Phil Griffith (third from left) at Sterling Aviation High School. Photo courtesy United Airlines.
Phil Griffith (third from left) at Sterling Aviation High School. Photo courtesy United Airlines.

HBCU grad and California native Phil Griffith is the vice president of United Airlines’ Houston hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) which serves the nation’s fourth largest city and offers the airline’s customers a key gateway to Latin America.

Phil Griffith. Courtesy United Airlines.

Griffith’s professional career before landing at United spans across multiple industries, official job titles and continents. But whether managing supply chain operations, coordinating resource deployment strategies or overseeing a company’s global operations, Griffith, has remained firmly grounded, rooted in values and a work ethic that has facilitated his career’s onward and upward trajectory.

Upon meeting Griffith, one is apt to describe him via a phrase coined by the late ESPN sportscaster, Stuart Scott: “He’s as cool as the other side of the pillow.”

But underneath that cool demeanor lies a fiery commitment to leadership, service and excellence. That commitment was evidenced during the conversation Griffith recently had with the Defender about his current leadership role at United Airlines and the life experiences that brought him to this moment.

DEFENDER: So, after reading your bio, what I really want to know is what is it that you don’t do? I mean, according to the bio, you do everything.

GRIFFITH: I like to think about it from the other side of all the things that we set out to try and grow from that I just have a passion for. And it’s always been about getting out in the world, about engaging with people. I’ve always had a technical spin to the things that interest me the most, but I’ve always enjoyed being able to apply what I can do in different environments. And that’s where it may look as if I do so much, because I’ve been able to jump from industry to industry and have a really great time at it.

State of the Airports event. Photo courtesy United Airlines.

DEFENDER: You mentioned getting out in the world, and I wanted to ask about that because you have all these incredible international experiences. What do you like best about this global work and what’s most challenging about it?

GRIFFITH: The challenging part is always can you adapt. That question that lingers around the unknown. Assimilating, and trying to do so in a way that is in a positive way both for yourself and for my family and for the people I get the opportunity to work with. You’ve got to put yourself out there, and you’ve got to be vulnerable, and you’ve got to try. And when you do a good job with that, the benefit on the other side is you’ve expanded your family. You’ve become familiar with so many things that maybe you only read about in the past or you’ve heard others talk about. The beauty for me is I’ve been able to work in environments where it really was my life, and it’s helped me to grow.

DEFENDER: As VP of United Airlines’ Houston Hub, can you break down what that looks like in terms of your day-to-day responsibilities?

GRIFFITH: Our primary responsibility here is to safely support customers in getting from out of Houston to wherever they want to go in the world. And, of course, as they arrive into Houston, getting them with their bags and to de-plane on time, again, in a safe way, so that they can enjoy their time here in the Houston area. Along the way, there are so many other things to it. You’ve got federal regulations with the FAA and air traffic control that coordinate how aircraft fly into and out of George Bush Intercontinental. You’ve got interactions with service providers, like wheelchair pushers or cabin cleaners or people who do catering or that service the aircraft from a fuel standpoint. Of course, we have our own United employees that really are the face of the company when it comes to ticketing and boarding customers onto the aircraft.

And we want to do that in a way that is a pleasant experience. One where customers feel as if their trip really starts at the airport, or their vacation starts at the airport, and that we’re a constructive part of their journey. We’ve got tech ops that is responsible for maintaining the aircraft. Again, safety is a top priority, and aircraft require quite a bit of maintenance, be it scheduled maintenance or maintenance that comes about as a result of an event like hail damage, for example. We have the ability to make a majority of the repairs required on the aircraft. And when you wrap all that up, you know, I’ve left out the flight attendants, I’ve left out the pilots, but coordinating with those groups to ensure that we’ve got crews that are available and that have service time available to fly; all of those things comprise the whole process of keeping the airport working functionally, keeping it working on time and keeping it working with, again, the service and the pleasant atmosphere that we’re looking for.

We try to be that living, walking, breathing example of what a career in aviation could look like across all spectrums… from the pilots to the flight attendants, gate agents, and even someone like myself who runs the entire operation.

Phil Griffith

DEFENDER: Can you speak to United’s relationship with HISD’s Sterling High School?

