Winning Well Leadership Play the Game Dont Game the Score

How to Prevent a United Airlines Problem In Your Organization

Winning Well Leadership Play the Game Dont Game the Score

If you’ve ever wondered what we mean by ‘getting results without losing your soul’ – take a look at United Airlines. Their CEO, Oscar Munoz, just learned a fundamental Winning Well lesson the hard way:

Your customer doesn’t care about your internal scorecard.

What matters most to them (and consequently, what should matter most to you if you want to succeed) is their experience of your product or service.

When you lose focus on what matters most, you get situations like we’ve watched unfold. People kicked off a plane to make room for employees. One passenger doesn’t go willingly and is drug from the plane while people record the whole thing. The CEO unbelievably justifies everything that happened by saying everyone followed procedures.

I understand that the fine print gives airlines the right to bump passengers. I also understand why they overbook flights. It’s a tough business, I get it.

But as a frequent traveler, I don’t care. What I care about is that I’m able to get where I need to go. My preferred airline is Southwest because, with very few exceptions, every interaction I have with their staff suggests that getting me where I need to go is also their number one concern.

Play the Game, Don’t Game the Score

When you lose track of what you really do, you get these fiascos.

We call it ‘gaming the score, not playing the game.’ When leaders emphasize myriad behaviors that don’t directly contribute to the product or service you provide, the results are predictably bad. It’s like when a sports team spends more effort lobbying the referees or taunting their opposition than executing their plays well. And they’re certainly not limited to airlines.

When Wells Fargo emphasized moving the sales needle more than serving their customers in a way that would drive sales, massive fraud resulted. Volkswagen chose a metric over building a genuinely superior vehicle. In all three of these businesses, leaders at every level lost sight of what their business does.

How to Ensure This Doesn’t Happen to You

It’s easy to become a United. Stop paying attention. Get in the routine of doing things because ‘that’s the policy.’

Don’t let this happen to you or your team. It’s not complicated, but it does require consistent focus on a few things:

  • Commit With Clarity

Be a fanatic about what your team actually does. What does it mean to win? Everyone should be crystal clear about what success looks like. How do you add value to your customer? One sentence. Plain language. Everyone on the same page.

  • Mind the MIT (Most Important Thing)

Emphasize the behaviors that achieve your core purpose. In every role there are usually 2-5 key behaviors that produce the results you need to achieve. If you’re not sure what these are, take time with your teams and ask them, “If we’re really serious about achieving our goal of adding value to our customer, what are the 2-5 things we’ve got to do?”

  • Choose Effective Over “Right”.

Life is messy. No matter how well you plan and anticipate, life will throw you curveballs that you don’t expect. I wouldn’t expect United’s CEO to anticipate a customer being dragged from the plane. What I would expect of the leaders in my organization is that once it’s happened, they choose to be effective first.

Mr. Munoz, unfortunately, chose to be ‘right’ – they had the right to do what they did. According to the letter of their policies, they were right.

But was he effective? Not remotely.

Much more effective leadership would have been to immediately take responsibility and recognize the grief, not just for the traveler who was removed, but for every other traveler who is already suffering in what has become an unpleasant experience for most people. That bumped traveler may represent a broken engagement, lost work, a lost day of vacation.

Choosing to be ‘right’ in this instance just cemented a startling realization for millions of people: United Airlines doesn’t care if I get where I need to go – and they’re willing to force me off if they feel like it. That’s going to be tough to overcome.

  • Trust the Trenches

What does life look like for the people on the front lines? For your customers? How do they experience your product or service? It’s very easy to get wrapped up in your own bubble and all the assumptions, data, and confirmation bias that led to your actions. Never forget your customer’s experience and the wisdom of the people who are closest to them.

When you consistently commit with clarity, mind the MIT, choose effective over ‘right’, and trust the trenches, you’re on your way to Winning Well – and certainly to getting results without losing your soul.


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