Much has been written and reported over the years about Oscar Munoz, CEO of UNITED Airlines - One of the world’s largest airlines with more than 96,000 employees, which flies millions of passengers per year. But, what about Oscar Munoz the father?
DAD.CEO sat down with Oscar to discover what truly matters to him and how his humble upbringing set him on the course to becoming a globally recognized business leader – and doing so while balancing being a dedicated husband and father to 4 wonderful children.
DAD.CEO: Our mission at DAD.CEO is to not be a typical parenting website per se,. Rather, it’s more a reflection of a CEOs’ life in business and how they manage to balance fatherhood in their children’s lives.
Oscar Munoz: As a Dad who is a CEO, you really have two families, one at work and one at home, and it can be a delicate balance between them. It’s something that I spend a lot of time thinking about, and I always make sure that I can make time for my children when they need me. Regardless of what’s going on at work, they know that if they need me they can always talk to me and get ahold of me. There are times where you inevitably miss things that you wish you could have gone to, a baseball game or a recital for example, but making sure that your family knows that you are there when they need it is important to me. It has also helped me be a better CEO, as I’m understanding of times when my team has trade-offs they are managing, and I understand and can relate to their family needs as well.
DAD.CEO: What top 3 lessons did your father or mentor leave you with that you feel are still relevant and needed in today's digitally connected world?
Oscar Munoz: These might be literal, but they are things that I use in my everyday life. Things I’ve written about.
1. PROOF NOT PROMISE is very important
2. PERSPECTIVE is a word that I use very often for various reasons
3. 'DUTY TO CARE' is a mission that I feel I need to do as so many have made it their DUTY TO CARE for me along the way
My Dad taught me 'PROOF NOT PROMISE'.
When I was in junior high, on days during the summer when I wasn’t on the beach – which wasn’t many – my Dad would drive me in our mobile home to the supermarket where he worked as a meat cutter. I would help him out, sweeping floors or moving boxes. Whatever he needed. Anyone who’s worked in a supermarket knows there’s a trick to the trade. When you cut up a slab of meat, there’s usually a lean side and a side that’s got the fatty, not-so-good side. The bosses always wanted my father to display the good side up and wrap it quick so people wouldn’t see the less appealing side until they got home. My dad didn’t like doing that. He would always show the customer both sides of the cut before wrapping it up. He believed that people should get what they expect.
“What you see is what you should get.”
And, it’s true of everything in life. There are always two sides to the story. There’s the glossy, appealing side. The side that sells fast - but only if you look at it in a certain way. And there’s the tougher side; less appealing; more complicated, but just as important.
If you only look at one side, you’re being sold a promise. You need to turn it over and look for the proof.
As he would tell me;
“Listen, they will buy it once and will turn it over and realize that this is not what they wanted, then this will create long-term issues.”
So, from that, the concept was born for me that I will not promise you anything. I’m just going to deliver proof. We say this to Wall Street all the time and it has proven very well for us over time in our industry.
That is one of the many important lessons that I learned from my Dad.
"It’s about honesty and integrity, even when it’s not easy or appealing."
Oscar Munoz with his father Eduardo Munoz
My grandmother taught me 'PERSPECTIVE'.
As you may know, I spent a lot of time early in my childhood with my maternal grandmother in Mexico.
"Mi Abuela” worked hard, and I vividly remember her as she worked at a job in a Las Vegas hotel.
This was tough work and, over time, as a youngster, I saw with great sadness the toll it took on her physically. When she passed away at the ripe age of 96 – her ankles and feet had actually fused together because of the arthritic condition she had suffered for decades before. Even in great pain, she always worked hard and never once complained about anything. When she retired, it was not just her direct friends and co-workers that attended her going away party, but senior management attended as a show of respect as she never missed a day of work. That perspective worked and made a big impact on me.
When I had a tough day at the office, I always reminded myself that
"The worst day in my job was easier than the best day at hers."
I always try to carry that sense of perspective with everyone I encounter, trying to see the world from their eyes, understand their struggles, and seeing how I can be helpful.
My employees reinforced my longstanding value, which I call: ‘DUTY TO CARE’.
