In the first public test of Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun’s tenure, he failed to demonstrate that he’s the transformative leader the embattled aerospace titan needs. Instead, in an interview with reporters Wednesday, he was combative and defensive of the company’s actions.
The company is in a prolonged crisis, brought on by erosion of its quality standards. A corporate culture that seemed to have emphasized profits over safety threatens Boeing’s long-term viability as an industry standard-bearer. Two rushed-to-market 737 MAX planes crashed, one in October 2018 and another in March, killing 346 people. Investigations found flight-control system problems caused both crashes. The worldwide fleet remains grounded, and production is still shut down.
Boeing’s once-vaunted integrity has been battered from a multitude of revelations. Disclosures of internal communications and accounts of superficial regulatory oversight portray a company in need of strong, change-focused guidance.
Calhoun’s leap into being the day-to-day leader after a decade on Boeing’s board suggests company leadership thinks tweaks to the status quo will right the business.
“I believe this culture is a good one,” Calhoun said in the interview. “Our employees care about safety first. They do that. They walk that talk, but their confidence is, right now, shaken. My job is to re-instill it.”
He denied that he had seen safety de-prioritized for business reasons and spoke repeatedly about the company’s problems in terms of lost confidence, not a deep cultural failing. Even if, at his core, Calhoun believes this, he should not breeze past the fundamental concern that Boeing is far down a bad path. The world is watching to see if Boeing understands the depth of its crisis. Neither Calhoun nor the rest of Boeing’s board of directors can afford to gloss over how urgently the company needs to restore its values.
It’s time to cure the disease — not just work on remedies for employee confidence and the 737 MAX’s mechanical issues.
Boeing will fail in the future if it continues to pursue ever-lighter oversight via unhealthy closeness with the Federal Aviation Administration. Boeing became an industry leader by building the safest, most reliable aircraft, not by hustling products to market.
At another point in his interview, Calhoun seemed to acknowledge this. “Safety first. Without it, there is no shareholder value,” he said. That truth is playing out in real time. Boeing’s stock has steadily declined while the multiple failures of the 737 MAX production have been revealed over the past year.
The trust of the flying public depends on Boeing restoring its corporate integrity. Any Boeing board member, including Calhoun, unwilling to acknowledge the extent of transformation required should step aside for leadership that wants to build for the long term.