Qantas CEO Alan Joyce — a high-profile business executive who has, at times, courted controversy — has offered business leaders some first-hand advice on how to weather storms and do what is best for their company.
Speaking at the Amazon Innovation Day in Sydney this week, Mr Joyce said that leadership involves doing what is right for the business, which is not necessarily about making decisions that will be popular.
When asked how he has the tenacity to make tough decisions when it seems like everyone else opposes them, Mr Joyce replied: “I think it happens with a lot of businesses; you have a lot of backseat commentators that say whatever you do is wrong.”
Mr Joyce used the example of the negative press surrounding his transformation plans in 2013 as one such high-profile example of this.
“Qantas went through a tough period back in 2013, and I always remember the interview I was doing explaining our transformation program to get the company back into profitability — and it meant big changes. Unfortunately, we have to make 5,000 people redundant from jobs that disappeared,” he explained.
“I was doing all the morning TV programs, and I remember on Sunrise, the two commentators said to me, ‘We did a poll today, and 98 per cent of people say you’re doing a bad job and you should resign’. That was the opening question.
“At the same time, there was this guy walking through the park where I was doing the interview, and he had two Jack Russells, and he started berating me, ‘Joyce, you bastard’, and he let the dogs go and while I was doing the interview, I had these dogs chewing on my feet.”
He said he responded that doing what is in the best interests of the business and its survivability is not necessarily about doing what is popular.
“My answer to the question was, ‘This is not a popularity contest — what I’m doing, I believe, is right for the company and right for the company to succeed’,” he said.
“And if I have the support of the board and the shareholders, that’s all that counts, and keeping those important stakeholders on side.”
According to Mr Joyce, the results of those unpopular decisions speak for themselves.
“Within three years, the company went from a $2 billion loss to a $1.5 billion profit; we’ve recruited over 2,000/2,500 people since then,” he said.
The point of this example, Mr Joyce explained, is that it is important for people in business to have confidence in their decisions and not give in to unwarranted or unqualified criticism.
“You have to have confidence in what you believe, you have to have the belief of the people that are important, and you don’t read the negative headlines,” he said.
He referred to the famous quote by former US president Theodore Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts”.
Mr Joyce also said that failure is a part of learning, and not something to necessarily fear in business.
“To survive, you have to be more dynamic than ever, you have to be creating more things and you have to be disrupting yourself before anybody else does,” he said.
Harnessing the ideas of future generations
During his presentation, the Qantas boss also touched on the need for business to harness the ideas and wants of the younger generations, given they will increasingly make up the customer base of most businesses.
“What we are finding quite a bit is with Generation Y and Z and Millennials, they are becoming more discerning about companies they want to work for and buy from,” he said.
He referred to a letter he received from then-10-year-old Alex Jacquot, who outlined his plans to establish a new Australian airline to rival Qantas, as an example of the ideas that can be harnessed from future generations.
Mr Joyce said that the letter, and a subsequent meeting with the youngster, was “absolutely amazing” with the level of detail and some of the ideas that were canvassed.
“He opens up by saying, ‘Can you take me seriously? I’m a 10-year-old boy’, and then he goes on to talk about the fact he’s setting up his own airline and then he talks about the fact that he’s appointed management — his best mate is his deputy CEO, his sister is head of flight operations — and he then wrote that they’re thinking about long-haul travel and were trying to come up with ideas about how people sleep on aircraft,” the CEO said.
“I wrote a response back to him, I invited him in for a meeting to discuss the issues he wanted to raise.
“We had a meeting in the boardroom, with this bank of TV cameras at the back, and I was amazed by his composure.
“I had two of my executives [there and] we asked him a few questions [like], ‘Where are you going to fly to?’ So he took out a folder and he had all his routes in the folder, and he said, ‘I’m flying to 53 destinations in Australia’.
“And the head of QantasLink says, ‘Oh, Qantas only flies to 52’, and he says, ‘Yes, I know that!’”
Mr Joyce also discussed the issue of comfort for travellers on long-haul flights, to which young Alex offered his response:
“We think you should put plants, vegetation, on the aircraft — produces oxygen,” Mr Joyce recalled him say.
“I said, ‘That’s a really good idea. But what about somebody like me who has hay fever?’” Mr Joyce responded.
“‘We’ve thought of that — we’ll have a plant-free zone’,” the youngster replied.
Mr Joyce asked whether this would work in the same way as smoke-free zones, and without missing a beat, young Alex said: “Mr Joyce, you should know that smoking is not allowed on the aircraft!”
“I was so amazed at his ideas, his innovation,” Mr Joyce said.
“We go back to innovation and where it comes from: it can come from the big companies... it can come from the universit[ies]... we have 13,000 suppliers that actually come up with great ideas.
“But it can [also] come from these kids, and we need to encourage it, we need to be out there and make sure that ideas are taken seriously, that people are listening.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.
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