Like all of us, if you look back and look hard enough, there is always someone, somewhere that is taking care of you. For myself, it started when I was in High School where a Counselor asked me where I was thinking of going to College? My answer given my upbringing, parents, etc. “What’s a College?” In my community, there was no sense of that direction or possibility and I would be the first in my family to go to college. From that day forward, there have always been people in my life that have taken care of me. I have multitudes of stories throughout my career where supervisors and bosses cared enough to share with me insights that have made me better as a person and a professional.
But probably the biggest one, at least for where I am currently with our UNITED family, was 37 days into my job when I suffered a serious heart attack which resulted in a heart transplant a few months later.
Right before this major moment in my life, I had made it a concerted effort to go to our employees and travel the system to ask them what they most wanted to see change for our company. In a turnaround situation, the hardest part is figuring out what to do first. One of the most magical moments, which will be inscribed in our UNITED history, was when I was flying back to Chicago and I wandered up to the galley to chat with our flight attendants, as I often do. I don’t ask profound questions, just a simple, "how’s it going?" But, with this flight attendant, on this particular evening, she opened the window into a special moment. She said to me, “Oscar, I’m just tired of always having to say I’m sorry to our customers.”
For me that was a truly magical moment – that was it. That was the problem. I knew instantly what she meant. For too much and for too long, we’d been putting our employees in such difficult situations that in order to get better, we would have to heal them. Therefore, my first mission at UNITED was;
“We are going to regain the trust of our employees”.
As you can imagine being a business person, the investment community was stunned and questioning our approach. What did this mean? It’s not a strategic thing. We had to heal our people first as we are a very people-centric business and this was a very important part.
The magic part of that story at least for myself with the DUTY TO CARE for others was that it happened while I was in the hospital going through all of my heart issues and not knowing if I was going to live or die. Remember, I had only been with UNITED for 37 days. Yet, the outpouring of care and well-wishes from my new UNITED family was immense. I’m talking bags and bags of mail, well-wishes, flowers, and food that came in from the UNITED family to the hospital. I mean, it sounds dramatic, but every day there was a bag of stuff which my kids and my wife would read to me the letters of support from people that I frankly didn’t know as I had just started this position 37 days earlier.
Oscar Munoz with his medical team just days after his transplant
We had made that kind of connection and it reinforced to me just how wonderful the people at UNITED were which would eventually lead us to our turnaround. But more importantly, from people such as my High School Counselor who helped me with College, to the many people along the way that I’ve worked with, to having a heart- attack and having the UNITED family reach out in the way that they did. All that love and caring gave me so much support that I literally walk around now and promote things about the DUTY TO CARE approach to life and business.
The UNITED Airlines family
DAD.CEO: What did the experience of your heart-attack have on your relationship with your kids?
Oscar Munoz: (Pauses) You know this is a very personal subject as it always invokes many emotions as I recently celebrated 4 years since the actual heart-attack and in a few months, I will be celebrating my heart transplant. We have a strong family, and something like this clearly brings you even closer. But to watch my 4 children, support my wife who was thrust into a different world. They all truly challenged the doctors by reminding them that;
“You clearly don’t know my Dad!”
About some funny or memorable moments – When I was in intensive care, my kids would dress up in funny costumes; they recorded videos of themselves playing music and making parodies; run through the halls; generally, create ‘lightly controlled’ mayhem, and to help keep a light beat atmosphere and a very positive tone knowing that frankly, everything was going to be ok. When times were scary and uncertain, I think it really all came down to my kids just being themselves - funny, joyful, generous people who are kind, creative, and caring - that proved to be my saving grace and helped me pull through and more importantly, they rallied to support my wife who understandably was seriously affected by all of this.
Just watching them band together, it's funny and memorable, but the fact that they all did that of their own volition, as well as how they read those letters from our employees at UNITED every day was simply incredible. It became a true moment of strength, support and perseverance, and family. In my Latin culture –
It means so much more than being my brother or sister. Its meaning is a totally different level of the family.
The proud Munoz FAMILIA!
DAD.CEO: With a fleet of planes that fly around the world to incredible destinations, what is your favorite place to go with your family and why?
Oscar Munoz: We recently did a family trip to Greece, and for the holidays last year we went on a Safari in South Africa. But with all the great destinations UNITED flies to, it’s truly hard to choose just one.
