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Business Veteran Al Checchi: Adapting to Change is Key

April 30, 2013
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With experience ranging from the business world to political affairs, Al Checchi knows what it takes to be a leader. Checchi spoke to School of Business students and alumni about his experience in leadership roles as part of the School’s Cobb Leadership Lecture Series on Mar. 27. The former California gubernatorial candidate played a key role in the success of major corporations such as Marriott, Disney and Northwest Airlines.             

The first goal of leadership, Checchi told the audience, is to help others during times of change. After the 1991 Gulf War, the airline industry found itself in a state of turmoil with many airlines filing for bankruptcy. Checchi was serving as co-chairman of Northwest Airlines, where he restructured the company so effectively that it averted bankruptcy and became the most profitable airline in the country by 1997.

“We live in a period of accelerating change,” said Checchi. “I can’t tell you how breathtaking the changes have been during my lifetime. Many people just can’t adapt that fast. The goal of a leader is to help people and institutions adapt to that change.”

Checchi says leaders also need to be fiduciaries and make it their responsibility to advance the interests of others.

“I look at leadership as a form of alchemy,” said Checchi. “You harness individual creativity. Then, you unleash the power of collective action and you produce something greater than the sum of the parts.”

However, Checchi said, this is the opposite of what is seen all too often in politics. Instead of having the public’s interest in mind, politicians play to polls and interest groups, he said.

“Polticians today are dividers,” said Checchi. “They slice and dice us about by race, color, class and economic circumstances to get to that magic 51 percent. What does it matter? What are they able to accomplish? We are divided into red and blue camps and the result is paralysis. Who really speaks for all of us?”

According to Checchi, the public needs someone who is willing to risk failure and seek more effective methods of doing things.

“I think you have to be a malcontent,” said Checchi. “You have to be someone willing to wage war against the status quo. You have to be a truth seeker… How can you make things better if you are denying reality?”

As the world gets more complicated, Checchi said, these traits become even more important to have in a leader.

The Cobb Lecture Series is made possible by an endowment gift made by Ambassador Sue Cobb for the birthday of her husband Ambassador Chuck Cobb in 1986. Everyone who attended the lecture received a complimentary copy of Checchi’s memoir, The Change Maker: Preserving the Promise of America and a Declaration for Independence.

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