Maintaining orange spirit in challenging times - Dame Carolyn McCall

Written by
Mary Appleton

17 Jul 2017

17 Jul 2017 • by Mary Appleton

Outgoing easyJet CEO Carolyn McCall talks about navigating Brexit, supporting women in the workplace and keeping an 'orange' focus on customer service. 

I travel to Hertfordshire to meet easyJet chief executive Carolyn McCall on the day prime minister Theresa May is due to trigger Article 50, marking the start of two years of negotiation to thrash out a deal for Britain’s exit from the European Union (EU). It is a grey and miserable morning in more ways than one.

As a European airline headquartered in the UK, and dependent on its ability to fly passengers via routes across the EU, easyJet cannot fail to be concerned by Britain’s decision to leave the union. For the past few months, the airline has reportedly been considering the location of a new air operator’s certificate (AOC), which will allow it to continue flying between EU member states.

McCall has already been up for hours when I arrive, no doubt liaising with other European airlines about the impact of the day’s announcement. She appears, latte in hand, leaves her BlackBerry on the side, and does not look at it once during our hour-long conversation. I have her undivided attention.

“On 24th June [referendum results day], my first thought was ‘what are my people feeling?’,” says McCall. “We are a European airline, with every nationality working for us, we don’t think of ourselves as non-EU. It was a body blow from an emotional point of view.

“But as leaders we had to pick up and say ‘we are going to ensure we remain the great European airline’. We have a confident and secure future, we just have to navigate our way thought it. That’s what leadership is about. You don’t need good leaders when it’s easy,” she smiles.

Taking the reins

Born in Bangalore, India, an only child of British expat parents, McCall studied history and politics at the University of Kent before training as a teacher. She taught briefly before deciding the profession was not for her (“it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done”), joining construction group Costain, and later became a researcher at The Guardian, where she stayed for some 24 years, culminating as CEO of Guardian Media Group (GMG).

On arriving at easyJet in 2010, the airline was troubled by low customer satisfaction, foundering employee morale and an intensifying public row between founder, Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, and its board.

“There was a lot going on that wasn’t great, but I’d flown easyJet previously and I just loved the crew,” she says. “I thought that if the people have that kind of personality and spirit there is something great here. You could do so much with the brand.”

Her first year in the job was about as difficult as it gets, even for the most seasoned CEO. Crew shortages led to flight cancellations, and were followed by a succession of extreme winter weather conditions, air traffic control strikes and oil price hikes. “It was tough,” she concedes, “but it taught me a lot.” 

Developing 'orange spirit'

After some shuffling of the executive team, McCall turned her focus to her people. One of her first actions was to write to pilots to reassure them she did not plan to create an “Orange Ryanair”; in 2013, she reinstated inflight meals for cabin crew that had been dropped in an effort to slash costs.

In an industry where confrontations with crew are commonplace, McCall’s vehement focus on people has characterised much of her leadership. A consummate networker, she spends much of her time travelling to meet and interact with employees across the easyJet system. “You get a lot of energy from people,” she enthuses. “I have no interest in b2b, it’s not about consumers, you can’t touch and feel in the same way. I learn so much more from the frontline than I do in meetings.”

Yet despite the employee warmth that initially attracted her to the airline, when she joined, McCall was surprised to find how little emphasis was placed on learning and development for staff. “It was a shock,” she admits. “I’d come from The Guardian where, prior to becoming CEO, I’d been encouraged to go to Wharton. We created executive education programmes and brought in professors from MIT and Stanford. There was just nothing like that here.”

For the past seven years, McCall has been focused on building a high-energy learning culture within easyJet. “In the early years, people wouldn’t turn up to courses; they were so busy, and felt like it wasn’t part of the culture,” she says. “But people value learning so much more now.”

McCall is visibly energised when she talks about the culture within easyJet, and believes it is ‘orange spirit’ that sets her business apart from other airlines. “It’s like dog years here; one year is like seven elsewhere. You learn so much so quickly,” she explains. “People who join really love it as they see how much they will develop and what we will give them, and also what they will learn for themselves because they are put in positions where they just have to get on with it. It’s very empowering for them.”

What defines ‘orange spirit’ from a frontline perspective is an instinctive desire to serve customers, says McCall, who is keen to distinguish the easyJet approach from that of low-cost rival Ryanair. “We are a low-cost operating model but our customers don’t see that. They see friendly, efficient service. We’re always looking for new ways to be innovative; it’s an insurgent mentality.”

Focus on female pilots

While women make up more than half (55%) of easyJet’s executive board, the airline’s Achilles heel is gender diversity among pilots. Although this is a macro problem for the aviation industry, McCall has set ambitious targets to address it.

In 2015, 6% of easyJet’s pilot recruits were female (3% worldwide); by 2016, this hadincreased to 12%. Currently, the airline has 164 female pilot recruits, of whom 62 are captains, equating to about 14% of the world’s total. McCall wants to increase the proportion of female pilots at easyJet to 20% by 2020, which she believes is “more than achievable”, and is excited by the prospect of having a genuine opportunity to redress the balance globally. “As soon as you get that pipeline, it will have a proper impact on worldwide aviation,” she predicts.

Stereotyping – around men being pilots and the sort of qualifications you need to fly – needs addressing too. “There are a lot of attributes that make a good pilot that people don’t talk about, like being calm, patient, measured and a good leader,” McCall points out. “It’s usually STEM that’s at the forefront, but it’s not all about that. You can be good at history and be a pilot.” To this end, McCall is focused on creating “excellent role models” to show young women that aviation is a career option, as well as schools outreach and underwriting six female partners a year as part of the Amy Johnson initiative.

