How Talent (or Lack Thereof) Can Lead to Systemic Business Failure

united talent

The legend, John Hollon, tore into United here at FOT earlier this week, accurately writing that culture problems are the core reason Satan ranks higher than United in popularity polls this week. John laid out a solid strategic analysis of where culture impacts service, and he mixed in his own personal experiences. Good stuff…read it if you haven’t.

As I read John’s piece, I also came across this blurb from Markewtwatch:

Oscar Munoz, United Continental Holdings Inc.’s embattled chief executive, said in a televised interview Wednesday that he is “ashamed” of his company’s treatment of a paying passenger dragged off a plane Sunday evening by law-enforcement officials called by United agents. …He blamed a “system failure” for the incident, which has dented the carrier’s stock price and led to calls for boycotts. “We have not provided our front-line supervisors and managers…with the proper tools, policies and procedures that allow them to use their common sense,” Munoz said.

It’s interesting to look at where talent led to the systemic failure. Munoz is right—a lot of things went wrong to let this happen. I wanted to break down where the talent let down the shareholders.

  • Gate agent – Pretty sure this person is kicking themselves for not escalating this deal. This seems like a tailor-made chance to let the boss earn their money. If you’re the person in charge of a situation you’ve never seen before, with 130 cameras ready to record, punt the ball.
  • The boss – Poor communication to the gate agent about when to escalate matters. If you’re a boss who’s given a gate agent limited decision-making authority (apparently)—that means you have to be there when it hits the fan.
  • United decision making authority – At some time, it appears the gate staff offered as much money as they could, then called the KGB thugs. Man, they could have offered someone 10k to get off that flight, and that sure seems like a bargain now. Push that decision down as close to the customer as you can.
  • Pilots and flight crew – We hear often that Captains run planes and everything that happens on it is their responsibility. This feels like someone sat in the cockpit and said, “Whew, glad I’m not in charge of that hot mess back in Coach.” Cooler heads could have helped this deal
  • CEO of United – Oscar Munoz, respected by many before this event for his leadership, flat out stepped in it with a bad apology. Leaders can benefit by stepping up when a crisis arises. He blew it.

This wasn’t an engineering, technical or structural failure—i.e., something breaking. This was a case of individual people making bad decisions. That’s a talent issue. If I am Munoz today, I want to look at every aspect of this operation. How did these people get hired, trained, managed and led? That’s where the failure was.

FOT Note: This rant is brought to you by the good folks at OutMatch who like us enough to be an annual sponsor at FOT for all content in our Talent Selection and Employee Development track (and don’t expect that we run any of this by them ahead of time). 

FOT Background Check

RJ Morris
R. J. Morris is based in the STL as the Director of Talent Acquisition and Management for McCarthy Building Companies, a multi-billion dollar national firm. Like many others in the FOT clan, he’s a sports nut who can endlessly draw the parallels between athletes, sports and the talent management game. I know, I know, as if we needed more of that. He has 10 years of practitioner experience leading talent efforts in corporate HR and another 7 years in leadership roles on the agency side, so he gets both sides of the desk. Talk to R.J. via emailLinkedInTwitter...

One Comment

  1. John Hollon says:

    Great post, RJ. Yes, you hit the nail on the head pointing out all the ways the talent let shareholders down. But the tragedy at United Airlines is how this has been going on for a long time. I can’t believe all the things I’ve read this week from people who used to fly United (like me) but now would rather walk than ever getting back on one of their planes.

    Yep, the talent let them down on this one — and the Board and senior management let the talent down for letting things get so bad that they led to the talent thinking it is OK to drag someone off a plane

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