Leadership & Management

Oscar Munoz: Learn to Listen, Improve Your EQ

The CEO of United Airlines shares his advice on principles and profits and recovering from “turbulence” in the press.

January 14, 2019

| by Jennifer Luna


United Airlines CEO Oscar Munoz tells students to put their egos aside when listening to their customers. | Kiefer Hickman

One month into his new role as CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz suffered a major heart attack. He received a heart transplant soon after and followed doctors’ orders to rest and relax, but was quickly back at work negotiating an agreement with organized labor that had gone unresolved for three years. During a recent View From The Top conversation at Stanford Graduate School of Business, Munoz talked openly about how knowing himself and his motivations helped him get back to the work he loved.

“I know you hear all these axioms and all these superlatives and broad measures about live life to its fullest and YOLO,” Munoz told a student audience. “And you know what? There’s a degree of truth to those things. You never know what’s going to happen.”

The executive shared his insights into how he lives his life to the fullest, the challenges in managing large mergers, and the importance of speaking publicly on personal issues.

Merging Companies, Merging Cultures

In 2010, Continental Airlines merged with United in a $3 billion deal that created one of the world’s largest airlines. The transition was tough and flight crews from the companies continued to work separately for eight years. When Munoz came on board in 2015, his goal was to close the gap that still existed.

“The human integration of different cultures along with the systems that support them are very critical in how you manage them,” he says. “There’s so much pride and so much history and therefore more resistance to change. … Seek first to understand, then to be understood. And building a relationship so you can even start to have that conversation is crucial.”

Learning to Listen

Munoz advised students on improving the customer experience by sitting down and asking customers what they care about and what their pain points are.

It is a meritocratic world out there. People notice quality. People notice leadership. People reward it.
Oscar Munoz

“It’s a tough balancing act,” he says. “Involving more folks requires patience. And it requires putting your ego aside.” He talked about how “turbulence” in recent years changed his approach to business: In 2017, a video of a man being forcibly removed from a United plane went viral, and in 2018 a record number of pets died on the carrier’s flights.

“We let our policy and procedures get in the way of doing the right thing,” Munoz says, adding that the firm’s new focus is a more “customer first” approach.

Work on Your EQ

“It is a meritocratic world out there,” Munoz says. “People notice quality. People notice leadership. People reward it.”

However, you can be the smartest person in the office, but that doesn’t mean you’ll rise up the ranks. You need emotional intelligence just as much as book smarts, Munoz says. Put your ego aside, show patience, and really listen. “It’s the saddest thing when people haven’t figured out the EQ side of things. You have to make yourself the kind of person that people are willing to come up to and provide advice.”

Speaking Out

Munoz is known as an outspoken CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Following the death of 17 people at the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, United joined other companies in ending travel discounts for NRA members for their annual meeting. When asked about the discontinuation at a shareholder meeting, Munoz said the decision was personal: The daughter of a United pilot was among the deceased. Munoz’s response spread widely in the media; many questioned his statement. When Munoz spoke of the incident at Stanford GSB, he said he didn’t have a problem with guns, “But when there’s a shooting and one of your pilots loses a daughter who is 14 years old, I can’t stand by and say nothing. It had nothing to do with politics. It was purely personal.”

A Giant Footprint

Aviation accounts for 2.5% of manmade carbon emission pollution, and with more and more people traveling by plane, it has become the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions. These facts are no surprise to Munoz. “I have a giant size shoe in the carbon footprint realm,” he says. “The question is, ‘Are you going to do something about it?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes.’” Earlier this year, United announced its goal of reducing the company’s carbon footprint by 50% over the next three decades. The airline reported it will invest $2 billion a year in aircraft technology and the use of biofuels to help reduce the $4 billion gallons of jet fuel the company burns each year. In September, the carrier sent a plane from San Francisco to Zurich using a combination of jet fuel and biofuel.

“It isn’t quite [to] scale or economic enough,” Munoz says. “But it’s our 2050 mission.”

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