Latin American Heritage Month offers the RBC team an opportunity to highlight outstanding contributions made by the Latin American community to our company and community. As a capstone to our celebration, last month RBC employees around the globe tuned in to listen to keynote speaker, Oscar Munoz, former CEO and Chairman of United Airlines, and one most influential Hispanic corporate leaders of our time.
Oscar has blazed a long and wide trail over the course of his remarkable life and career; it’s a story that he tells in his recent Wall Street Journal best-selling memoir, Turnaround Time: Uniting an airline and it’s employees in the friendly skies.
Named among the 100 Most Influential Hispanics by Hispanic Business magazine, Oscar Munoz was United Airlines CEO from 2015 – 2020 and later served as executive chairman. He also held senior leadership positions at PepsiCo, Coca Cola, AT&T and CSX, one of the world’s largest transportation companies. Today, he sits on the board of several public companies, including Salesforce, CBRE, The Brookings Institution, Fidelity, the University of Southern California, and Archer Aviation – a leading company in the development of eVTOL aircraft.
Highlights from his conversation with RBC reveal important life lessons learned early, which transcend his personal and corporate life, as well as valuable, hard-earned advice.
Humble beginnings in Mexico
The oldest of nine children, Oscar was born in Mexico and raised for a time by his maternal grandmother – ‘Mama Josefina’ – before immigrating to the United States. A formative character in the book and his life, Oscar speaks warmly of a woman who, despite very modest means, served as his first and most enduring role model, embodying high integrity, principle, authenticity, honesty and hard work. “I wouldn’t say we were poor because we were rich in love and family,” says Oscar. “But those early years of watching her work through odd jobs and never complaining were backdrops to me – they came to the forefront as I had to make some really tough decisions in my life and my career.”
Oscar describes these “latent values,” which he has called upon at various points in time. “Because of my heritage and my upbringing, these values were instilled in me that resurface in times of crisis. As I lead organizations and take on ever-increasing levels of authority and responsibility, I think of my formidable years where I was brought up under the guidance of a woman who to this day, has one of the biggest impacts on my life because of the way she led her life.”
Receiving and giving career advice
When asked about the role mentors have played in his life and career, Oscar doesn’t pinpoint a particular individual, but rather shares that he received timely advice over time that has helped shape his leadership style.
Early in his career, for instance, while he was moving from one company to the next and taking on significantly more senior positions, he admits to “feeling pretty good about myself.” At an annual review, his boss told him he was crushing it on the work front before giving him some personal advice. What he told Oscar was unexpected. “My advice to you is you’re not yet as good as you think you are.” Oscar reveals that he thought he knew everything at that point in his career and this was the first time a person would share pivotal advice with him. “You need to live in a way where people are comfortable approaching you, however difficult the situation,” Oscar advises. “Someone has to care enough about you to share, but they also have to feel that sharing will mean something.”
It’s an approach he has paid forward – or, as he aptly titled his family’s charitable foundation, “Pave it Forward.” In particular, he’s served as a crucial mentor to younger generations of professionals who’ve risen to become senior leaders thanks to his guidance. “We often have a closed sense about [our weaknesses] especially as we climb the ladder and we’re having success,” he says, advising to “never fail to understand that all of us can certainly improve. Having people around you – not necessarily a specified mentor – but someone who’s willing to share if needed is important.”
The other key piece of advice Oscar shares is something he learned following the death of his mother. He calls it a watershed moment when he realized he was trying hard to be a person he wanted everyone else to see. “I held onto a burden of perfection. The roles I had in high finance were not places that a kid born in Mexico belonged. There weren’t a lot of people like me and there was always an aspect of, ‘am I smart enough? Do I really belong?'” This burden, shared by many people of diverse backgrounds, Oscar’s professional trajectory changed for the better once he shed this self-imposed limitation.
“When I started being myself and acknowledging things that I wasn’t good at, when I asked after people’s health and stopped trying too hard to be someone else, I was happier. I was more effective. We got more things done. And because I was being myself, I made the people around me feel good and their careers also lifted.”
Oscar’s listening tour
When Oscar took over as CEO of United Airlines, the company was broken. Customer satisfaction was low, employee morale had hit rock bottom and the numbers were a mess. “A complete turnaround was required,” Oscar explains. He had to figure out the first thing to do and then build everything from that. When asked by the Board what he was going to do, he answered, “I don’t know yet.” But he was going to spend the next ninety days working with his team on the ground to understand their perspective.
Thus began Oscar’s listening tour. He tirelessly criss-cross United’s global operations, “Listening and Learning before leading,” meeting with hundreds of employees to better understand their challenges and concerns. “I would find something of a connection, ask a question that led to a second question that maybe led to a conversation about their family. The purpose was to make a human connection.” It was an approach he says was founded on the latent values of his heritage. “My heritage and upbringing created this wonderful millstone of support and guidance,” he says.
The proof of the depth of the connections he formed came when he suffered a massive heart attach 37 days into his new role as CEO. Shortly thereafter, he had a heart transplant. The amount of outreach, cards, flowers and food he received from employees was tremendous and came in from all over the world. “I received bags of mail and cards filled with touching notes that said, ‘please get better soon.’ Almost every single one was punctuated with ‘come back soon.’ Oscar shares that it was the people of the company that brought him back to health and to work. To this day, Oscar is beloved by the rank and file of United Airlines for his authenticity, faith in his employees and for turning the company around by creating a new spirit and culture.
Parting words of guidance
Before leaving, Oscar provided a recap of his top pieces of advice for RBCers.
- Swing easy and know yourself: Be who you are not the person you want everyone else to see. Accept the things you do well and accept the things you don’t.
- Live by values: Listen and learn before you lead.
- Prove, not promise: Don’t promise things you’re not sure you can deliver. Rather, demonstrate what you can do through proof.
Earlier this year, Oscar Munoz wrote his first personal memoir, Turnaround Time, which talks about his upbringing, how he became the first Hispanic CEO of a major airline, and many of the lessons he shares in RBC’s Latin American Heritage Month discussion. His inspiring talk demonstrates the colour and depth of the Latin American and Hispanic heritage, and how the reality of being different gave him the strength and power to succeed.
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