and freight transporter CSX. He was also the only Latino CEO of a major airline and one of only two among the Fortune 100.
Munoz took the helm at one of the most challenging points in United’s long history. When he took over United, three of its senior executives had abruptly left as a federal investigation was unfolding over the company’s dealings with New York Port Authority officials. Shortly after beginning his tenure, Munoz suffered a heart attack and was forced to undergo a heart transplant, raising further anxiety about the airline’s future. Remarkably, he was back to work barely a week after emerging from a 12-hour surgery.
But the company’s challenges didn’t stop there. In 2017, a passenger video widely circulated on social media showed a passenger being dragged off an overbooked United Airlines flight by security. Within days, Munoz publicly apologized and announced a comprehensive plan to avoid any such situation in the future. He embarked on what he calls “a contrition tour, all over the world” to take ownership of the mistakes made and restore the company’s reputation.
Over his four-year tenure, Munoz led United out of a period of disarray and decline back to its respected position as one of the world’s premier airlines, with strong operational and financial performance. He introduced a culture of caring at the company, with a genuine commitment to listening to customers and employees.
Stepping down in 2020, he transitioned to a one-year term as Executive Chairman, playing a key role in shaping United’s business and culture during yet another challenging period. He left the company “in much better shape than the day he took the job,” according to CNBC, passing a stronger, more resilient airline to his own chosen successor Scott Kirby.
Brunswick Partner Jayne Rosefield spoke with Munoz about his time as United CEO, the lessons he has learned over his career, and his views on the current challenges for corporate leadership in general. While he values decisiveness and a “proof, not promise” approach to leadership, he also seeks to empower individual employees to make critical decisions in the moment. Above all, he emphasizes the need for listening and sincerity to gain the trust of employees, customers and, ultimately, shareholders.