How I Earned a “Seat” Next to the CEO of United Airlines: A Cold Calling Exercise at Golden Gate University


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By Milfred Galarreta (Candidate, MS, Integrated Marketing Communications, Class of ’19)

In the fall of 2017, on a typical morning in Sacramento and while still groggy in bed – after having arrived from Golden Gate University in San Francisco past midnight – I received a text message. Not just any message, but one from the CEO of United Airlines, Oscar Munoz:

I completely forgot, my apologies. I am hosting a big event this morning at SFO from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., but it’s inside the airport and I leave shortly after that.  If you provide me your email, I’ll see if I can get you on the invite list.

In my sleepy state, I watched my plans for the day explode like a supernova. Yet, in the back of my mind, I could hear Don Surath, my Sales Management professor who gave my class the cold-calling assignment to reach an Ultimate Decision Maker, saying: “You can do it, run! Say YES and deal with it later.” Amazing results don’t come for free: Within 10 minutes I was out the door and on my way to San Francisco. I got the interview!

When Oscar first contacted me, I told him that I had enough United Airlines frequent flyer miles – over 100,000! – to meet him anywhere; but on this occasion, I only needed to go 100 miles by train and rideshare. At that point, I called a friend from the class, Dora Nguyen (MS, Marketing, Class of ’18), to come with me for support and to make sure I handled the assignment as our professor would expect. She was also groggy but agreed to come along. Si se puede!

This GGU experience allowed me to reach a goal and also shaped me into a more determined person.

Determination in Sales

Prior to that text message, it had taken over 100 phone calls, plus emails and LinkedIn notes – along with researching where Oscar might be at any given time –  to get the interview. I then had a big moment of disappointment.

When I finally had a commitment from Oscar, the confirmation I was supposed to get never came – so I pulled out my “Cancellation Turtle.” It’s a way of handling bad news Professor Surath taught us that comes from chocolate turtles he kept in his drawer when bad news happened. (He’d eat chocolate turtles then call his best customer.) As I ate my chocolates – a Peruvian brand called Sublime – a stream of thoughts came to me about what I was grateful for. An attitude of gratefulness is important in life. By the time I was done eating my “Cancellation Turtle” chocolates and taking a walk, I felt serene.

Left to right: Dora, Oscar, and Milfred.

The Interview

On the day of our interview, Oscar was visiting San Francisco for a ceremony commemorating the last flight of the iconic Boeing 747. His calendar was booked for what seemed like every minute of this day. Three people were waiting outside the door for their turn to meet with him. He was sacrificing his lunch to talk to us.

…it had taken over 100 phone calls, plus emails and LinkedIn notes — along with researching where Oscar might be at any given time — to get the interview.

I was nervous; but Dora, who I had watched interview a general manager for Hilton Hotels (for the same assignment), broke the ice by saying: “I am an admirer.” I was too. I read about Oscar’s background and admired him as one of the only, and most accomplished, Latino CEOs in the U.S. I sent him several emails and LinkedIn messages, and wonder if the one that got his attention was: You were Latin, before it was cool to be Latin. This was my last message before he contacted me.

From Dora’s opening comment forward, it was like talking to somebody we knew. I could tell that in the short time we were there, he wanted to pass as much wisdom as possible to us. A few things he said piqued my interest. To paraphrase, he said: There are two ways to measure success; one is money; and one that is measured in completely human terms. The human quality is the only thing that is valuable and durable and truly makes you happy. I try to teach folks, especially like you: listen, study hard, work hard, and take care of yourselves and others; and just watch how many things accrue over time. People around you, at work, appreciate you if you are genuine and truly care about them. It makes a big difference. At the end of the day, your life is measured by what you leave behind. It is in the people around you: your spouse, your children, and your friends.

I realized that Oscar is more than the CEO of United Airlines, but a down-to-earth person who makes everyone around him feel like someone special. He also summed up his ideas by saying that, “by adding human to smart,” your career will reach its true potential.

Deeper Learning

This GGU experience allowed me to reach my goal and also shaped me into a more determined person. In addition to never giving up, my takeaway is that while it is alright to be driven, we need to learn to slow down and love people — and listen to the advice of those who are more experienced. I can now say to others: don’t forget that people have to care about you before they will help you.

I am continuing my travels on United Airlines! Last year I visited Ireland, Portugal, Peru, and New Zealand. This year I visited Cuzco, Peru and I am traveling to Japan and Hong Kong in August, and maybe Rome in December.

Here’s a big thank you Professor Don Surath, and to my Ultimate Decision Maker, Oscar Munoz: You both impacted my life for the better.

Interested in learning some of the techniques used by this GGU student? Don Surath will be conducting a seminar on how to reach high-level decision makers this summer at our downtown San Francisco campus. Watch GGU’s Facebook page for details.

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