GRIFFITH: We’re really proud of the work that we’ve been able to do with them because we’ve been able to find a very functional role to play in helping to support their mission. Sterling Aviation High School is a technical school that strives to support young people in a variety of technical areas. What’s of interest to us is supporting young folks that have a dream of becoming airline pilots or technicians that can do various maintenance-related responsibilities or pretty much anything in the airline industry; giving them exposure to the fact that there is more than being a mechanic or a pilot or a flight attendant, that they can do in the aviation industry.

Phil Griffith (third from left) at Sterling Aviation High School. Photo courtesy United Airlines.

So, as we partner with them, we understand that young folks in Houston and HISD have the ability to select what school they want to go to for high school. So, the functional role that we play with Sterling in large part is, we have career fairs. We do quite a bit of mentoring. We bring so many of our different employees out to Sterling to show them what their life can be like professionally if they go to a school like Sterling and get off to a fast start and eventually leave high school to get into the aviation industry. So, we try to be that living, walking, breathing example of what a career in aviation could look like across all spectrums, again, from the pilots to the flight attendants, gate agents, and even someone like myself who runs the entire operation.

DEFENDER: Were those the things eight-year-old Phil Griffith wanted to do when he grew up?

GRIFFITH: <laughs>. Phil Griffith wanted to be a football player when he was eight years old. But, you know, I saw so many things that my parents did as they worked in factories that were of interest to me because it consumed the evening conversation pretty much every night. And of course, it was very interesting. And I always thought of ways, as I grew older, to be a part of industrial environments where it was important to be fair to the people that worked within it; to be smart and innovative and creative relative to how you ran the operation. And over the years, that just took off for me and I’ve really been able to pursue something that I’ve had an interest in my whole life.

DEFENDER: Who were the biggest influences on your educational and professional success?

GRIFFITH: For me, I’ve built quite the quilt of mentors and people that have influenced me over the years. I think I’ve been good at observing folks at their best and taking portions of how they attack problems, taking portions of how they lead and how they encourage the people around them, and examples of how they innovate, and making certain parts of what I see mine, to come up with my own version. From the time I was in high school, there were people that I knew that went to historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Being from Southern California, I didn’t know much about that, but they encouraged me to give Grambling a try. And that’s where I went; to Grambling State University. And then from there, others encouraged me to go on for a master’s degree. And that’s how I ended up in Carbondale, Illinois, at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. And then of course, the professional exposure has been great because folks would observe things that I did well, as well as things that I could improve upon, and were always very generous with the mentoring and support and coaching to help me improve. And, as I’ve traveled around the world, I’ve been able to engage with a lot of very impressive people that have helped me a lot.

Going to an HBCU was very different than anything that I had imagined or even knew about back in those days. I needed Grambling far more than Grambling needed me.

Phil Griffith

DEFENDER: How did your HBCU experience prepare you for the successes you’ve enjoyed?

GRIFFITH: Well, going to an HBCU was very different than anything that I had imagined or even knew about back in those days. I needed Grambling far more than Grambling needed me. Because at some point, I realized that I was not going to be a professional football player, and I needed to go out in the world and grow. I needed to go out in the world and build relationships with people that, fortunate for me, have been lifelong friends and have provided me a great support network as I’ve pursued life. And, they still are friends. And then of course, Grambling gave me a great opportunity to get an education that has served me well. So, I couldn’t have made a better choice for me than to go to a school like Grambling State University. I joke with my kids that Grambling may not have been what you were looking for, as you chose to make your college decisions, but we came from two very different places; two very different times. And for me, Grambling was exactly what I needed.

DEFENDER: Any advice for young people, especially young Black men; advice for achieving educational, professional success in their own right?

GRIFFITH: Focus. So many of us, especially when we’re young and we think we have all the time in the world, we don’t focus as well as we should. We don’t bear down on the fundamental things that will give us options as we grow in this world. You see those that do, and their lives usually take a very different path, different trajectory. You see those that have tremendous talent, but they don’t focus and bear down on those critical things, and they sometimes meander. Oftentimes, they just fail. But I’d say in most cases, we get to the point where we look back and say, “I wish I would’ve been more focused” and “If I could do it all over again, I would.”

United Airlines employees (Phil Griffith, center) volunteering at the Houston Food Bank. Courtesy United Airlines.

LIGHTNING ROUND QUESTIONS

DEFENDER: What position did you play in football?

GRIFFITH: I was a wide receiver. I wouldn’t say I was the fastest wide receiver, but I can get down the field and catch the ball. It was good.

DEFENDER: Where specifically were you born?