The Munoz family on Safari in South Africa
When I think of all the places we have been to, the destination almost doesn’t matter. It is watching the family come together. It’s always a bit turbulent when everyone re-engages together, as they are all living their own lives to some degree and bringing in their own daily life stresses. But as you get older, you watch it with a different perspective. Everyone is sort of like jockeying for a position, and then you notice 2 of them laying on the sofa and watching TV leaning against each other.
During all our vacations, inevitably, everyone, and I mean everyone, ends up on Mom and Dad’s bed. At some point, no matter the time of day, they all seem to gravitate to our bed and just lay there. I have all these great pictures of us all over the world at our family gatherings. Watching our family come together and know that the bond is always there despite their different lives and all the different issues they have going on, they have learned that being together is more meaningful than where they are. I’m not going to lie, we take great trips! But it’s a great pleasure to watch them come together not just physically, but psychologically, socially, and that the bond is now stronger and more present than ever! What matters most is that the whole family can get together, the destination is just icing on the cake.
Coming together is what matters. The destination is simply icing on the cake!
DAD.CEO: You manage more than 96,000 people and fly millions of passengers... but what is Oscar Munoz like when he leaves the office and arrives at home?
Oscar Munoz: (laughs) My wife would respond with a laugh; “If they could just see you!” and that picture would be of me with my ‘soft’ clothes. Finally getting to relax and not having to shave for a day or two), playing music, laughing with my family, and just plain having fun and just being a regular guy. I learned a long time ago that trying to pretend that someone you are not – in the public eye, of course, you can’t just go and walk around in your old jeans and such, but it is important to be your real-self at least with the people that you work with. If you ask most UNITED people who know me, they would most likely say that he seems like a pretty regular guy. Sometimes a member of my UNITED team – or even a customer – might recognize me at a baseball game, cheering for my team or going swimming on Lake Michigan, etc. It is always a joy when that happens, and the first thing I ask is about their families. Which, I suppose, is the basis of your work at DAD.CEO.
Oscar enjoying a Chicago Cubs baseball game with his son.
I tell many people that at some point and time, who you are is who you are, and the more you can be your real-self while presenting yourself with slight modifications depending on the many hats that we wear as CEOs, but your fundamental genuine self always needs to be present. Because doing anything else is simply too darn hard in trying to pretend to be something else to other people.
We often feel that we need to try and fit into a mold. I learned that a long time ago that it doesn’t have to be this way. I found a way that works really well for me. I call it;
'THE SWING EASY PHILOSOPHY'
Just like sports, be it tennis or golf or anything that requires that easy smooth swing, you realize just how further and more accurate that ball goes when you swing easy. And when you swing too hard or too aggressively, the ball always goes awry. Therefore, we should approach our career or with family in that SWING EASY PHILOSOPHY style. Don’t try so hard. Be yourself! Being your genuine self will always be the version that everyone loves, respects, and most importantly trusts the most.
That immediate connection that people have with you when they first meet you comes from being yourself and it’s the difference between them liking you instantly or not... just as long as you are being yourself and being genuine!
DAD.CEO: As a truly global CEO who deals with financials, profitability, and client service as a core... Are you teaching your kids about business and client management?
Oscar Munoz: Back to the earlier comments I made about the ‘PROOF, NOT PROMISE’ concept and ‘DUTY TO CARE’, I believe you need to lead by showing an example. At UNITED, we serve millions of people across global destinations. And, with every community we touch, we try to demonstrate our core principle and approach to business:
"We are not only profitable and principled, we are profitable because we are principled."
The part of having children that is so helpful, at least for me, is they all have different perspectives. For example, my eldest daughter works in brand marketing, focused on product development. And, my younger daughter earned her MBA from Duke and now works as a consultant. The lessons I would provide to both is the same I give to my peers as well as the newest hires to our company – young women as well as young men.
I firmly believe that there ISN’T any conflict between serving your stakeholders, shareholders, customers, and employees. At UNITED, we made a big bet on that value, and it has paid dividends of every kind. Wall Street didn’t get it at first, but now they do. UNITED is the airline to watch, and I believe it’s because we demonstrated that serving all your stakeholders, not just shareholders, is the key to sustainable success.
