Relationships matter, US Airways CEO tells Thunderbird graduates

One of the most important meetings in the early stages of the world’s largest airline merger hinged in 2012 on one key relationship forged years earlier between two former colleagues, US Airways Chairman and CEO Doug Parker told Thunderbird graduates on May 3, 2013. “Relationships matter,” Parker said during his keynote commencement speech in Phoenix, Arizona. “After 27 years in business, the big secret I have for you is that personal, human relationships are really important.”

Parker addressed 242 Thunderbird graduates from 35 countries, using behind-the-scenes glimpses of the $11 billion US Airways-American Airlines merger to illustrate his points.

Parker said American Airlines executives resisted the merger at first, which meant US Airways had to rally support for a deal by reaching out to investors, employees and the public. “It was no small task,” Parker said. “It required us to persuade thousands of individuals.”

Throughout the effort, US Airways executives noticed a trend. “Embedded in each of these groups, representing thousands of people, we kept coming across individuals we had worked with before,” Parker said. “Some we had worked with recently, and others we hadn’t seen in years. But they were all important, and our past relationships, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant at the time, were huge now.”

One key meeting early in the process involved the union that represents American Airlines mechanics and ramp employees. “These are tough, straight-talking people who don’t trust management types in suits as a rule,” Parker said. “We somehow needed to convince them that we were trustworthy.”

Parker said success came when one of the union leaders recognized a US Airways representative as a former trusted colleague. The union leader asked his friend about the US Airways culture, and the US Airways representative compared it to finding the right church. Parker said that was all his team needed.

“The key to our success was a long-standing personal relationship,” he said. “One man having a trusted friend tell him he was in the right church was far more important to our success than anything else that happened that day.”

Parker said managers who understand the importance of relationships learn to treat all people with dignity. “There is no way to figure out in advance which relationships are going to matter in the future,” he said, “so you have to treat everybody the same way.”

Doug Parker keynote address (8:38)

Doug Parker interview (1:21)

Graduation photos: View and download hundreds of photos from Thunderbird’s Flickr channel.

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