Leadership Tips from United CEO Jeff Smisek

United CEO Jeff Smisek (center) with co-workers. Photo – United Airlines.

I like this guy.

That’s my reaction whenever I read about United CEO Jeff Smisek’s leadership and management philosophy.  There’s a certain wow factor because he comes across so straightforward and genuine, without the jargon and BS.  Smisek is a refreshing difference, which is why he stands out.

Here are a few nuggets from a recent Fortune magazine interview with Geoff Colvin.  See what you can adopt for your team and company.

Be Direct

One of the things I learned in the Continental turnaround is to treat people like you want to be treated. You’re honest and direct with them. If someone comes to you with a silly idea, you don’t pat them and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s interesting, I’ll consider it.” You say, “No, I disagree,” and you tell them why.

Belief and Pride Are Keys to Culture & Motivation

I’m a big believer in culture, especially in a service business, and what we’re creating is a culture based on what I like to say are the two things my mommy taught me: Treat other people like you’d like to be treated, and never tell a lie. If you have a workforce that enjoys each other, they trust each other, they trust management, they’re proud of where they work — then they’re going to deliver a good product. You can lecture and train, but unless they really believe in who they work for and are proud of who they work for, and trust each other and trust management, you won’t get that.

Focus on What’s Important – Pragmatic Planning

Our business plan is the Go Forward Plan [a short statement of company objectives on marketing, finance, operations, and employees] we were using at Continental for 16 years. It’s a really simple plan. It’s easy to understand, no matter if you’re a pilot or on the ramp or a tech-ops person. That focuses everybody on what’s important. It’s one piece of paper. I tell my co-workers, if you’re doing something and you can’t trace it back to the Go Forward Plan, stop what you’re doing and do something else. What you’re doing is not worthwhile if you can’t trace it back to this plan.

Here’s how Smisek described the Go Forward Plan in 2007:

“It is a straightforward business plan that all our co-workers understand, with clear and measurable goals that we set and communicate each year. Our Go Forward Plan has four cornerstones — Fly to Win (our market plan), Fund the Future (our financial plan), Make Reliability a Reality (our product plan) and Working Together (our people plan).”

Use Email to Deliver Personal Reach

Mr. Smisek scans customer emails (yes, his email is public) and mostly hands them off to his customer care team for follow-up.  However, he keeps an eye out for “something unusual” and in those cases he may respond directly.

“On co-workers, I try to answer every single email from my co-workers personally.  That does take me time but I think it’s an investment in my co-workers that’s worth making.”

For more on the Smisek leadership approach:

Check out a previous post;

Watch Smisek’s lecture at the Stanford Graduate School of Business

Headline For Marketers

It’s a challenge to get your team focused and moving with full force in the right direction at all times.  So, take a cue from United CEO Jeff Smisek.  Be direct, create a common mindset, and make sure everyone knows and understands what’s important for success.

Harvey Chimoff is a hands-on marketing leader and business-wide collaborator who builds marketing capabilities in B2B/B2C organizations that drive customer success.

3 thoughts on “Leadership Tips from United CEO Jeff Smisek

  1. This has to be the biggest piece of crap ever written. Sorry Harvey, but if I were you, I’d remove this from your website. Bad for your credibility. I’d never hire you to do anything if this is the type of CEO you are impressed with.


  2. Nice try. Why don’t you talk with the business class fliers that will tell you how the product continues to decline under Smisek. Ask some employees how they like working for Smisek. He continues to line his pockets with outrageous compensation packages while telling employees he won’t even address cost of living increases. This guy is the worst thing to happen to Continental since Lorenzo. Even the employees call him Jeff Lorenzo.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.