Jeff Smisek, CEO of United Continental Holdings, was fired this week. It appears he was making deals with public officials (specifically the Chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey) to keep personally favored flights of politicians in the air, even when unprofitable, in a quid-pro-quo exchange for government subsidies to move a taxiway and better airport transit.

Wow, horse-trading of the kind that put the governor of Illinois in the penitentiary.

United-Jeff-Smisek-FiredBut you have to ask yourself, couldn’t you see it coming?  Or are we just so used to lousy leadership that we think there’s no end to it?

United has been beset with a number of problems.  Since Mr. Smisek organized the merger of Continental (his former employer) with United, creating the world’s largest airline at the time, things have not gone well.  Since announcing the merger in 2010, more has gone wrong than right at United:

The merged airline didn’t start in a great position.  It was in 2009 that a budding musician watched United baggage handlers destroy his guitar, leading to a series of videos on bad customer service that took to the top of YouTube and iTunes and his book on the culture of customer abuse at United underscored a major PR nightmare.

How could things seem to constantly become worse?  It was clear that at the top, United’s leadership cared only about cost control (ironically code named Project Quality.) Operational efficiency was seen as the only strategy, and it did not matter how much this strategy disaffected employees, suppliers or customers.  In 2013 United ranked dead last in the quality ranking of all airlines by Wichita State University, and the airline replied by saying it really didn’t care.

The power of thinking that if you focus on pennies and nickels the quarters and dollars will take care of themselves is strong.  It encourages you be very focused on details, even myopic, and operate your business very narrowly.  And it can set you up to make really dumb mistakes, like possibly trading airline flights for construction subsidies.

Focus, focus, focus often leads to being blind, blind, blind to the world around you.

There were ample signs of all the things going wrong at United, and the need for a change. The open question is why it took a criminal investigation into bribing government officials for the airline’s Board to fire the CEO?  Bad performance apparently didn’t matter?  Do you have to be an accused lawbreaker to be shown the door?

The story broke in February, so the Board has had a few months to find a replacement CEO.  Mr. Oscar Munoz will now take the reigns.  But one has to wonder if he is up for the challenges.  As a former railroad President, his world of relationships was much smaller than the millions of customers and 84,000 employees at United.

United’s top brass has a serious need “to get over itself.”  United’s internal focus, driven by costs, has disenfranchised its brand embassadors, its customer base, and many industry analysts.

United needs to become a lot clearer about what customers really need and want. Years of overly simplistic “all customers care about is price” has commoditized United’s approach to air travel.  Customers have been smart enough to see through lower seat prices, only to be stuck with seat assignment and baggage fees raising total trip cost.  And charging for everything on the plane, including cheesy TV shows, has customers wondering just how far from Spirit Airlines’ approach United would drift before someone reminded leadership what their customers want and why they used to choose United.

Unfortunately, it is a bit unsettling that CEO Munoz said his first action will be to take 90 days “traveling the system and listening and talking to our people and working with our management team.”  Sounds like a lot more internal focus.  Spending more time talking to customers at United’s hubs, and seeing how they are treated from check-in to baggage, might do him a lot more good.

United became big via acquisition.  That is much different than building an airline, like say Southwest did.  Growth via purchase is not the same as growth via loyal customers and an attractive brand proposition.  United has clearly lost its way.  It has a lot of problems to solve, but first among them should be understanding what customers want.  Then designing the model to profitably deliver it.