Boeing and the Taylor Swifting of Crisis Management


I don’t like flying. I’m not a science guy and don’t really believe in aerodynamics. Big things shouldn’t be, you know, Up There. I believe in gravity, the laws that state that heavy things that are Up There will fall Down There if they’re not held up by something. I am not well respected as a physicist

I have, however, managed crises for a long time and have noticed specific patterns in how they are and aren’t resolved, which gives me some leeway to talk about what’s been happening with Boeing. Effective crisis management in this case will include a (grossly oversimplified) list of items to triage and check off.

  1. To most of the media, today’s damage control is the same as covering Taylor Swift. Who is she breaking up with now? This is why much of the Boeing coverage and online chatter is focused on whether the CEO David Calhoun should resign. It’s about human sacrifice as if this is crisis management. It’s not.

  2. Diagnostically, Boeing’s problem is with fuselage panels and emergency exits blowing out. If you stop emergency exits blowing out in midair, the immediate problem is solved.

  3. In triage, you address the worst problem first. The government, with input from Boeing, grounded the most affected planes. A few airlines grounded other 737-Maxes.

  4. Let’s assume now that the company is working with various government agencies to address the crisis. This isn’t sexy, so I’ll skip over it, and we’ll assume it’s happening.

  5. Calhoun publicly spoke to Boeing staff and the media. He was direct and emotional. He did fine. He is not Barack Obama or Meryl Streep. His job was to express concern and light a path, not be carried around with a fist pump like Tom Cruise.

  6. Engineers will, in time, solve the problem. Then Boeing must find a simple way to tell and show multiple audiences, “This is what we did.” 

  7. Boeing must next confront the danger of “deselection” — airlines, prompted by consumer anxiety, wanting to use other planes, not the 737. (Consumers now can check what kind of airplane they’ll be flying.) 

  8. Boeing either must invest in an improved and rebranded 737 or, more likely, develop a viable alternative. This strategic, industrial, and technological challenge will take years to resolve.

  9. There may also be a cultural problem at Boeing. This is often the case when issues recur. During the 737’s MCAS software crisis a few years ago that resulted in plane crashes and fatalities, sources told me that the big problem at Boeing was the culture of having engineers at the helm. Recently, other sources told me the problem with Calhoun was that he isn’t an engineer. Such things need realistic reconciliation.

  10. Another culture variable: Aviation experts have pilloried Boeing’s recent headquarters move from Chicago (following Seattle) to Arlington (next to Washington, DC). One analyst suggested the move indicated too much focus on lobbying and government contracts. Others say that Arlington has become a tech hub and it was a good move. 

  11. Examining culture includes examining leadership. Sometimes replacements are needed. Sometimes it’s just scapegoating. Figure out the difference. 

  12. Strong leadership ultimately resolves crises, not plans or “strategies.” For much of my career, a CEO’s job was to lead a company through crisis, not be ejected like Taylor Swift’s boyfriend during turbulence. Under this standard, the US wouldn’t have any successful wartime generals because bad things happen when leaders slog through complicated problems.

One of the most valuable skills of effective CEOs is the ability to withstand strain and navigate situations that take time to resolve. This ability is in danger of being “bred out” of the talent pool. Companies are so terrified of conflict that the first order of business is becoming how best to dodge responsibility. This inevitably includes some combination of pronouncements on the love of transparency, a puppy, and a corporate logo.

The manufacturer that makes the safest planes will succeed because the best-managed crisis is the one we don’t hear about. After all, it didn’t happen. Damage control isn’t supposed to be cinematic. It’s supposed to be invisible.

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