Oscar Munoz '83 gives Keynote at 2023 Marshall Leadership Summit. Munoz shares how he helped unify a fractured United Airlines and lead it through the pandemic.
Listen. Learn. Then lead.
That was the message former United Airlines Chairman and CEO Oscar Munoz ’83 left with his audience as the keynote speaker at the Marshall Leadership Summit, held Thurs., Feb. 23 in the Tutor Center Ballroom on USC’s University Park Campus.
It was my job to come in and turn around an airline that had been broken for some period of time.
More than 200 registered participants were present to hear from business leaders in the day-long conference organized by the Marshall Volunteer Leadership Board. Another 300 watched over Zoom. This year’s summit was the first in-person event since 2019. The summit’s goal is to engage alumni with professional development opportunities and networking.
Munoz, a USC Trustee, member of Marshall’s Board of Councilors (and now a Marshall parent), was introduced by Marshall Dean Geoff Garrett. Munoz, who led United from 2015 until his retirement in 2020 (he served as executive chairman until 2021), gave a riveting speech about the challenges he faced coming into United in 2015, when its merger with Continental was stalling, and employee morale was at an all-time low.
“It was my job to come in and turn around an airline that had been broken for some period of time,” said Munoz. He started by listening. And he soon realized what the real issue was. “We had lost the trust of our employees,” he said.
After meeting with union heads, word spread. “Every subsequent conversation that I had with teams around the system became easier, more direct, and more importantly, with topics, and thoughts that were more actionable. Listening is important.”
But just as he began making inroads rebuilding trust with the airline’s many unions, a major heart attack landed him in the hospital. He returned to work only to face a proxy battle.
However, his earlier listening tour paid dividends. When facing the activist investors, the head of the pilot’s union, speaking for all of the unions, sent a letter announcing that the unions were standing behind Munoz.
“All of a sudden the unions that I had engaged with for a short time period, that listen, learn and lead concept, was where we’d come from.” He kept control of the company, and ultimately was able to lead the airline through the pandemic.
Details of this time are highlighted in his upcoming book, “Turnaround Time: Uniting an Airline and its Employees in the Friendly Skies.”
The rest of the day’s programming offered a number of breakout room discussions on various topics of interest to alumni, including:
· Leading Your Business Through a Changing Landscape.
· Case Studies: Real World DEI Strategies with Impact.
· Web3 – What Leaders Need to Know Ab out the Next Iteration of the Internet.
Fireside Chat: The Business of College Athletics
· From Start to Finish: The Entrepreneurship Journey.
· How do you Lead in a Category That is not yet Defined?
· Doing Good by Doing Well: How Businesses can Extend their Impact beyond their Bottom Line.
“One of my biggest takeaways that I heard from the keynote to all my breakout sessions was the importance of creating enough psychological safety before starting conversations,” said Paul Duke Lee MPA ’19. “Leaders can listen, prioritize, and then create actionable items - make big problems smaller and into smaller, achievable task.”
Echoing Dean Garrett’s emphasis on lifelong learning, he said, “The event reminded me how proud I am to be in the Trojan Family.”