Most women who have climbed to the top of the corporate ladder have been trailblazers in one way or another.
Chris Browne, managing director of Thomson Airways, knows this better than most.
Twenty years ago, the Northern Ireland native ruffled more than a few feathers when the president of Iberia Airlines handpicked her to be general manager for the UK and Ireland. Not only was she the first non-Spanish GM, she was also the first woman and, at just 30, the youngest person ever to have held the position.
The cherry on top was that her first position at Iberia had been in the Regent Street ticket office only five years earlier. “No one wanted me to have the job,” she says. “Not the senior management team in Madrid and not the middle management in London. And part of me didn’t want to do it, either. I thought, ‘Hang on, what makes you think a wee girl from Strabane can do this?’
But if it hadn’t worked out, at least I would have given it a go. It’s better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all.
This spirited approach has paid dividends for Chris, who became MD of Thomson Airways in 2007. The travel sector is fiercely competitive, and never more so than now: she notes that “mental toughness” is a necessity in the travel industry.
She invested in 13 Boeing 787 Dreamliners at a list price of US$193m in 2011. This massive investment is not the first bold or difficult decision Chris has made, and it won’t be the last.
Having been appointed MD of First Choice Airways in 2002, she oversaw the merger of First Choice and Thomson in 2007 — a merger that saw 2,600 positions made redundant.
“The hardest thing was standing up in front of the First Choice head office staff in Manchester and telling them that the future was in Luton, and it was no fault of their own,” says Chris. “That was hard.
But we managed it by being totally honest, by genuinely caring about what we were doing and about our people as well, and by managing the culture of the organisation as much as we were managing the safety of the airline.”
She relies on a strong team of senior managers and has worked hard to build that team since taking the helm.
I’m proud to say I’ve got a brilliant team — but that was not by luck, it was by design.
“When I came in, I inherited what I would call a collection of individuals, not a team. I had to change the entire board. Two-thirds of the management team were technically brilliant people, but they weren’t good enough for the job.
“An airline is a very technical environment and very heavily regulated, but I think airlines sometimes make the mistake of just focusing on the technical skills.
For example, I take it for granted that my technical director is a great engineering director full stop, but he has to be a great leader as well. That’s what sets us as a company apart.”
Her personal approach to management must set the tone, however, and Chris says that she has made a conscious decision to evolve her leadership style over the years. “I like to be in charge and in control, and I don’t like taking orders,” she laughs.
“But not everyone reacts well to that style of management, so instead of telling people what to do, I’ve tried to be more inclusive and listen to what they want. If we were all the same, it would be a very boring world.”
Chris places a lot of emphasis on communication and actually liking the people she works with. Having seen the destructive and “very average” results that dysfunctional teams can bring, it’s not a lesson she’ll easily forget. “We meet up regularly for the formal stuff — the monthly airline board meetings, the risk, safety and quality meetings — but we also try to take time out to just talk about things,” she says.
Fun to me is a necessity, not a luxury, so we always try to build in some time for each other where we can have a good bit of fun, too.
“I remember in the 1980s they’d say you don’t have to like someone to work with them, and I fundamentally disagree with that. You spend so much time with these people that it makes it easier if you like them and trust them.”
Having encountered some rather challenging individuals over the years, it’s perhaps not surprising that Chris puts so much stock in likeability and trust.
When she first took the top spot at Iberia UK & Ireland in 1991, one of the senior managers felt entitled to tell her outright that he didn’t think she should have the job.
“He honestly said to me, ‘I believe women should be barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen — but you seem relatively intelligent, so you can wear your shoes’,” Chris recalls.
He thought that was funny. But two years later, I had his job, and five years later the top job at Iberia, so I think I had the last laugh!