Viktoria Spokojna via Unsplash

Leading Change in a World of Professional Pundits

Backseat drivers. Armchair quarterbacks. Chirping birds. Call them what you may, but the world is full of second-guessing pundits ever-ready to explain what should have been done when things go wrong. Their presence creates a reality that leaders seldom like, never can deny and sometimes can’t ignore.

For some leaders, the spotlight is extremely bright. If a coach calls a disastrous play in the Super Bowl, millions of fans see it and every analyst with a microphone or a social media platform weighs in on it. For other leaders, the stakes are extremely high. If a surgeon makes a wrong decision, a patient’s life might end. And for some leaders, the spotlight is bright and the stakes are high. Just ask Dave Calhoun.

I have never met Calhoun, but I can appreciate the challenges he faces as CEO of Boeing, which has struggled mightily the last several years because of the poor safety records of its aircrafts.

Calhoun became CEO in January 2020, and he oversaw a 2021 settlement agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice that resulted from two Boeing 737 Max aircraft crashes that preceded his tenure, one in 2018 and another in 2019.

When he took the CEO chair, Calhoun said he found “an organization and a company and a culture that was having a hard time being honest with one another, with where programs stood, how much time was required, what things still needed to be completed. As a result, leadership became disconnected from the ground troops.”

I wrote about Calhoun last year because I appreciated what he said about the need to create a culture of transparency and better communication that would combat the safety issues with Boeing’s planes. Unfortunately, it’s far easier to make a 180-degree turn in an airplane than to turn a culture in a new direction.

Earlier this year a door plug blew off a Boeing plane during an Alaska Airlines flight, prompting another round of debates over the quality of the company’s work. And it’s not just regulators who are voicing concerns. Some of Boeing’s customers have lost trust to the point that they are insisting on behind-the-scenes inspections of Boeing’s work. The president of Emirates Air, for instance, told the Financial Times that Boeing was in the “last chance saloon” and that Emirates plans to send its own engineers to observe the production process of the airplanes it has on order.

The spotlight from the government, customers, investors, passengers, and employees is bright on Boeing and on Calhoun’s leadership. And the stakes are high – both for the safety of passengers and the financial health of the company.

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The critics can give you a list of everything Calhoun has done wrong or all the things he should have done differently, and they might make some valid points. But I won’t nit-pick his leadership. My advice to him or any leader trying to change a culture is to simply identify the right things to do and keep doing them. There’s evidence that Calhoun is doing that, so what might be needed is “more” rather than “different.”

More of what?

Listening to learn. Calhoun already talks about listening to employees and seeking their insights about the issues and input on solutions. That’s never a one-time event. Leaders need to constantly listen to workers at every level of the organization, because what you learn from them often provides the hidden keys to the solutions you need to implement. Keep on listening.

Rewarding what matters. I don’t know how Boeing rewards employees who speak up when there’s a problem rather than staying quiet and letting things slide. And I don’t know how aggressively they get rid of employees who aren’t adhering to the standards required for excellence. But I do know leaders can expect people to act based on the results of rewards and recognition. Keep on finding the cultural heroes and keep on rewarding them.

Communicating relentlessly. In a letter to employees, Calhoun said this isn’t the time for Boeing to focus on financial performance. “We will simply focus on every next airplane while doing everything possible to support our customers … and ensure the highest standard of safety and quality in all that we do.” Maybe that sounds like lip-service, but it’s just one of many such lines from videos and letters to employees about what’s happening, what needs to change, and why. And it’s a message Boeing’s employees need to hear over and over and over. Keep on preaching it.

When leadership teams continually listen to learn, reward what matters, and communicate relentlessly, employees take notice, better policies and best practices result, and behaviors begin to change. Some tactics might not work and will need to change, but on those three points a leader will never go wrong by staying the course.


  1. Don Myers

    I love forwarding your work. I hope you and your family are doing well.

    Reply to Don Myers

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