As Boeing CEO Learned, Sometimes You Just Need to Shut Your Pie Hole
Sometimes it’s just not a good best practice to blast the person you’re replacing in a job — especially if you’re the CEO at an embattled company like Boeing.
But in an interview with the New York Times earlier this month, new Boeing CEO David L. Calhoun did just that. Now he’s backtracking, saying he’s “both embarrassed and regretful” about bashing former Boeing CEO Dennis Muilenburg, who was fired in December after the company announced it would temporarily stop making its popular passenger jet, the 737 Max, after two crashes of the plane in 2018 and 2019 killed 346 people.
The Federal Aviation Administration grounded the planes a year ago, and Boeing stopped manufacturing them in January. The crashes have also led to an investigation into whether Boeing overlooked safety risks and appropriate pilot training when developing the plane several years ago.
Shortly after taking over for Muilenburg after the firing, Calhoun sat down with the New York Times for an extensive interview. He didn’t hold back about Chicago-based Boeing’s problems, telling the New York Times that “things inside the aerospace giant were even worse than he thought.”
Calhoun, who has been on Boeing’s board since 2009, said that Muilenburg “had turbocharged Boeing’s production rates before the supply chain was ready, a move that sent Boeing’s stock shares to an all-time high but compromised quality,” according to the New York Times. And then Calhoun took the bashing to another level.
“I’ll never be able to judge what motivated Dennis, whether it was a stock price that was going to continue to go up and up, or whether it was just beating the other guy to the next rate increase,” Calhoun said in the article. “If anybody ran over the rainbow for the pot of gold on stock, it would have been him.”
Shortly after the article appeared, Calhoun was criticized for his criticisms, and he issued an apology to Boeing’s senior leaders. (Of course he did.) But, pick your cliché here: The damage was done, it was too little too late, etc.
Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Teal Group, told business news outlet Bloomberg that Calhoun’s comments to the New York Times were “damaging to his credibility and the company.”
“Saying your predecessor was motivated by ‘gold’ to cut corners? That’s as damaging as it gets,” Aboulafia said.
In the New York Times article, Calhoun said that as Boeing CEO he wanted to mend relationships with irate airlines and win back the confidence of international regulators. But he didn’t need to throw his predecessor under the bus to do those things.
And what’s worse is Calhoun reportedly said that Muilenburg had “done everything right” and shouldn’t resign about a month before he was fired.
Even if Calhoun is correct about the things he said about Muilenburg, why is he saying them now? Why didn’t he say them last summer or in November when he was giving Muilenburg a vote of confidence?
The best practice learned from this is that sometimes it’s just smart to keep your mouth shut and not criticize others, whether you’re the CEO of a major manufacturer or an assembler on the manufacturing floor. It doesn’t matter who you’re talking to: a co-worker, the night watchman or a media giant.
I realize that sometimes this is difficult, but you have to consider the ramifications that might result from what you say. You have to realize that your words — as right as they feel coming out of your mouth at the time — could end up being very wrong for you. And just you.