In 2013, Lisa Burquest joined Qantas as the Executive Manager of Human Resources. Just months into the job, she discovered just how fast a company can crash. Three years on, Qantas has posted record profits and record customer satisfaction and staff engagement. At the recent ECI international conference Lisa Burquest shared the story of how Australia’s iconic airline turned itself around, and discovered quite a bit about effective leadership in the 21st century in the process.
1. Think about the problem differently
With billions in losses, the approach they had just wasn’t working. Qantas needed to look at their problem differently, and brought in diverse people from places like retail, marketing and finance to help them do so. They soon realised that while fuel prices and competition were out of their control, there were things they could control – how they used the fuel and how they paid people, for starters. Today, when a twin-engine plane lands, one engine gets immediately switched off. This has created tens of millions of dollars of savings. The roll out of newer aircrafts has also created efficiencies, requiring less people to work on them. These along with a series of other initiatives undertaken have created $1.66B value for the business.
2. Know who you are
The Qantas of yesterday would not create the Qantas of tomorrow. In 2013, Qantas was stuck in cultural behaviors that didn’t fit the new global environment. With finite resources and limited time, they had to get people to unify around a central sense of purpose, to what was at the core of Qantas: customer experience. They articulated their business strategy on one page, and began a culture journey of simplification. It was time to get their people to feel that inside the Qantas family, it was clear what mattered.
3. Simplify the complex
Being in the airline business is exceptionally complex. But when you have one hundred problems to solve in a day, you need to learn how to simplify them. Today at Qantas if you can’t present your ideas in a pack of four slides, then you don’t get a meeting. The focus is on being lean, agile and innovative – like taking little ideas and implementing them quickly and giving people the freedom to go away and work on new projects through an iterative process.
4. Focus on constructive, not aggressive leadership
With ambitious goals and a clearer sense of purpose, it was time to focus on people. Qantas realised that they needed to build specific capabilities, embed adaptive and constructive styles, and demonstrate a consistent Qantas group leadership brand. They believed their employees deserved respect, trust and good leadership, and gave leaders the tools to achieve that –developing programs to stretch leaders to connect, engage and develop their teams. They took a hard line, and wouldn’t tolerate poor performance. Today, when investing in people through programs like coaching, they do it in a very constructive and finite way, so that outcomes link back to both the company’s and the individual’s objectives.
5. Constantly reinvent yourself
In a world of constant innovation, if you don’t move fast your competitors will suck up the space around you. With the evolving digital landscape, Qantas works to repeatedly reinvent itself in terms of how people access the corporation, such as using big data for more effective loyalty programs, or ways to tailor to millennials, who have a different mindset. They also keep a constant eye on the global environment, adapting to and taking advantage of new opportunities, such as Chinese consumers.