Elizabeth Hegarty is customer relations and service director at Heathrow. Here, she talks to Hazel Davis about knowing how the other half lives, pulling together in a crisis and punching above your weight.
What first prompted you to start a career in aviation?
I grew up in East London and I come from quite a hard-working, traditional East London ‘grafter’ background. My dad was a cab driver and my grandma worked in factories so nobody was really carving a senior corporate career path. I was the first person in my family to go to university (where I studied geography). I spotted a job at London City Airport in the Ilford Recorder, way beyond my salary potential and experience. I applied anyway and got an interview. They called the following day and said, ‘You’re obviously not experienced enough for the role you applied for but we really like your attitude and your approach so we want to interview you for our graduate scheme.’ And that’s how I got into aviation. The graduate scheme gave me a really broad experience of the business and then moved into community relations, which led to learning about town and country planning and growing the airport.
Where did you get the confidence to apply?
My parents weren’t necessarily career driven. My nan once said something like ‘You don’t know how the other half lives,’ but I am quite lucky in that my family background was one that showed me that working hard and being open to new things and learning would enable you to make choices about your life.
Have you had any great mentors along the way?
As London City Airport was a small business it was a bit all-hands-on-deck and I worked for the chief executive for some of that time. I had brilliant sponsorship and mentorship from Richard Gooding who had previously been the MD of Luton Airport and Manchester. He was in the twilight of his career and he supported me so much and I’m still in touch with him.
You moved to Heathrow in 2012. What prompted that?
Being in the middle of East London during the Olympics was an amazing time and I was reflecting on the time I had been at London City. I thought, ‘If I don’t move I will be here forever,’ and it didn’t feel it was what I was destined for. I saw a job advertised for a sustainability role for a large infrastructure company whose name wasn’t listed. When I went through the agency I realised it was Heathrow.
That must have been a big change. What were the biggest challenges?
It was a little bit different from London City. It was a really big organisation and a completely different cultural experience. I felt I was joining the big league but I also realised we do all the same things we did at London City but on a bigger scale. However, being a large business and being a financially regulated business (which London City is not), I had to learn a lot about governance. Also, when I joined it wasn’t the most diverse organisation and it didn’t feel as friendly as I was used to. My department was very male dominated and I learned quickly when the private school holidays were! However, I realised I also needed to learn to be more inclusive and learn about people from other backgrounds. I’ve been there seven years now and I feel like I have grown with Heathrow in that way.
And now you are customer relations and service director. How did that happen?
I’d been working in sustainability for four years and they said, ‘We want to put you in a big leadership role,’ so I said yes. I have realised that one of my strengths is to build relationships and that’s been so useful as I have been able to move around the business. I love helping open up the right environment for people to thrive and it’s a privilege to be a growing business in this climate.
Do you ever have imposter syndrome?
I had a moment at the end of last year after the drone incident at Gatwick, we had support from the police and the armed forces in deploying different drone detection technology. I happened to be the on-call head of security that day. A very experienced military individual marched towards me in full camouflage and said, ‘I understand you’re the silver commander’ and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, how did I end up in this position?’ Even if you have the training and the experience everyone catches themselves in those moments and you think, ‘Oh my goodness, can I really do this?’
What does teamwork mean for you?
Heathrow is a network of 400+ companies employing nearly 80,000 people on site so you can’t do anything in isolation. Therefore, the concept of team is really broad for me. Within my own team I am very clear you recruit for attitude rather than specific skills. If we spot potential in someone, but they’ve got a couple of gaps then we will help fill them. We’re filling a lot of our promotions in internally and then bringing 20-25% individuals from outside to bring fresh ideas and this is really working for us. The network at the airport brings in this broader sense of team.
What do you love about your work?
On one of our busiest days in August we served over 280,000 passengers. That teamwork, which is best seen in crisis when everyone pulls together, is one of the reasons I love working here.