How United Airlines navigated a CEO transition during a pandemic

“We were facing our toughest crisis ever and working harder than ever with a margin for error smaller than ever – and having all that complicated by none of us being in the same place,” says CCO Josh Earnest.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

CEO transitions are challenging in the best of times, let alone an industry-grounding global pandemic. Yet United Airlines, Red Hat and eBay have made changes at the top in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. 

During United’s annual shareholder meeting on Wednesday, chief executive Oscar Munoz passed the torch to airline veteran Scott Kirby, who introduced himself publicly as CEO with a new Instagram profile and an interview on CNBC.

View this post on Instagram

Hi, everyone. I’m Scott Kirby, a lifelong fan of aviation and the new CEO of United Airlines. I’ve spent my entire career in and around aviation, including the last four years as President of United. While it’s a challenging time for the industry and our world, I remain energized by the opportunity ahead. We are laser focused on returning to regular service as soon, and as safely, as possible. In the meantime, we are #UnitedTogether to transport vital medical supplies, critical goods and healthcare heroes to places that need them most. I’m joining Instagram today to shine a spotlight on our incredible United family and our commitment to care for our customers. I’ll be sharing what I’m up to and providing updates about the current situation. I’m excited to connect with you here and hopefully soon in the friendly skies.

A post shared by Scott Kirby (@scottkirby) on

While a CEO change can occur abruptly, United made its intentions public in December, six months before the hand-off and well before COVID-19 swept the globe. 

“Things were going really well, and so we wanted to deliver a message to the public and our employees that we weren’t changing our strategy. It was working and we were continuing to implement it,” explains United chief communications officer Josh Earnest.

The carrier would get that point across by focusing its message on continuity and putting both men in front of employees, investors and the media, since Munoz would stay with United for another year as executive chairman and Kirby had been president since 2016.

Yet like a lot of best-laid corporate plans, that strategy had to be altered due to the global pandemic. “Little did we know what mid-May was going to look like,” says Earnest. 

With the airline trying to save jobs and demonstrate how commercial air travel can safely return after the pandemic, emphasizing leadership continuity would not be enough, the company realized. 

Both executives, but in particular Kirby, had to be able to talk more concretely about how the airline is fighting the virus and about the health and safety of its employees and passengers. 

On Wednesday, United announced a partnership with Clorox and the Cleveland Clinic on “a new standard of cleanliness” for airline travel called United CleanPlus. Kirby outlined how it would benefit travelers on United’s Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter pages.

His talking points included that Clorox will provide amenities to United passengers, and that physicians and scientists from the Cleveland Clinic will create a quality assurance program.

“It was a great announcement, but not ordinarily one you would consider important for a brand new CEO to make and talk about on his first day,” Earnest says. “In this environment, it was. It’s a good illustration of how our tactics might not have changed from our initial plan, but some of the messaging did to reflect the priorities of our customers.” 

Munoz also did select media, including an interview on Leadership Live With David Rubenstein, a recently launched digital series from Bloomberg. He reflected on the company’s successes, his own story of bouncing back from a health crisis and the role he will continue to play at United.

He also taped an interview with CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg for a segment about the future of the industry that is set to run on CBS Sunday Morning on May 24. 

“It gave us an opportunity to talk about what our priorities are for our business moving forward,” says Earnest.

In executing its communications plan for the transition, United embraced tools and technologies for remote collaboration like never before. Eight United staffers orchestrated the comms strategy for the CEO transition, but the entire communications team of about 100 people, from creative services to social media and corporate comms, were involved, says Earnest. The former White House press secretary has also been in frequent contact with counterparts across other functions like operations, marketing, legal and government affairs, as well as the executive team. 

“We were facing our toughest crisis ever and working harder than ever with a margin for error smaller than ever – and having all that complicated by none of us being in the same place,” says Earnest. “It put a lot of pressure on the team, but I am so proud of how they’ve risen to the occasion.”

He adds that the comms team benefited from a pilot test at the end of last year, when every team member worked one day a week from home. However, the airline was planning for how to provide employee flexibility in the future, not for a pandemic. 

