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Flybe: Leadership Lessons

Christine Ourmières-Widener
Former CEO at Flybe and Member of Board of Governors at IATA

Learning outcomes

  • The importance of purpose and humility during a crisis
  • Balancing humility and staying strong with what you believe is right
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Executive Bio

Christine Ourmières-Widener

Former CEO at Flybe and Member of Board of Governors at IATA

Christine was the CEO of Flybe, which was Europe’s largest regional airline, from 2017-19 and has over 30 years experience in the airline industry. She started her in 1988 at Air France before joining Amadeus inu 1992 as Director of Sales and Marketing in Europe for 4 years. In 1998, Christine rejoined Air France as VP, Sales before making her way to General Manager of Air France KLM for UK and then CEO of CityJet, the regional airline subsidiary of Air France KLM. Christine is also on the Board of Governors at the International Air Transport Association. Read more

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Interview Transcript

What were the biggest leadership lessons that you took away from running Flybe?

I think, when you go through a crisis like this one, you are, let’s say, more aware of who you are. But also aware of human nature. The most difficult leadership lesson for me was, if you are convinced that what you know is the right thing and you try to deliver it, at some point, you have to stop listening to critics. You have to build an armor, a shield, to make sure that you protect yourself. You don’t read Twitter anymore, you don’t read social media anymore, because you are convinced that you are doing the right thing. It’s for yourself, but also for your team, because it could really be very difficult, emotionally, for anybody. You can convince 80% of the people that you are working with, but there will always be people who don’t understand, don’t want to accept it or think that you are lying or hiding something or don’t want to understand the process you have to go through.

I think, from a leadership perspective, you have to make sure that you are building the strength to stop reading all the negative feedback, because you are just doing the right thing. That’s the lesson learned. You learn this lesson when you are managing small crises, but when the crisis is going on and on, for a number of months and you lose some emotional resilience, because you are not sleeping much, reading the critics is very difficult. You have to protect yourself.

How do you balance that humility and listening to others and taking ideas, versus the self-confidence and the, this is what we think is best and we’re going to really go for this point? How do you balance the two, as a leader?

I think it depends on where you are, in the crisis. Humility is something that you have to keep. When I say, doing the right thing, for instance, saving the company, it’s a purpose, a vision. At some point, you want to do that before anything else. Saving employment, saving pensions. That’s a top objective. In order to do that, you need to make sure that you keep this capacity to listen and you are not in an ivory tower, thinking you know how to do it. It’s more, what purpose or vision will save this company and how you do it is this capacity to listen to advisors. Ideas don’t only come from one person, from one team, such as the executive team. You have leaders everywhere in an organization. It’s not only the person at the top who is a leader. You could have great leaders in your organization, who are definitely a fantastic source of inspiration and ideas.

The thing is, to balance, to make sure that you are the person with the vision, but how to do it, is to listen and to have this degree of humility and making sure that, at some point, you are not completely isolated from the rest of the organization. I agree with you, it’s a high risk.

You mentioned you had this priority where, clearly, saving the company, saving employment, saving pensions, is number one. Did you refer to that framework on most decisions that you had to make, as a leader? How did you approach decision making?

It’s a purpose. You move towards the purpose, depending on where you are in the crisis management of the company. I think it is something that you keep at the forefront of your mind, when you are in a deep crisis. You need to put that at the top of any decision list and you have to have an agreement, a consensus with your board that, at some point, that’s the top priority. It’s consistent with director responsibilities of any company. When you are in that situation, you have the responsibility of directors that are moving more towards employees and pension. You also have a top priority that is financial governance, with shareholders, but when you are really into crisis, the worst-case scenario is for the company to disappear.

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