On October 12, 2010 I wrote a post entitled, “Why I’m Optimistic about Jeff Smisek Leading United Airlines.” Based upon an inflight anecdote in which Smisek engaged both crew and customers, I posited that “he appears to be laying the foundation to substantially lift employee morale.” Three years later, I wish my foresight had been better.
People tell me that Smisek gets angry when anyone calls him Mr. Smisek. He is to be called Jeff, because he is one of the team. But talk is cheap and for all the bluster about teamwork and great customer service, United has slipped tremendously since the merger. There is no need for me to lay out the many failures during Jeff’s tenure at United–Rohan does it nicely.
What stands out to me is not so much the poor management decisions or spin surrounding them, but that Jeff blew the golden opportunity to be the next William Patterson or Gordon Bethune. Some complain that Smisek is a Harvard lawyer with no real airline experience. I say, so what? Patterson was a loan officer in Hawaii before moving to United. He did not have prior experience either.
But he had vision, as did Bethune. Smisek has no discernible vision for this airline other than to cut expenses and increase the bottom line. Money may be at the root of all business decisions, but he is going about it the wrong way. A successful business is the result of a successful product or service, not a desire to make money. In demonizing loyalty, turning its back on Star Alliance, and cutting service to laughable levels, United has demonstrated why it has fallen out of grace as Delta and even bankrupt American Airlines have moved in the opposite direction.
I am not calling for the resignation of Jeff Smisek. Though he and his Continental team have been a monumental disappointment thus far, I am still hopeful that he will grow into the job, maturing to a position in which he can lead with bold vision rather than squeamish reluctance to embrace the ideas of his predecessors–that focusing on money does not make money.
So maybe I am still optimistic.
Stay tuned for more on this topic.