Three Ways David Calhoun Can Fix Boeing
The new CEO of Boeing has inherited the biggest crisis in the history of the aviation industry. The tragic deaths of 346 people aboard two crashed 737 Max aircraft have cast a long shadow over the company’s fortunes.
In airports around the world, hundreds of 737 Maxes are sitting idle, indefinitely grounded by regulators—a poignant reminder of the far-reaching economic effects of this crisis. Calhoun, a 10-year member of Boeing’s board and a former executive at Blackstone Group and GE’s aviation unit, will need to draw on all his experience to navigate this storm.
Shareholders and clients will be acutely aware that no amount of PR spin could deflect from the devastating human story. What the company should do, however, is respect it. With that in mind, there are three things Calhoun can do as CEO to turn this story into one which starts but doesn’t end in adversity.
1. Be There
Calhoun’s predecessor, Dennis Muilenburg, made a mistake in not visiting the crash sites as soon as possible. Had he done so, he would have echoed the examples of Richard Branson in 2007 following the Grayrigg derailment, and by British Midland chairman Michael Bishop following the crash landing of a 737 in 1989 in which 47 people died. Bishop was credited for being on site within an hour and working through the night to offer support and compensation to those affected, well before the cause of the crash was established. As one media commentator said 25 years later, “He distinguished himself by showing both humanity and control.”
Hopefully, Calhoun will not be put in a position where he has to visit a crash site. But he should still make his presence felt by breaking out from the caution and legalese of corporate statements. If you’re absent from the story or not engaging with the victims, you look uncompassionate. Further, if you are trying to assuage legal responsibility through silence, you will look callous—or you may even look like you really do have something to hide. Do not deign when it comes to tragedy.
2. Show What You’re Doing
We’ve heard so many stories on what the deficiencies in the 737 Max might be: the MCAS operating system, the angle of attack, pilot training, metallurgy, over design. Almost a year on from the second crash, Boeing needs to communicate where it is in identifying the true causes and its plan of action. It’s fine to say, “We still don’t know,” but it’s not fine to say, “We don’t have a plan to address that.”
Getting this right is crucial. If you’re showing a way forward, you’re not just owning the media narrative, you’re showing leadership within your company. With a firm the size of Boeing, you can’t overstate the importance of that. With factories and offices all over the world and a workforce of over 100,000, you need to take the chance to galvanize your people as they’re the ones who need to trust you first. Great engineers overcome great challenges: Once you have morale you can begin to bring trust back to your brand.
After you’ve shown you have a plan which is guiding you, you’ll also be able to start putting distance between the initial crash and where you are now. That is not shirking responsibility; rather, you are demonstrating time and effort spent in ensuring this tragedy never happens again. The narrative is moving away from the disaster and hopefully towards a relevant conclusion. This may or may not give the victims closure, but that is beyond your control.
3. Don’t Obfuscate
Boeing has actually had some recent PR successes: The new 777X is being held up as a model of efficiency and design, and the company has also donated 250,000 medical masks to Wuhan following the coronavirus outbreak. They’re good wins because the company hasn’t sought to make them the main story—though if it lives up to the hype, this new aircraft could be the ultimate replacement for the seemingly doomed 737 Max. Calhoun knows the crisis he’s dealing with is existential in nature and he’s not trying to deny that, or inadvertently admit defeat, by changing the news. So he doesn’t need a rebrand (yet).
In terms of the scale of the challenge, it’s hard to think of a parallel in other industries, especially when you remember Boeing’s competition is basically just one firm (Airbus) with roughly 50 percent market share. But Boeing’s CEO will have to convince communities far beyond boardrooms.
Thankfully, such human tragedies are rare in aviation. Regardless, David Calhoun must use this adversity to show his company can and will do better—even if it means the 737 Max has to go.