Commentary: Boeing CEO’s choked-up message walks a careful line

BOSTON: Boeing chief executive officer Dave Calhoun got emotional at an all-hands meeting as he described the hole blown into the side of one of his company’s planes. I admit to being sceptical when I first read about his public display of feelings. “Oh, come on,” I thought, “Just fix the planes.” Then I watched the video.

“I didn’t know what happened to whoever was supposed to be in that seat next to that hole in the airplane,” said Calhoun, before pausing and apparently changing tacks. His eyes suddenly looking very wet, he blurted out, “I got kids, and I got grandkids, and so do you.” 

We live in an era where these all-hands meetings are designed to serve multiple audiences – the employees in the room, investors watching from afar, worried customers. It can be extraordinarily difficult to talk to all these constituencies simultaneously. But ignore this complexity, and a poorly worded phrase or a bit of “inspire the troops” tough talk can make an embarrassing viral clip – something some CEOs have learned the hard way.

Calhoun appeared to strike the right balance with a level of restrained emotion that ought to allow his message – that “every detail matters” when it comes to building planes – to sink in and convince investors and customers that the company is taking the quality-control crisis seriously. But it’s not necessarily a model for other executives who find themselves in a tight spot.

Failing to look genuinely sorry could have been a disaster for Boeing when faith in the safety of the company’s products is deservedly low and the stock has plummeted. A corporate apology delivered by a smiling CEO – or even a neutral, robotic one – will be perceived as fake, research at business schools has found, and won’t restore confidence. An apology where the emotions match the message does more to restore the company’s reputation.

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