My eldest son is politically oriented and has wonderfully altruistic ideals – believing in the principle side of things, and my youngest son just started his first year of college. And we, as a family enjoy discussing and debating issues in politics and business. Inside my family, we have a left and a right, and it does help me steer myself to remembering that it’s not just about the bottom line, but more so about servicing the communities, you serve for the 96,000 people I am in charge of.
How do we make their lives better? And, as we talk and listen with each other, they see me write, take action and sign up for things that matter. It’s really nice to watch them sort of not only embrace that but also be really truly proud of it. They carry that around that it’s not just about making money. They hear that from our employees, our customers, etc. about how we managed the turnaround here in a way that has benefited everyone – not only customers and investors but employees and communities as well. It’s a big bet that we made here in getting back the trust in our employees and it’s been the foundation to winning back our customers as well.
So, I’m hoping that as young people, they are learning that core value of principle and it will charge not only their careers but their personal lives.
DAD.CEO: What were some of your victories as a Dad and what would you have done differently?
Oscar Munoz: I am most proud that I came from humble beginnings. We may not have had a lot of things, but we always had a lot of love and that sticks with you. I still cut up a paper napkin in 2 pieces as I grew up with 9 kids in my family. My kids see these little traits that I still do and roll their eyes sometimes. Clearly, the lifestyle you offer your children is significantly different and
"You have to fight the tendency to KEEP UP WITH THE JONESES"
or having them to keep up with the Joneses.
Balancing work and family life is a key priority for Oscar Munoz
Balancing my work life and family life has been a key priority. As I see them grow older and I see them showing a genuine desire, not necessarily to have all the things that they can have. There is a financial discipline and a desire to give back and help others. Instilling character and an emphasis on non-materialistic values in my family is something that is being carried forward and this makes me incredibly proud to see that. It’s one of those things as a parent that you set out to do and when it works out that well it keeps us tightly knit as a close family unit.
We have a family text thread that is hilarious sometimes about how everyone likes to give each other a little grief, and that is frankly something I share with my 8 brothers and sisters as well. Keeping this tight-knit bond alive and well with our kids who are located across the country – that is a big victory for me as a Dad.
DAD.CEO: If you could go back and give advice to a younger you with the knowledge and experience that you have now, what advice would you give yourself?
Oscar Munoz: One thing and this is not something I came up with as it came from a very senior person at the Coca-Cola company, is that the more important you get in your position, the more your day will obviously be quite busy and full. But as you find your way home, you need to clear your mind of all your issues, because the people that are waiting for you have also had big important and busy days with meaningful things. So, when you walk in, especially the children including your spouse – if you teach them that Dad just wants to be left alone when he comes home, that will then create a standard for later in life that they will not be comfortable in coming to you with things that are important to them. So, it’s important to clear your mind, walk into the house and literally touch everyone that you can, and it does not have to take a lot of time, but to make sure that everyone knows that Dad is there for them when he comes home. Clear your mind, respecting that other people have also had a meaningful day, Walk in the door each evening ready to ask; “Hey honey, how was your day?”, leaving your problems at the door of the house and simply listening. That is a very important thing.
DAD.CEO: There’s a quote that goes like this – “Before you have children, you're the picture. But when you're a parent, you become the frame.” What does this mean for you?
Oscar Munoz: I grew up surfing and there is definitely a story to be written about the zen of surfing and the zen of parenting. The experience of becoming a father is knowing that you are no longer the most important part of your own life. And certainly, your character and values set the frame for how your children begin to realize their own vision for their lives.
I must say the greatest surprises and joys come from seeing how my kids enlarge that frame in ways I could never have imagined when I was their age, taking things in entirely new directions. Once you set the initial frame, they take it and run with it. And they create in essence their own frame for their own lives and their own kids which can be taken in very different directions.
For me, the “frame” is more the following: Children don’t follow their father’s advice, but their example.
The Munoz family - UNITED in creating new memories together!
DAD.CEO: The word NO is a powerful word in business, but does it work as well in your home, or is it the opposite by using YES?
Oscar Munoz: That’s an interesting question. In business, I’ve learned not to say NO, but “YES, IF...” because it becomes a more productive response. Sometimes a NO is going to be required. But, if you establish ground rules in advance, then your kids know how to avoid situations in which you, as a parent, will have to draw the “no” card.