Does she believe she is attuned to this agenda because she is a woman? “It’s not really because I’m a woman, it’s because it’s crazy!” she counters. “It’s totally out of kilter with society. If I were a man it would still be important; it’s a no brainer.”

Facilitating female progression

More broadly, as one of only seven female CEOs in the FTSE100, McCall has given more than her fair share of support to the ‘women-in -business’ agenda in recent years, speaking openly about her concerns. She is frustrated by the pace of change when it comes to the proliferation of women in senior roles and would like to see a macro-cultural shift in how women are supported at work when they have children.

“There are simply not enough women in the workplace in management jobs,” she insists. “The key thing is to hold on to female management talent as that is the only way you will get people onto executive committees and at c-suite level. It’s not about the money you throw at big conferences and networks, it’s about how you make it easy for women to stay in those demanding management roles when they have a family. “I genuinely believe the barriers to women without children are less because they have the freedom to do a global job or take a position elsewhere and come back; all those things that develop your career more quickly you can do much more easily if you haven’t just had a child, where you have to think through how you will manage your life for the next five years until they go to school.”

McCall believes women in management typically tend to be lost after their second child. “They grapple along after the first, but by the time the next one comes along, there’s a dawning realisation that they are spending all their money on childcare, often the company is inflexible on working hours, so women just think: ‘what’s the point?’” 

Speaking up to change attitudes

Should some of the onus to address these issues be on women themselves? What can they do to contribute to changing attitudes? “Women can speak up,” argues McCall. “A lot of women are nervous about going to their boss and asking for flexible working or job sharing; they worry it might look as though they are not committed or have changed. But that’s not the case. Women need to speak up about what would work for them to stay and be engaged. I find that when you have accommodated women through a period where they need it, they are the most engaged people you’ve got and they give back so much.”

Flexible working laws and legislation will only go so far in supporting this agenda, she believes, so it’s down to fundamental culture change within organisations, which McCall believes is happening, albeit slowly. “We need more enlightened chairs, female CEOs, chief financial officers, who can help change culture. This is not a female issue, it’s an issue for females at work. I know as many men who want to get home and see their kids. More women – but men too – have to say ‘that is important to me’. If you are good, your company will want to be accommodating so don’t worry about speaking up.”

McCall had her first child in 2001, while at The Guardian, followed by twins in 2003, taking four months’ maternity leave in each case. She recalls The Guardian’s deputy editor urging her to do this, rather than rushing back to work, in order to set the example, as CEO. “That was really wise advice,” she admits. On her return to work, she also had the freedom to accommodate her family commitments; for example, leaving early to do the bedtime routine but then working in the evening. “I found my way of being able to manage it so I was happy,” she says.

Exercising commercial clout

From an organisational perspective, McCall has delivered some pretty impressive commercial returns during her six-and-a-half years at easyJet, including five years of record profits. Her ambitious growth strategy generated an 18% increase in pre-tax profit to a record £686m in 2015 and the airline’s compound growth rate over seven years has been around 60% – one in the eye, surely, for Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, who dubbed McCall a “media luvvie” on her appointment and questioned her ability to do the job.

For now, looking beyond the immediate challenges, including two years of Brexit negotiations, McCall is working on future-proofing the business against rapid change and technological development. “We have added people, processes and systems, as we are a growth airline. But now we need to work out what are the skills of the future; we’ve digitised externally from a bookings perspective but we need to flip that around and digitise internally,” she explains. “This will create more opportunities for people we take on to help us with our growth and do more things.”

Her acute instinct for growth, coupled with a passion for people, has helped McCall transform the orthodoxy of low cost flying. Creating trust and loyalty between airline and passenger is crucial, and McCall recognises the need for absolute transparency, particularly in times of uncertainty.

“We hate major events like strikes and terrorism, but we are good at managing them,” she says. “We can’t control the event itself, but we can make it as easy for passengers as we can. As long as you handle your customers with empathy in an extreme situation, they will come back to you, because they understand that it’s not your fault. If you mishandle them, they will leave.”

When asked to describe her leadership style, McCall is hesitant: she believes that is the job of those around her, who are experiencing it first hand. However, she highlights the need for honesty and authenticity. “CEOs have to believe in their own values, you come a cropper if you don’t,” she says. “People will make judgements about you that are wrong but you have to ignore that and do what you believe is right. I won’t go out and lie. If I don’t know I will say. If I can’t answer I won’t. And I don’t feel weaker for that.” 

Looking to the future

As the aviation industry grapples with the possibility of a ‘hard Brexit’, McCall says her role with people has never been more important. She continues travelling to bases, speaking to staff and listening to their concerns.

“People know I am on their side and won’t do some central thing not in their interests. But you have to absorb the uncertainty on behalf of your people and reassure them with authenticity – I’m not just giving answers for the sake of it.”

Whatever the outcome of Brexit negotiations, McCall is clear that the creation of a new EUAOC airline brings the opportunity to consider how her organisation is structured and operates and to ask “are we making it easy for people?” She is confident that the airline is leaner now than it was three years ago.

In 2010, McCall introduced the ‘easyJet lean’ programme – a series of cost-reducing initiatives, that, according to its 2016 annual report, delivered savings of £95m, representing an increase of 106% year-on-year. “It’s about making everything lean rather than exercising a salami slice cost which we don’t want to do,” she insists. “I want people to do well, and I want to make it easy for them. This is about people driving the businesses and people making things happen for the better, despite uncertainty. I know that in three years’ time we will be stronger than today, because our people will make that happen.”