Why Boeing might need to onboard interim leaders for a long-term fix

Major changes in senior leadership at Boeing are intended to help rebuild the aircraft manufacturer’s reputation. Gavin Wingfield, a director at people advisory business New Street Consulting Group, looks at why the aerospace giant might need a short-term leadership fix to drive long-term change.


A Turbulent time

It’s all change at the top at Boeing.

The company’s CEO, Dave Calhoun, recently announced he’s stepping down at the end of the year, while its Chair will not stand for re-election at a shareholders’ meeting.

Their head of commercial airlines also retired with immediate effect.

The changes come in the aftermath of a well-publicised safety issue on a Boeing 737 Max aircraft in January this year, leaving analysts and industry commentators to believe a shake-up at the top was inevitable. It appears the experts have been proven right, and now attention turns to who can lead Boeing forward – a challenge that, judging by the aerospace manufacturer’s recent history, may require interim leadership, rather than a series of immediate permanent appointments.

Mr Calhoun took on the CEO role in early 2020, picking up the mantle from a predecessor who left amidst criticism about safety risks following two fatal crashes of the 737 Max planes.

At the time, Mr Calhoun promised to strengthen Boeing’s ‘safety culture’ and ‘rebuild trust.’

Four years on, and it seems the company is still failing to deliver in these areas.

Following issues with the Boeing 737 Max in January 2024, when a panel blew out in mid-air, an investigation by the Federal Aviation Administration found widespread failures in Boeing’s safety culture and demanded immediate fixes. A supplier also flagged issues of non-conformance in the fuselages of 737 Max planes, which were waiting to be delivered to airline customers. These were delayed, causing airlines to have to adjust capacity and flight routes.


Driving transformational change

Ongoing safety issues and the apparent challenge of fixing quality problems at Boeing will prove concerning and off-putting to prospective CEOs, Chairs and the other senior leaders the company needs to replace. However, although these factors may prove problematic for making the preferred and successful permanent appointments Boeing desires, it’s the need for a completely fresh perspective and immediate transformation management that could leave the aerospace manufacturer opting for interim leadership.

Interim leaders will have the experience, expertise and mentality to deliver the troubleshooting Boeing needs. They are able to bring strategic insights gained from across a multitude of complex, high-pressure projects that demand quick impact and results. Interims can deliver wholesale changes by carefully managing the dynamics of existing corporate structures and relationships to breakdown resistance to change and get to the root of issues impeding progress.

It’s clear from reports that Boeing has previously tried to solve problems. Prior to the appointment of Mr Calhoun as CEO, the company’s board created a permanent safety committee to oversee development, manufacturing and operation of its aircraft. Changes in senior leadership were also made to restore confidence and relationships with all stakeholders including regulators and customers.

The previous changes in leadership and the steps taken in the past few years haven’t addressed the problems plaguing Boeing, suggesting there’s constraints that interim leaders could more effectively address than permanent counterparts. Interims tend to excel in change management because they are more objective and confident to operate within the specific, short-term criteria of their role.

An interim is comfortable in the knowledge that they have a particular timeframe to deliver objectives and solve particular issues. They have an eye on the long-term – the best interims leave legacies for delivering meaningful change – but they don’t have to worry about moving upwards within an organisation or pushing outside of their remit to win favour far and wide.

Their concentration and commitment are dedicated to fixing the problems in the here and now.

Bringing in interim leaders with the right skills and experience could create opportunity for Boeing to take a completely fresh and innovative approach to improving safety and quality. Interims will come armed with the ability to quickly analyse what’s not working and implement solutions that effectively solve problems and deliver sustained change. This could well create a more robust platform for attracting a permanent CEO and Chair who can maintain momentum in the long-term and continue the task of rebuilding trust and confidence.

About the author:

Gavin Wingfield, Director – Head of Private Sector at New Street Consulting Group (NSCG)

Gavin is responsible for part of NSCG’s interim management offering, sitting as part of the manufacturing and engineering practice. He head ups the people advisory firm’s automotive, aerospace and defence sectors, providing industry-leading support via an extensive consultant network. Gavin has more than 15 years’ experience spanning human capital and commercial sectors, which he draws on to strategise efficient and effective solutions for overcoming client challenges and helping organisations to fulfil their potential in the market place.

NSCG is a people advisory business that helps organisations findassess, build, and accelerate teams and leaders who are as good in practice as they are on paper.

The business does this through services which can be accessed individually or as an integrated service, from interim management and executive search through to talent intelligence, leadership assessment and development.

NSCG can tailor solutions to any c-suite challenge with solutions such as finding great leaders, developing strong talent pipelines and building high-performing, flexible teams with all the right skills.

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