“But getting a couple months’ head start on flexing those muscles proved really important. It gave us an existing familiarity with the tools that we use to connect with one another from home and established some norms and rhythms of the workplace even when we’re not all in the office,” says Earnest. 

One best practice emerged: video technology is always a significant improvement over a telephone conference call. United has found that Microsoft Teams works best for its purposes. 

“Being able to look people in the eye even if they occupy a two-by-three-inch rectangle on your screen makes a big difference. I was surprised by the extent to which being able to read people’s body language and smile makes the communications more seamless,” says Earnest.

“We’ve tried to incorporate as many video calls for as many meetings as we possibly can. That is even true of our executive-level meetings,” he explains. “As you’d expect, we’re meeting once a day now, and about a month ago we flipped all of those meetings to Microsoft Teams.” 

Kirby and Munoz have been holding virtual town halls to speak to employees across the company. “Employees can submit questions in advance, and we roll the video of them asking the question and then Scott, Oscar or both answer it live,” points out Earnest. 

Munoz also recorded a video message to “my United family” addressing the CEO transition, which was shared on LinkedIn in addition to internal channels.

Empathy in these difficult times is also on the minds of in-house leaders at other companies navigating a changing of the guard, even those not in industries hard hit by the pandemic. 

This includes open source software provider Red Hat, which appointed company veteran Paul Cormier as CEO following the exit of Jim Whitehurst, who left to become president at parent company IBM. 

“Above all, we were focused on hitting the right tone with the news,” says Stephanie Wonderlick, VP of corporate comms at Red Hat.

“We are in unprecedented times, and when we announced our CEO transition on April 6, there was so much uncertainty. A CEO transition is an important milestone, but we also recognized that there was something bigger going on in the world and in our associates’ lives,” she explains. 

Wonderlick notes that the company needed to address “the key messages audiences needed to hear most.” 

“That meant putting less emphasis on [Cormier’s] experience and why he was chosen for the role, and instead focusing on his leadership goals, his understanding of the uncertainty our associates, our industry and our world are facing and his thoughts on how we can move forward together,” she notes. 

Like United, Red Hat focused on earned media that could be well-executed virtually, such as interviews Cormier did with technology news sites TechCrunch and Fossbytes

However, that strategy comes with a training challenge. “Working exclusively with video and phone requires a different skill set than speaking to people in-person,” Wonderlick says. “One thing we did have to consider was coaching an executive who is used to talking to people face-to-face on how to deliver strong, caring and effective messages virtually.” 

Employee communications included email and an all-hands virtual meeting a day after the announcement so that staff had time to process the news and submit questions to be answered live. 

Cormier’s email to staff was also published on the Red Hat blog, as was a Q&A that served as a reintroduction, sharing his career path and thoughts on the future. Red Hat also reached media and other stakeholders through its annual Red Hat Summit, which was held virtually this year but still attracted more than 80,000 registrants. 

A big consideration for eBay in its leadership change was employee communications. Jamie Iannone, a former e-commerce executive at Walmart, took over as CEO from Scott Schenkel, the company’s former SVP and CFO, on April 27. Schenkel had been interim CEO since the departure of Devin Wenig in September. 

“As we approached this leadership transition, we wanted to ensure our employees felt the excitement of this moment, expressing our appreciation and thanks to the outgoing leader while also being mindful of all the external dynamics that we are each navigating,” says Trina Somera, eBay’s director of corporate comms. 

That’s much harder to pull off with all staffers at home, but during a virtual all-hands meeting, Iannone asked everyone to recognize Schenkel’s leadership by “applauding” through the chat function. 

“We thought it would work well, but we didn’t expect the flood of comments and thanks that poured in,” says Somera. “It was an unexpected joy in a complex goodbye for a valued leader. Later we were able to send Scott the 100-plus comments that came into the communications team.” 

The team also sent out a video Iannone recorded at his home. 

“It was informal, energizing and capturing him in the same circumstances as everyone else,” she says. “Given the shelter-in-place mandates, we leaned heavily on communicating with each other virtually.”

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