This past week another major leadership and organizational failing was put on display for the world to see through a 2 minute viral video (these days captured from multiple angles).

It was painfully sad to watch; hard to believe that something like this could happen in a developed, civilized, modernized, progressive, etc etc etc type of society.

But alas it did happen and with pretty immediate and broad-sweeping repercussion.

Stock values plummeted in the millions, thousands of people nationwide speaking of boycotting, celebrities make their typical noise-the whole thing very bad for business.

I want to address the learnings from this international faux pas by connecting with how United lost their way in 4 key areas.

1. They forgot that the customer is the hero.

That is to say ALL customers should be treated like they are the hero of the story.

I mean you could say they fell pretty far, pretty fast from “hero” and forgot altogether they were dealing with people… human beings, PAYING HUMAN BEINGS!

LEARNING:

If you want to get new customers, create loyal customers and generate repeat customers, your best bet is to create a narrative with the customer at the epicenter.

2. They forgot to train their people around ownership and autonomy.

The best startups these days focus on hiring and training people who can adopt company values, execute on company vision and all at the same time think for themselves the best way to serve the customer.

I was listening to a podcast this morning where one of the most legendary hotel executives of all time was saying that he would empower his staff (cooks, cleaners and managers) With $2k in discretionary allowance for serving the guest as they saw fit!

LEARNING:

The best companies do this; they devolve powers. And they can get away with that kind of trust because they have taken the time to create value, vision and buy in.

There are countless illustrations for this from Zappos and Amazon to even hospitals and mom and pop shops who have learned the beauty of training employees to make the best independent decision for the customer (patient, parishioner, etc) sometimes regardless of the employee handbook.

It’s clear from reading any one of the myriad headlines from this week, but this company (its senior leadership and thus its employees) had their heads so buried in handbooks and even unspoken standard operating procedures that they forgot what really matters!

3. They forgot what it means to hustle, innovate and determine what success looks like.

I’d be willing to guess that one reason that this company, (its CEO and thus its employees) arrived at this place, this major public screw up, is because they became fat and happy.

As you can read from this article and so many others like it, the airline along with 2 other major ones handles nearly 85% of the total market share… that right there will leave you pretty out of touch with reality.

It’s what made the idea of a so-called “boycott” so ironical because it was very clear that, at least if you want to fly in most major cities, you won’t have a choice.

LEARNING:

Can you imagine what kind of debilitating affect this has on the lifeblood of an organization?!

It’s like Craig Groeschel always says: the biggest threat to future success is current success.

They got lazy, lackadaisical and then they just got flat-out rude.

4. They forgot how to communicate like they were actually in the people business!

This is how, from a PR standpoint, the CEO can mess up 3 more times before finally getting it right.

He was so out of touch with having to defend and protect (let alone polish!) the brand that he made it worse before making it better. It took almost the entire week for him to arrive at, “I’m sorry, we were wrong, here’s your money back.”

LEARNING:

This last one affects everything from marriages to multi-national conglomerates because it’s fundamentally about ownership and repentance. The fastest way to mend a broken bridge is to call it was it is: BROKEN!

But #4 and #3 are intimately connected because when you’ve so lost touch with your vision and your customer it’s a very natural slide into forgetting even how to apologize for a gross and basic wrong.

Which therein lies the undergirding principle of every item on this numbered list: a total and complete loss of vision for what serves people best.


What’s a recent leadership learning of yours? It’s easy to point fingers at big targets like United (on blast via viral video), but it’s another thing to practice personal introspection for your last 3 screw ups and determine your course of action for proactively getting better… so I’ll ask: where are your growth opportunities?

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