For example, back when our kids were kids, when they’d ask to spend the night at somebody else’s house our ground rule was that we as parents would speak to each other.
I would tell my children to have the other parents call me to make sure they would be there, etc. When they are young kids, it’s not a big deal, of course, but, as they get to be older in the teenage years, it becomes a bit more fraught with commotions. “No other parents do this Dad!” was a refrain my wife and I would hear a lot. But, now my kids look back – saying they hated it - but admitting it was a pretty good rule that they’ll use when they have families of their own.
It reminds me of that old Mark Twain wisdom: "When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years."
DAD.CEO: Any last words of wisdom/advice?
Oscar Munoz: I think that DAD.CEO is truly a noble mission on your part to allow us in these roles as CEOs to reflect and think of these questions as it forces you to stop and think about where all this stuff comes from and about our kids and all. I think it’s wonderful what you are doing and I believe it will help us as a CEO community in showing a softer and more human side of us to allow us to be insightful and inquisitive and most importantly, to reinforce how some of the values in life, career, and relationships are intertwined – they don’t need to be separated.
For me, it’s focusing on trying to be your best-self across all those dimensions and not having or trying to be something or someone else when I come to work, as it’s simply too darn exhausting. So, this interview has allowed me to reflect on some of these things.
So, once again, I am really happy you are doing DAD.CEO!
DAD.CEO: Thank you. These are truly kind words and we appreciate your support and recognition of our mission!
ABOUT OSCAR MUNOZ
As CEO of UNITED Airlines, Oscar Munoz leads a team of more than 96,000 dedicated employees around the world, and together they’ve crafted a remarkable turnaround success story for the iconic global brand.
Since taking the helm in 2015, Oscar has been credited with elevating UNITED to new heights, financially and operationally, and setting a leading standard for caring customer service in the industry.
However, Oscar credits the majority of UNITED’s success to its people and the renewed spirit of trust and purpose he’s worked hard to develop among his employees as a prerequisite for earning back customer loyalty. It’s an ethic he brands ‘The New Spirit of UNITED’, which, among other accolades, earned UNITED a top spot on the list of Best Places to Work in 2018 by Glassdoor’s Employees’ Choice Awards.
With broad experience across industries, Oscar has earned a reputation for his unique leadership style, defined by authenticity, communication, and values-driven decision- making. Previously, Oscar served as President and Chief Operating Officer of the North American rail-based transportation supplier, CSX Corp. A decade of excellent financial performance, including a boost in operating income of nearly 600%, earned CSX recognition among the list of “Most Honored Companies” by Institutional Investor magazine.
He has held leadership positions at some of the most recognizable global brands, including PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Enterprises, as well as AT&T where he served as Chief Financial Officer and Vice President of consumer groups. In 2018, Oscar was selected to join the board of trustees at the University of Southern California, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration, before completing an MBA at Pepperdine University.
Throughout his career Oscar has engaged in civic, philanthropic, and academic causes across the country, especially in the communities UNITED proudly serves, including The Business Council and The Business Roundtable, headquartered in Washington, DC; the Partnership for New York City; the Economic Club of Chicago and World Business Chicago. He has also served on the Parents & Family Association advisory board of Vanderbilt University. Hispanic Business magazine twice named Munoz one of its “100 Most Influential Hispanics".
Cathy Munoz also graduated from USC, earning her degree in public administration in 1982. During her time on campus, she met and later married Oscar, with whom she has raised four wonderful children. From their longtime home in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and more recently in Chicago, Cathy pursues her avid interests as an aspiring artist and dedicated philanthropist. She has assumed a leadership role with UnitedWay’s Achievers for Life program, which helps high school students attain academic success. Additionally, she has worked with City Year AmeriCorps, which helps students build socio-emotional and academic skills to achieve their goals; the American Heart Association, which aims to increase prevention and awareness of cardiovascular disease; and UNITED Airlines’ employee scholarship fund. Cathy and Oscar also founded Pave It Forward, a foundation dedicated to raising scholarship funds for students who are the first member of their families to attend college. Cathy is an enthusiastic tennis player, golfer, skier, and veteran “lacrosse mom”.