Continental Airlines
What
words come to mind when you think of Continental Airlines? Successful company,
preferred airline, good service, on-time airline, top carrier, financially
solvent, happy employees. These are all true; however, this was not always the
case. Just six short years ago, probably not one of those descriptions would
even be said in the same breath as Continental Airlines. In fact, in 1994,

Continental was facing its third bankruptcy; that bankruptcy would have been the
final blow to take this airline down for the last time. Employees were
disgruntled about their work environment, their pay, and their airline; they had
even taken pay-cut after pay-cut in an effort to keep the airline afloat.

Customers did not think much more of the company, as Continental was considered
simply the worst among the nation’s ten biggest airlines. Continental Airlines
is now recognized as one of Fortune Magazine’s "100 Best Companies to Work
for in America," even moving up from the 40th position to a very respectable
number 23 on the list in 1999 (a particularly satisfying award for a company of
over 50,000 employees). Continental is also now considered to be a respected
airline and company, not only in the airline industry but also across all
industries both nationally and worldwide. This metamorphosis came about because
of a team of individuals who took a hard look at the condition of the company.

They considered where the company had been and where it could go. At that point
in time, the possibilities were two; Continental could continue on the road it
was on (and probably end up in its third bankruptcy and possibly the end of an
airline) or undergo some major changes in the hopes of creating a really great
airline. As the story goes, the Board of Directors of Continental Airlines went
out on a limb and hired a gutsy, plain-speaking ex-Navy aircraft mechanic who
was armed with a few commonsense notions about good management and who possessed
the courage to look past the bottom line, managed to motivate his people to bold
new heights of excellence and win back this company’s long-lost customer base.

This person, armed with a down-to-earth basic recipe for turning a company
around, was and is Gordon Bethune. Change does not come about overnight, nor
does it come easily. As stated by Merriam-Webster, change is "to make
different in some particular fashion; to give a different position, course, or
direction to; to replace with another; to make a shift from one to another; to
exchange for an equivalent sum or comparable item; to undergo a modification
of." Management is defined as the "act or art of managing; the conducting or
supervising of something (as a business); judicious use of means to accomplish
an end; the collective body of those who manage or direct an enterprise."
(Merriam-Webster) These things all happened at Continental Airlines beginning in

1995 under the direction of Gordon Bethune. Gordon, as he is known to all of his
employees from the second in command down to the newest ramp agent, is a leader
who is about his people and his product. He is a feisty, plain-speaking man who
fought for the position as Chief Executive Officer. After ten leaders in ten
years, the Board of Continental had only wanted someone to be a figurehead for
the company. They were not looking for a "leader;" they had had ten of those
already. The Board simply wanted someone to "take over." So, they let Gordon
take over for the next ten days until the next board meeting; at that point, he
would have a chance to address the Board and some decision would be made. What a
timeline; what stress. Gordon knew the company needed dramatic change in every
conceivable way. His first step was an easy one; he stuck a wedge under the
once-locked, video camera monitored doors of the executive suite. This was the
equivalent of hanging an "under new management" sign in the window of a
restaurant. It was a start, as well as a testament to his style of management
and to the culture he longed to see at Continental. Bethune spent the next ten
days holed up with Greg Brenneman, then a consultant for Continental and now the

President and Chief Operating Officer, to come up with a plan to present at the
board meeting. Greg’s background was in turning companies around and Gordon
quickly recognized his talents in doing just that and wanted his partnership in
this turnaround attempt. What an "attempt" this would be. For this board
meeting, Gordon and Greg had ten days to not only make the