Smooth transition

Thank you and welcome to our new subscribers. Please share this newsletter. And if someone forwarded it to you, here’s the easy way to sign up to get it yourself.


Apropos of nothing, let’s talk about Oscar Munoz, the former CEO of United Airlines.

Munoz got the job in September 2015 after the outgoing CEO left abruptly in the midst of a scandal. Munoz was 56 at the time, and he had an inspiring story: oldest of nine children, first in his family to graduate from college.

Most recently, he’d been the chief operating officer of CSX Corporation, the big U.S. rail and shipping company, after a career as an executive at several other firms. Known as a “fitness freak,” and for vegetarianism that bordered on Veganism, Munoz was a marathoner and completed a triathlon soon after taking over as CEO.

Then, life intervened, in the form of a heart attack, less than two months after he started on the job. After that, he underwent a heart transplant. (I always want to say that part again: a heart transplant.)

Perhaps most amazingly, he returned to his post as CEO only a few months later.

I’ve never met Munoz personally, although after writing about the airline industry on and off for the last five years or so, I feel as if I know him a bit. And I thought about his story last year when United did something unusual in corporate America.

Munoz and Scott Kirby, the president of United Airlines (basically the #2), whom Munoz had recruited to United, announced six months ahead of time that Munoz would be stepping down with Kirby taking his place.

The purpose of such a long transition? Well, to make it a successful transition.

Companies get new leaders all the time. In fact, 2019 saw the most corporate turnover by far, in years. But to have the old boss stick around as the lame duck, while working closely for six months with the incoming leader? It’s unusual.

Of course, the pandemic upended the world in the middle of this. Airline travel was suddenly the last thing on most people's minds, and the industry has been clobbered. But United Airlines stuck to the schedule.

Kirby took over. It’s too early to say whether people will look back and say he did a successful job leading United through this crisis, but at least the circumstances of him taking over didn’t add to the problems.

The hardest thing for many leaders to face is the brutal truth that they’ll one day no longer be able to lead. Sometimes it’s literally that: “one day.” I suppose that’s why transitions often come up with no clear plan in place—certainly no public plan.

Quick, who would take over at Amazon if something were to happen to Jeff Bezos?

At Berkshire Hathaway, where Warren Buffett is now 90 years old, it was only in January that he announced a plan to give his two most likely successors as CEO “more exposure” to shareholders.

You can imagine why this is back at the top of my mind: the circus of the not-a-transition going on right now at the highest levels of our government.

(“Apropos of nothing” was just an ironic figure of speech.)

There’s not much you or I can do about that of course—except perhaps watch and learn. Transitions are a part of life. And the smoother they go — well, sometimes they make that part of life a little better.


7 other things worth your time

If you liked this post, and you’re not yet a subscriber, what are you waiting for? Please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter, with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers. You can also just send an email to signup@understandably.com. 

And of course, please share Understandably! Seriously, if you’ve wondered, What can I do to help Bill? That’s the #1 thing I need—for people who enjoy this newsletter to encourage friends and family to sign up as well. Thank you!

Share Understandably

One-click review and feedback: