Merging an Airline–Creating a Culture

Chicago’s newest hometown CEO,  Jeff Smisek took to the stage at the Executive’s Club of Chicago and offered some simple lessons for creating a new culture for the 86,000 employees of United, the largest airline in the world.  Yes, he addressed the huge challenges facing the enterprise—taxes, regulation, a capital intensive and labor intensive business. But, he noted, if you get the culture right, everyone is focused on doing the right thing and United-Continental will not just be the biggest airline but the best—the world’s leading airline.

Smisek acknowledged that mergers are difficult enough for employees but if you have the same terrible boss after the merger as you had before the merger, it’s not going to help you make the airline better. The new United has a new culture based on dignity and respect.  “It’s simple. It’s what your mommy told you: ‘Treat people the way you want to be treated and never tell a lie.”

That culture will encourage employees to use their best judgment in doing the right thing, the key to being a great company. And, he’s made it the responsibility of the top 700 leaders in the company to help him root out the bad bosses by tying it to their compensation.

His remarks were brief, the answers to questions candid and forthright and the warm welcome conveyed the audiences support that he’s the man to get the job done.