CEOs: Do Your Job

I read with interest United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz’s mea culpa – an open letter to the public – regarding the passenger being injured and dragged off the plane.

It was splendid prose. Don’t mean to pile on here, but…. Never mind, I guess I will.

Of note, Munoz said this: “It happened because our corporate policies were placed ahead of our shared values. Our procedures got in the way of our employees doing what they know is right.”

We already had enough evidence that values trump manuals. This incident didn’t need to happen. Companies go wrong when they publish complex rules for everything in the company — how to dress, how to precisely use the logo and colors, how to speak to customers (verbatim), when to arrive, when to leave, how to handle a dispute with your manager — rules that nobody really reads let alone understands or follows intuitively.

The firms with thick manuals are silo’d — nobody knows what anyone else is doing or why. Communications are on a “need to know” basis so there is a toxic lack of transparency that breeds rumors. They are obsessed with competitors — both inside and outside the company — instead of with customers.

These often are lonely places, where managers and employees never speak one-on-one and there’s not much fun or laughter.

Worse yet, they can be places where only certain people are allowed to come up with ideas and solutions. There are a lot of politics — badmouthing, backbiting, blaming. There’s no clear path for advancement, no sense of meritocracy.

Even though those kinds of brands and cultures exist within some companies, that’s not what people desire. They desire purpose. They desire growth. They admire quality. They want to help make the world a better place. That’s why we at Chromium advocate “branding from the inside out.”

Because when a company has a clear purpose and is values-driven, you don’t need thick manuals for everything — people can operate, communicate, and make decisions in relation to the values. The result is more efficiency, more autonomy, more personal achievement. Leadership needs to uphold the values, but needn’t micromanage individuals.

“As CEO, it’s my responsibility…to redouble our efforts to put our customers at the center of everything we do,” Munoz said in his open letter.

“Redouble our efforts” is a cliché, and it’s the wrong approach. United should put improving the culture for its 87,000 employee-owners at the center of everything. The customers – and the brand – will be the better for it.

Don’t believe me? Just ask Southwest. When a passenger wrote to former CEO Herb Kelleher complaining about the fact that flight attendants were singing the safety message on her flight and that she wouldn’t be flying Southwest anymore, he wrote a return letter of three words: “We’ll miss you.”

If you want to connect employees and customers, don’t use thick manuals and operating procedures. Let everyone operate by the true core values of the brand.

Running an airline obviously presents myriad challenges. But none except safety should trump brand and culture strategy or management.

And regardless of your industry, a CEO who leaves brand to marketing and culture to HR is abdicating her or his responsibilities.

Yes, as the top exec you’ll make deals happen, examine financials, hire and fire, get in the weeds on technical things, and sit in meetings. But that’s not the job. The job is to create and maintain a firm where employees are so engaged and energized to come to work they willingly – hopefully even zealously – embrace the customer experience.

While the passenger was being dragged off the plane, Munoz probably was presiding over a meeting where United was trying to figure out whether to pre-buy airplane fuel for 2018. Is effective fuel management a competitive advantage? Sure. But is it more important to have the CEO focused on such operational matters more than highly strategic assets such as brand and culture? Nope.

CEOs, focus on the primary job.