How to avoid toxic tone from the top

The failure of BA’s chief executive Alex Cruz to avoid toxic tone from the top will resonate for months, perhaps years.

True the airline’s share price has not died a death. Toxic tone from the top can take months, even years to undermine a brand.

No amount of high tech talk about the cause of the airline’s systems collapse will blank out the memory of a CEO on TV publicly losing his moral compass.

Alex Cruz BA's CEO
Cruz of BA

For three days this CEO stayed determinedly below the radar. He and his “team” left some 300,000 passengers wondering what had happened to the world’s favourite airline.

When the man finally surfaced in public, his performance was a master class in how not to handle a shattering company crisis. To explain what had happened he resorted mainly to unconvincing tech talk. As if his stranded passengers cared much about causes.

Instead, they wanted assurance somebody from their airline actually cared about their plight. They wanted evidence the top person was personally prepared to go the extra mile to do something about it. They expected to see the boss anxious to provide information, not excuses.

Mr Cruz clearly had no intention of leaving his lair.  Nor was this the first time this over promoted CEO has bombed in public. Cruz was the executive in charge of Spanish airline Vueling , a subsidiary of BA’s parent company IAG before landing his top job at BA.

In early July last year, thousands of customers went through a similar experience to the BA situation. They too endured chaos as Vueling cancelled scores of flights with a near total information black out.

According to one report, Cruz had to be dragged by the Catalan authorities to offer some sort of explanation.

That BA’s CEO failed to even turn up at Heathrow or Gatwick is a measure of just how badly he handled the public relations aspect of the disaster. Perhaps he feared a lynching or at least violence at the hands of incensed customers.

True, the suffering passengers spread far beyond the two main UK airports. They were all over the world. Yet being willing to face customers somewhere notable would certainly have made a difference. BA staff too apparently felt upset at the lack of visibility of management and the poor communications. Cruz’s memo telling them not to talk openly about the problems only made things worse.

A courageous, inspirational and ethical CEO would have turned a crisis into an opportunity. A different and more astute CEO would have been tearful, determined and visibly moved at people’s plight.

tech talkInstead, tone from the top turned toxic. Cruz tried blinding people with tech speak—all about failure of back up systems. Elsewhere,  IT professionals could hardly stop laughing at such an unconvincing state of affairs. IT systems don’t fail through power outages unless they’ve been previously badly undermined.

Tone at the top of an organisation is an intangible, esoteric creature. It helps define an organisation’s culture. It casts the climate in which all employees and others can relate to the organisation’s core values, albeit sometimes imperfectly.


The need for a suitable tone from the top originally stemmed from major corporate accounting scandals, such as those affecting Enron, Tyco International, Adelphia, Peregrine Systems and WorldCom.

The US Sarbanes–Oxley Act of 2002 raised the importance of this concept in preventing and detecting fraud and avoiding unethical financial practices. Since then it’s widened to include the entire field of general management, information security, law and software development.

Today an absence of suitable tone from the top reveals the quality of leadership of an organisation.  For example, it’s rare to a see a CEO of a major commercial enterprise so clearly out of his depth as was Alex Cruz. The last time this occurred to large scale public disdain was when BPs CEO Tony Hayward declared in 2010, following the Deepwater Horizon Explosion that “I want my life back”.

BPs Tony Haywood
“Tony Haywood: “I want my life back”

Poor man, he woke up to find himself cast as an insensitive incompetent. An agonised second apology followed: “My first priority is doing all we can to restore the lives of the people of the Gulf region and their families – to restore their lives, not mine.” But he was gone as the CEO before he could work through his priorities.

BA’s Cruz robustly declared that he was not going to resign as a result of the tech collapse. Whether it occurred because of the employee cutbacks he’d ordered remains the subject for further enquiry.

He should not resign for the tech screw up. But his inability to convey the kind of empathy, and contrition that Tone from the top demands is surely a hanging offence.

He should resign for showing no grasp of what it means to make real contact with customers during a crisis. Not only did this top executive hide from the media for three whole days in the midst of a crisis, he relied on technology to convey messages that seldom reached their anxious audience. He should resign because he failed to grasp that as CEO he may not be personally responsible for what happened, yet he cannot escape being accountable.

It will be surprising if this man is still in post this time next year. Watch this space.

If you must say sorry, be genuine

There’s nothing new about corporate apologies. They’re all too common. What matters is how they’re made. Do they convey genuine remorse backed up by practical action? Even the greatest companies occasionally must say sorry.

Steve Jobs apologized to users of the iPhone 4 who were suffering antenna problems. He promised Apple would “work its butt off” to correct it.” He clearly meant it and they forgave him.

GM’s CEO Mary Barra spent much of her early years in the job apologizing for a faulty ignition switch with car recalls involving millions of vehicles and a number of deaths. She wasn’t even at GM when the faulty car was launched, and her strongly expressed remorse worked.

Netflix’s CEO Reed Hastings made two big apologies in 2011.  First, for jacking up prices; and then another for trying to rename the DVD delivery service with the ghastly moniker “Qwikster.” Customers hated both ideas, and Hastings admitted his mistakes publicly.

Rupert Murdoch said sorry to the British public for the phone hacking scandal.  He also appeared before a committee of the British Parliament to discuss the hacking scandal and called it “the most humble day of [his] life.” It seemed to humanise this hard to like Australian tycoon.

In 2006, Mark Zuckerberg apologized for security problems in Facebook’s latest update. Zuck admitted Facebook “really messed this one up.” Since he owned the company he lived to fight another day.

Following in his late boss’s footsteps Apple’s CEO Tim Cook offered a heartfelt apology in 2012, for glitches in the company’s new Maps app. This gave bad directions,  locations were wrongly labelled improperly, and roads were unmapped. Cook said the company had messed up.

Belatedly Toyota’s CEO Akio Toyoda made a public apology before U.S. Congress for his company’s errors which saw the automaker issue a massive worldwide safety recall over acceleration and brake problems involving millions of cars.

And in 2016, while giving evidence to a senate enquiry, Wells Fargo boss John Stumpf said sorry for ripping off bank clients with fake accounts. Nobody believed he was ignorant of what had happened under his watch. That too was soon over and the boss was gone.

7 Ways an apology can avoid being toxic tone at the top

  • Avoid excuses—make your apology both sincere and unconditional

  • Make it highly personal—show why it’s your problem not just the company’s.

  • Manage the context—explain your story and give a proper background such as the overall challenges the company faces

  • Be forward-looking—explain as many details as you can about the actions

  • Convert a crisis into an opportunity—use the occasion to build the company image and put the company in the best light possible

  • Be there—don’t hide behind others, especially your PR company or a junior executive; go where the worst is happening; be seen to be both a listener and someone who manifestly cares.

  • Offer assurance—find ways to  convince people you’re going beyond mouthing an apology

    Geier, CEOs saying sorry: The art of the corporate apology. Forbes, Aug 13, 2014
    D’addario, The delicate art of the corporate apology, Salon, July 2013
    The Art of the Apology, Harvard Management Update, April 2003.
    P.Collinson, Mystery of BA’s computer collapse, Guardian 31st May 2017

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