GRIFFITH: Well, I was born in Belize. My family moved to Los Angeles when I was just three months old. And we grew up in a town called Pomona, California from the time I was five through the end of high school.

DEFENDER: So, does your favorite NFL team come from California?

GRIFFITH: Oh, wow. I like to follow quarterbacks, wherever they happen to be, that really catch my eye. You may notice my Houston Oilers helmet on the desk behind me. So, you take folks like Warren Moon and Steve McNair. That’s where my heart is. I’ve always been proud to see good, capable, smart Black quarterbacks in the NFL. And, of course, James Harris was one of the first. Another Grambling grad.

United Airlines employees at the Houston Open.

DEFENDER: What do you like most and what do you like least about the city of Houston, your adopted home?

GRIFFITH: Oh, wow. The traffic takes a bit of getting used to. I still haven’t quite figured out the traffic jams <laughs>. And we have quite a few aggressive drivers out there. So, you’ve got to be on your P&Qs when you’re driving in Houston. In terms of things that I like, of course, the weather is something that folks really look forward to when they come here to Houston. Lately, we’ve had some tough weather, but in general, the weather is great. I don’t mind a little bit of humidity, so it’s not a problem for me. But you’ve got pretty much everything that a person could want to do here, from all the sports teams and the entertainment venues and great restaurants and really cool people. So, it’s a lot of fun being here.

DEFENDER: What are you reading these days?

GRIFFITH: There’s a really interesting book that a friend gave me. It’s called, “It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way.” And, it really talks you through how you should take on adversity, not from a sorrowful point of view or with a sense of, “Why is this happening to me,” and just know that bad things happen to all people. And the way you get through it is by being positive and focused and allowing God to be a part of your solution.

I’m always impressed with people that are the first… it inspires me to travel that same path.

Phil Griffith

DEFENDER: We’re in Black History month, and I’m curious… what figure from our story speaks to you the most?

GRIFFITH: I’m always impressed with people that are the first; thinking through their journey and how they overcame whatever personal doubts or questions that they had about themselves or the system’s ability to reward them with the hard work. Thurgood Marshall; how could you not be impressed with someone who’s the first Black man on the Supreme Court? Barack Obama; he’s been through so much and he did it with grace and with class, with an honest disposition, and in the face of so many challenges on things that would’ve made a lot of folks lose their composure and not be their best when they really needed to be their best. Jackie Robinson in sports in terms of being the first to play in Major League Baseball. So, again, I just think about people like that, that I get to come across every day, both historically and currently, that are the absolute first in what they do. And it inspires me to travel that same path. I mean, when you think about it, at some point, pretty much every job that I take nowadays, I’m the first Black man to be in that job. And, again, you just think about how can you take their example and the example of these people that have been first in the past, and use it to your advantage so that you can be successful as you do that.

Your ideas and your drive and your heart are good enough to solve most any problem if you just give yourself a shot.

Phil Griffith

DEFENDER: What’s on your music playlist these days?

GRIFFITH: Ooh, I am a big Tems fan. Victoria Monet has been playing lately on my playlist. Lucky Daye. Brian McKnight. Last night I was listening to Al Jarreau and thinking, wow, he was really something when he was a young guy.

DEFENDER: Do you have a mantra or words that guide your steps?

GRIFFITH: Things are never as bad as they seem. Be still, be calm, collect yourself and go get it. Chances are, your ideas and your drive and your heart are good enough to solve most any problem if you just give yourself a shot.

MORE ABOUT PHIL GRIFFITH

Past Employment

Honeywell: General Manager of sales and operations planning.

General Electric: Led teams on five continents in various healthcare, consumer and industrial, and corporate divisions, and oversaw the strategy and deployment of project management, sourcing, manufacturing and security resources for multiple business units in the sub-Saharan Africa region.

Horsburgh & Scott: Chief Operating Officer for the company, a producer of industrial gear-related products.

Education

Southern Illinois University: Master’s degree in manufacturing systems

Grambling State University: Bachelor’s degree in electronics engineering technology

Community Service

Arizona State University: Past executive connections mentor with the W.P. Carey School of Business

Texas Southern University: Current Aviation Management Department board member

Aswad Walker

I'm originally from Cincinnati. I'm a husband and father to six children. I'm an associate pastor for the Shrine of Black Madonna (Houston). I am a lecturer (adjunct professor) in the University of Houston...