Boeing's CEO Search Hurdles: Why No One Wants The Top Job?

Boeing desperately needs a leader who can right the ship and restore confidence in the company. But, why no one wants the top job?

Boeing's CEO Search Hurdles: Why No One Wants The Top Job?
Image Credit: GE

The past few years have been nothing short of a nightmare for Boeing. The once-revered aerospace giant has been plagued by a series of devastating crises - from the tragic 737 MAX crashes to production issues with the 787 Dreamliner to this year's terrifying depressurization incident on a 737 MAX.

As current CEO Dave Calhoun prepares to step down by the end of 2024, Boeing desperately needs a leader who can right the ship and restore confidence in the company.

Many had hoped GE Aerospace chief Larry Culp would be the man for the job. But, Culp has reportedly rejected Boeing's offer to take the reins as CEO.

Why Culp Seemed Like the Ideal Choice

On paper, Larry Culp appeared to be the perfect candidate to lead Boeing out of its current mess. As the CEO of GE Aerospace, Culp has proven himself as a highly capable leader in the aerospace industry.

Since becoming the CEO of GE in October 2018 and later the CEO of GE Aerospace in June 2022, Culp has led significant transformations within the company.

Under his leadership, GE Aerospace has streamlined operations, cut costs, and delivered strong financial results.

Culp has also demonstrated excellent crisis management skills, successfully navigating GE through the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on aviation.

His track record of operational excellence and steady leadership is exactly what Boeing needs right now.

Additionally, Culp's deep experience of aircraft engines and systems at GE Aerospace would have been invaluable for Boeing. Many of Boeing's recent troubles, from the 737 MAX's flawed MCAS system to engine issues on various aircraft models, stem from technical problems.

Having a leader with Culp's expertise could have helped Boeing avoid and quickly resolve such issues going forward.

Culp also has experience dealing with intense regulatory scrutiny, another major challenge Boeing's next CEO will face.

Following the 737 MAX tragedies, Boeing has been under the microscope of the FAA and global aviation authorities. Culp's background working with the FAA on engine certifications would also have been an asset in rebuilding trust with regulators.

FYI: Culp has overseen the certification process for GE's engines, including the GE9X engine for Boeing's 777X aircraft. The GE9X received FAA certification in 2020 after an extensive testing and certification program involving 8 test engines.

The Challenges that Likely Deterred Culp

So why would Larry Culp turn down what is arguably one of the most high-profile CEO jobs in the aerospace world? There are several potential reasons, in my opinion.

  1. First and foremost, taking on the top job at Boeing right now is a daunting and potentially thankless task. The company's reputation is in tatters, its relationship with the FAA is strained, and it faces mounting competition from rivals like Airbus. Turning things around will require a herculean effort and could take years. For a successful CEO like Culp who already has a good thing going at GE Aerospace, the risks may outweigh the potential rewards.
  2. There's also the question of whether Culp would have had the freedom to make the sweeping changes needed at Boeing. The company's board and corporate culture have come under fire in the wake of the 737 MAX crisis, with critics accusing leadership of prioritizing profits over safety. Culp may have been hesitant to step into a situation where he could be constrained by entrenched interests resistant to change.
  3. Additionally, the regulatory hurdles facing Boeing could give any CEO candidate pause. With the FAA now taking a much harder line on Boeing, getting new aircraft models certified and fixing existing problems will be a slow and painful process. Culp may have decided the headaches and scrutiny weren't worth it.

What Culp's Rejection Means for Boeing

Whatever his reasons, Larry Culp's decision to turn down the Boeing CEO job is a blow to the already troubled company.

It sends a signal that even a successful, well-respected industry leader has doubts about taking on the immense challenge of turning Boeing around. If Culp doesn't want the job, who will?

Boeing's board now finds itself in a tough spot. With Calhoun on his way out and other rumored candidates like Carrier CEO David Gitlin also reportedly declining the job, the pool of potential CEOs is shrinking. The board may have to look outside the aviation industry or elevate a less experienced internal candidate, which would carry its own risks.

The uncertainty around Boeing's leadership comes at a critical time. The global aviation industry has slowly started to emerge from the pandemic travel downturn, and aircraft deliveries and orders are picking up. If Boeing misses, Airbus is there to eat its lunch.

But Boeing can't afford any more stumbles. It needs a skilled and steady hand at the helm to rebuild trust with customers, regulators, and the flying public.

My concern is that the longer Boeing's CEO search drags on, the more it will rattle shareholders, suppliers, and customers. The company needs to name a successor soon to ensure a smooth transition and signal stability.

But it can't afford to rush the decision either. Choosing the wrong person, whether due to lack of experience or misaligned priorities, could deepen Boeing's crisis.

The Path Forward for Boeing

So what should Boeing do now?

In my view, the company needs to cast a wide net and look for a CEO who combines a deep engineering background with proven crisis management and culture-building skills.

The ideal candidate would be someone in the mold of former Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Alan Mulally, who left to successfully lead Ford through the 2008 financial crisis.

The next CEO will need to be an excellent communicator who can rebuild relationships with all of Boeing's stakeholders. They'll need to be willing to make hard decisions, shake up the corporate culture, and invest in engineering and safety over short-term profits. And critically, they'll need to have the full support of the board to make necessary changes.

One intriguing possibility is to split the CEO role.

Boeing could hire an industry veteran to oversee engineering and manufacturing, while bringing in an outside leader with experience managing a large, complex organization through a crisis. This unconventional approach could provide the mix of skills Boeing needs.

Regardless of who Boeing chooses, the new CEO will have their work cut out for them.

Job one will be resolving the regulatory issues still dogging the 737 MAX and 787 Dreamliner programs. They'll need to mend fences with the FAA and prove that Boeing has learned from its mistakes.

In the long term, the new CEO will need to overhaul Boeing's culture to put safety and quality first and find ways to counter Airbus' growing market dominance.

None of this will be easy, as Larry Culp seems to have concluded. Stabilizing Boeing could be a decade-long project with no guarantee of success. But for the sake of one of America's most important manufacturing companies, the global aviation industry, and the flying public, Boeing must find the right leader to meet the moment.

The alternative, as we've seen in recent years, is more turbulence ahead.