Abiding Lessons

by Oscar Munoz, Executive Chairman, United Airlines
Oct 16, 2020 12:30 PM ET
Blog

“By teaching, we learn,” said the ancient Roman poet, Seneca. I was reminded of the truth of that wisdom this week when I participated in a session with business students hosted by the newly minted Dean of USC’s Marshall Business School, Dr. Geoffrey Garrett.

It’s a lesson I first learned the hard way when I began graduate business school myself – way back in the mid-1980’s. 

I’d already spent a few years in the private sector, finding some early success in business and finance. The experience had taught me much – except, it seems, humility.

On day one, I walked up to my finance professor and rather presumptuously told him: “Look, I’m a satellite student with a full-time job, so it’s tough to come to class and I’ve already studied this content. So, I’ll just take the final at the end of the course. Or, better yet, I’ll just take the final right now to prove I can ace this class.” He smiled, and said, “Okay, take the final right now. We’ll see.” 

Long story short, I didn’t ace that test. And I was put in my place.

But I managed to do passably well. In fact, well enough that the professor saw in me perhaps a little bit of promise. So, he offered me a compromise: serve as an unofficial teaching assistant on an as-needed-basis, and he could offer me some flexibility with class attendance.

At the time, it seemed like an easy bargain. However, I would discover that no matter how smart you think you are, teaching others is a far bigger test of knowledge - as well as character - than any exam.  

I learned a lot of lessons that semester, about business, leadership and most of all, humility.

I cast my mind back to that formative experience as I returned – albeit virtually – to speak to a group of students at USC.

As ever, I found that by trying to impart lessons to others, I understood those lessons more clearly myself.

We covered a range of topics, from crisis management to investor relations, questions regarding the state of airline business to the art of really listening when managing individuals and large teams. It was also a refreshing opportunity to take a step back from the immediate pressures facing airlines to reflect on the longer-term turnaround journey United experienced and how we are preparing today for when this crisis abates. That story includes important, lasting lessons for how leaders can build trust with employees and labor partners. Our efforts to put customer-focused care at the center of everything we do, which drove our success pre-covid, are proving a decisive advantage now when it matters more than ever.  

The breadth of the conversation illustrates the rigorous and comprehensive curriculum presided over by the USC faculty led by Dean Garrett, and I hope I imparted some tangible, actionable lessons to these incredibly bright, soon-to-be-leaders of the business world.

But, as ever, I’m sure I learned more from them. From the questions they posed, I came to understand they are concerned as much about business efficiency as they are business ethics and how corporations can be principled as well as profitable. 

For them, these concerns are top of mind, in ways they might not have been when my generation sat in their seats. 

They are intensely interested not only in how the airline industry will survive the ongoing depressed demand, but how we are taking care of employees displaced by this crisis. They’re not simply interested in how airlines are navigating these turbulent times, but about the state of the communities and the local economies our industry serves.

I’ve dedicated my working life towards building principled companies and positive relationships between employees and the leaders who serve them. 

And, it’s clear to me that this generation of students, raised through two decades of trial and turmoil, has much to teach us. Let’s hope that by at least trying to impart these principles we can be reminded of them ourselves – especially in these difficult times.

 Oscar 

 #FightOn, #USCMarshall, #USC