Podcast: Down to Business, Alumni News
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Episode 101 – Robert Isom, CEO of American Airlines

On this inaugural episode of the Down to Business podcast, host Sharon F. Matusik, Edward J. Frey Dean of the Ross School of Business, is joined by Robert Isom, MBA ’91, to discuss his path to Michigan Ross, his career as a Ross MBA, his journey to becoming CEO and president of American Airlines, and his advice for current and prospective Ross students who are interested in leadership careers.

To open the discussion, Isom explores his path to pursue an MBA at Michigan Ross. After a successful start to his career at Proctor & Gamble, he became interested in pursuing a career in management. Inspired by the increasing presence of MBA graduates in senior P&G positions, Isom sought a way to take the next step in his career. He emphasized the importance of attending a top-rated school that wouldn't incur excessive debt. Ross emerged as the right fit, offering an affordable education and invaluable connections, curriculum, and action-based learning experiences.

Robert credits the connections made and experiences gathered at Michigan as instrumental to his current success as a CEO. Notably, he appreciated how his multidisciplinary coursework tied to his previous functional expertise, providing a holistic understanding of business operations and their part in benefiting communities and serving customers. This comprehensive insight was instrumental in shaping his career as a top enterprise leader.

“Whether it was the corporate finance classes that we took or organizational behavior and management or anything else, it was a real kind of science put to the functional work that I've been doing for a number of years,” said Isom. “And it just seemed like every class was just another piece of the puzzle being put together so that you could really have an understanding of large companies that have a lot of people doing various functions. It enabled you to see how things had to be put together in a fashion that would allow an enterprise to make money and fulfill its purpose to the communities that it resides in and the people that it serves. More than anything, I look back and think that Michigan was a key to helping put the whole puzzle together.”

After Ross, Isom leveraged the Michigan Ross network to pursue his first career move post-graduation. The connections he made, such as fellow MBA ‘91 grad Derek Kerr, led to his first interview and a subsequent job at Northwest Airlines. During a challenging phase of business restructuring, he found the opportunity to learn and gather experiences quickly. As a newcomer, he was thrust into critical financial situations and complex organizational matters, stirring his interest in aviation. This experience at Northwest Airlines paved the way for positions at America West Airlines and U.S. Airways, ultimately leading him to his current role at American Airlines.

In the second half of the conversation, Dean Matusik and Isom focus on what sets Michigan Ross students and alums apart from other professions. He shares that Michigan Ross students and alums have a unique work ethic and practicality. Isom attributed the success of Ross alums to the melding of global perspectives and solid Midwest work ethics instilled during their time at the institution. He recalled the university's emphasis on being dependable and determined to accomplish tasks effectively.

I have a great passion for U-M. I grew up outside of Detroit, and it's a group of people that, let's face it, are going to get things done. They want to build things. They're dependable. And when I look at the success of U-M grads, especially from Ross, it goes back to, look, you go to Ross, and you're going to go and get a great MBA education, you're going to have great faculty, but you're going to come out of there, I think, with a little bit of Midwest work ethic, and that means a lot in the world

Robert Isom, MBA '91

To close the conversation, Isom explores what current and prospective Michigan Ross students can do to forge a path to organizational leadership. When asked for advice for future CEOs studying at Ross, he emphasized that leadership is not passive but requires activeness and engagement. Isom encouraged students to sit at the front of the room, show energy, and display consistent interest. He affirmed that fostering such an environment promotes learning and camaraderie and that the energy and enthusiasm of personal interaction are essential for long-term career success.

“Leadership, whether you aspire to these roles or not, people are going to reward you with opportunities because they can depend on you,” said Isom. “I wish I could tell you it was because you're the smartest person in the world or you've figured out kind of the next new thing to market, but it's not. At the end of the day, it really is people having confidence in you, wanting to work with you, and being able to depend on you. And the more that we can kind of instill that into those that are getting an education now, I think the better off industry will be, the better off our country and the world will be.” 


 Want to hear more from Ross students, faculty, and alumni? 
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About the participants

  • Host: Sharon Matusik
  • Producer:  JT Godfrey and Tedra White
  • Guest:  Robert Isom
  • Audio Engineer: Jonah Brockman