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‘Lift-Off to Leadership’: talking about diversity at the World Aviation Festival

Five industry leaders convened to discuss this essential topic

For Sumati Sharma, ‘inclusive leaders are highly aware of their own biases. They actively seek out and consider different perspectives to inform their decision making day-to-day.’ A partner at Oliver Wyman, Sumati previously worked with Virgin Atlantic, where she held numerous leadership positions over the course of her 16-year tenure. She is also the founder and co-chair for the Women in Aviation & Aerospace Charter.

At the recent World Aviation Festival in Lisbon, Sumati chaired a panel discussion on diversity in aviation, subtitled ‘Lift Off to Leadership’. Joining her were:

Each speaker had the chance to discuss what diversity means to them, why they are passionate about the topic, and what their organisations are doing to advance DEI.

A new role for different times

Adrian Binfield opened his side of the discussion by drawing on his experience of being a parent. Each of his three children have very different skills and interests, and Adrian wants ‘them to grow up in a world where they’re valued for who they are, not what they are.’ He highlighted the positive changes that have occurred since his own youth, noting that young people growing up now are ‘much more engaged around inclusion and diversity’ – and these shifts have started to take hold in the professional world as well. Adrian’s role at IAG is new, having been created in 2021. For him, heading up IAG’s HR and DEI initiatives is a ‘real privilege and a real responsibility,’ allowing him ‘the chance to hold up a mirror up to the business’ and reflecting on the value that a diverse array of talent and experience can bring to the organisation.

One of the first pledges made at IAG after Adrian joined was committing to 40% female representation in senior leadership roles by 2025. The group is currently at 36% – up from 32% in June this year – which he recognises is good progress while nonetheless acknowledging that the target is less important than how they track these developments. It is all too easy to lose sight of this aim without due care and attention, especially when it comes to making appointments. Adrian makes sure to speak about diversity and talent to senior leaders to at IAG, and while the organisation is only nine appointments away from hitting that 40% target, ‘that means that every time somebody leaves our senior leadership group, that can have an equally big impact on whether or not that target becomes achievable.’

Adrian also acknowledges that gender is by no means the only area of DEI to consider, but it was an area which was both visible and for which IAG had data to work with. He mentioned race and ethnicity as another focus point, while admitting that different social, cultural, and legal contexts across the various territories represented by IAG’s airlines pose an additional challenge. ‘Even something which seems really simple and straightforward to capture data around,’ such as nationality, ‘creates different problems for us. So that’s the stuff we’re continuing to work through.’

Come as you are

Sophie Dekkers highlighted the need for clear dialogue about DEI by highlighting differences while letting people act authentically: ‘Even if you are a white middle-aged man, we want you to be yourself.’ This translates directly to her early experiences as a woman working in aviation (which she spoke about in more detail with Venari Partners’ Jenny Walsh on the REACHing C-suite podcast earlier this year). When Sophie started at easyJet 16 years ago, many of the women she saw in positions of authority exhibited traditionally masculine leadership styles. ‘They were almost ultra-alpha in their behaviours – and maybe that’s how they thought they had to fit in,’ she recalled. ‘I would look up to them and say, “Do you know what? That’s not me. Maybe I’m not going to be a female leader in this business, or in business generally.”’

The ‘game changer’ came when Dame Carolyn McCall was appointed as CEO in 2010; the new boss’ ‘firm but fair’ style of leadership really resonated with Sophie, as did the fact that McCall was a mother. ‘Seeing someone that can be the CEO of an airline and have kids’ was inspiring to Sophie and helped to inform her own views on leadership. For her, visible, authentic leaders who foster inclusive environments where people feel safe and able to speak their mind is crucial, as it leads to positive engagement and more diversity of thought: ‘I think that’s really important if we want to develop as an industry’. The biggest challenge, in Sophie’s view, is how to increase reach at grassroots level. She cites research conducted by easyJet in which children drew pilots as male, and she is keen to change this by reaching out to schools – both in the UK and across Europe – and showing people that attitude and energy, rather than privilege, are key to success.

