Video of the week – In times of trouble it can be tough at the top, but what makes a good airline CEO?

22 April, 2020

It is in times of trouble and during tough operating periods that we learn the true ability of any business leader. When a business is successful it is easy to ride on the wave, but when you have to fight against it we can quickly separate the good from the bad. Over the past couple of years airline CEOs have had it relatively easy. Apart from a few bumps of turbulence it has been a smooth flight. But right now they are facing the biggest crisis of their careers.

It is not easy to show empathy with employees while fighting to keep a business flying high. For airline CEOs right now that is safeguarding a flying business that is effectively stuck on the ground. While we are starting to see positive signs of recovery that could enable domestic and skeletal international operations to resume across many countries, it will be a long recovery and one with little certainty. CEOs - just like all employees - are currently looking and planning ahead in the dark.

Some say this crisis is merely good training for the next one. While we have no way of knowing what that next crisis might be, one thing is for sure - the current coronavirus crisis has shifted the way we work and will have lasting repercussions. There are leadership lessons to be learned from all bad situations, but strong leaders know that opportunity and innovation lie at the heart of any disruption or dramatic change.

It is generally believed that in times of crisis it is essential to be more visible as a business leader. Communication is essential and most good business leaders will be taking proactive steps to communicate consistently both internally and externally.

Global organisational consulting firm Korn Ferry has completed nearly 70 million assessments of executives, so it is well placed to define what makes a great leader. Its research shows that three of the four qualities of a great CEO are largely intuitive: sets vision and strategy; drives growth; and displays financial acumen. The fourth, which no one mentions, is managing crises. "It's underappreciated, overlooked, and often not even one of the top requirements-until a crisis hits," says Korn Ferry's CEO, Gary Burnison.

He explains that leaders always deal with ambiguity. "It's timeless and comes with the job," he says. But, during crises, ambiguity becomes exponential. "As fear becomes contagious across organizations, leaders must manage their own responses to ambiguity," he notes. How do they do that? By following six steps of leadership, according to Mr Burnison.

These are: anticipate - predicting what lies ahead; navigate - course correcting in real time; communicate - continually; listen - to what you don't want to hear; learn - learning from experience to apply in the future; and lead - improve yourself to elevate others.

"In a crisis, leaders must connect with, motivate, and inspire others - and show genuine compassion," says Mr Burnison. "The natural inclination in a crisis may be to go into command-and-control. That's not leadership! It's creating a "bottom-up" culture of world-class observers to accurately perceive today in order to predict tomorrow."

We have had a search through the CAPA TV archive this week to find this relevant discussion from the CAPA - Centre for Aviation World Aviation Summit in Amsterdam in Nov-2013, where delegates were asked what they considered to be the key characteristics that an airline CEO should possess. Included in the responses were words such as vision, decision-maker, innovative, charismatic, leadership, communications, focus, passion, adaptability, discipline, entrepreneur. Delegates were also asked to nominate who they considered to be the best airline CEO ever.

In the fiercely competitive airline market place, the airline CEO needs an almost impossibly broad range of skills. Is it reasonable to expect to find all these qualities in one person? How important are the other executives and the board of directors to a CEO? A panel session at the summit, led by CAPA's chairman emeritus Peter Harbison, discussed these and a range of other issues that touch on what makes the ideal airline CEO.