Differences as strengths

Pieter Bootsma mused on the link between inclusiveness and leadership – because, in his experience, diverse teams are usually much stronger than less mixed ones. Whether it be diversity of gender, culture or other aspects, Pieter has found that balancing different characteristics yields better results; one of the best teams he ever led was a revenue management group at Air France KLM, where all the men were Dutch and the women, French; they felt comfortable to challenge each other, more so than if they’d all had the same experiences. ‘If you have in your leadership style that kind of conviction, you will be, by definition, inclusive towards different people and different backgrounds,’ he said.

Sumati Sharma, who described Pieter as ‘one of the truly authentic male allies I know’ in aviation, later asked him what needs to happen for true systematic change in industry leadership over the next 15 years. For Pieter, ‘it has to do with the real conviction that it doesn’t matter where you come from, what your background is’ – rather, what you can do and contribute to a company. He feels lucky to work at an international company but stressed the need for equal opportunities within such an environment. Pieter mentioned initiatives the Air France KLM group have in a number of countries to bring talent to work in Paris and Amsterdam, as well as an open style of leadership that puts you in contact with many people on an individual level. ‘It sounds so stupid and obvious that I’m almost hesitating to say it,’ Pieter admitted. ‘But in order to build diverse teams and be inclusive as a leader, you have to know what is important to them. How can you be closer if you don’t even know what their background is?’

Blazing a trail

Güliz Öztürk has been at Pegasus for almost 20 years, having been appointed as CEO last year. For her, ‘inclusive leadership is the way to go.’ Employees who feel valued by the company will in turn add value to the organisation and leaders alike. ‘If I want to be successful in my position, then I have to keep my team together, working and being open to [new] ideas,’ she told the panel. Güliz has had a long journey to get to this point. She feels proud to be in her current position but acknowledges that her gender overrode everything when she first took the role. She was frustrated by the attention that this received, rather than her 30 years of experience in aviation, which highlighted to her the need for more female leaders and role models in the sector. ‘That gave me the idea that I have to be more visible, and I have to show that if I can do this, others also may do it.’ For Güliz, being able to follow your ambitions comes down to ‘basic human rights; that’s why I’m so passionate.’ She spoke from experience – given that only around 6% of airline CEOs are female, she knows all about the structural inequalities that can prevent women from reaching the top in this industry. ‘We’re careful to listen to what our teams are talking about, what they want to bring to the table.’

Since 2005, Pegasus have been working on a number of initiatives to improve diversity and gender equality, including working with universities for greater gender diversity among technicians and pilots. She describes the company’s mentality as a ‘startup spirit’ where innovation is valued. ‘It’s a long journey, but we should not see this as a side initiative,’ she said. The creation of Harmony, an umbrella group for the company’s initiatives around diversity, is crucial for following through on their goals and commitments, as well as visibility within the organisation. This even comes down to language, with Pegasus reviewing Turkish words that can be construed as exclusionary.

Staying on track

Sadly, good intentions do not always lead to more inclusive environments; it is all too easy to make big plans for DEI strategy only to not follow through on them, or for a company’s efforts to come across as mere tokenism. ‘For me, it’s demonstrating that we value your ideas, opinion, and contribution because of who you are,’ Adrian Binfield explained, ‘and not in terms of ticking boxes to say how you identify.’ Creating inclusive spaces and environments is essential for leaders in aviation; Sophie Dekkers noted that easyJet’s leadership team is examining how to ‘get the quietest voice in the room heard’, a message that they are seeking to spread among employees regardless of seniority.

The session ended with the speakers taking a question about neurodiversity in aviation. Güliz Öztürk recognised that educational systems are not always equipped to unlock the potential of neurodiverse people, but that airlines will always look to recruit ‘the right person for the right job.’ Adrian Binfield noted that many business leaders, including in aviation identify as neurodiverse, and that it is increasingly easy for them to open up about experiences and difficulties they might previously have felt the need to hide. By creating the right atmosphere, getting to know people and making them feel comfortable in sharing, ‘then we can start to talk to them about what further support we can provide as a business to help them to really thrive.’

Many thanks to the panel for an interesting and insightful session!

At Venari Partners, we are passionate about helping aviation companies with their DEI targets. Please reach out to us if you would like to learn more.


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