Troubled times ahead ... Qantas flying into an uncertain future

Troubled times ahead … Qantas flying into an uncertain future

When things get messy, maybe call in the women?

Qantas, the national airline of Australia and its proud international ambassador, is in trouble. Deep trouble. The kind that has produced losses of A$252 million over the last six months. The future looks bleak and uncertain. If Christine Lagarde, MD of the International Monetary Fund, were here in Sydney (as she was last weekend!) perhaps she would add some wisdom to the conversation. She has famously said “when things are in a mess, bring in the women” and her quote about Lehman Brothers potentially not failing the way it did if it had been Lehman Sisters is often repeated. Clearly Ms Lagarde believes women bring something different to the table, particularly in times of trouble.

Although Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who has been at the helm for five years, has said he is committed to staying …… as the Financial Review newspaper rightly asks, can the shareholders afford to let him carry on? His restructure programme will involve the loss of 5000 jobs, wage freezes and talk of more industrial action. Does Mr Joyce have the unions on his side? Surely in such a crisis you need every constituent party to be fully enrolled in a way forward, all pulling together, otherwise you don’t stand a chance.

So why bring in a woman or women?  Because research is increasingly pointing to the contribution women make with their creativity, innovation and different thinking which is more and more impacting the resilience and profitability of both companies and nations.  During the five turbulent years from 2006, a Credit Suisse report found that large global corporations with women on their boards outperformed those organisations with men-only boards by 26%. Yes, Qantas has three women on its board but two of them have only been there six months and maybe that is too soon to have the necessary impact.

Nothing against men here, and nothing personal against Alan Joyce. He is a man of numbers, a Maths & Science graduate, but after more than five years leading the airline the numbers are nowhere near stacking up. It’s obviously a complex situation but I have to ask if perhaps a new set of leadership skills might serve the airline better right now. From what I am reading about the potential strife ahead and industrial relations turmoil with the airline’s 14 unions, maybe a focus on healing the fragmented relationships within might bring everyone on board to a single direction?  And here again, women have proven to lead the way with these kind of skills.

New research published in January 2014 cited that women presidents outperform their male counterparts in the most troubled nations. From a review of the 5,700 leaders of 139 nations over the last 50 years, came the surprising finding that these women-led economies produced a 6% GDP a year after the arrival of the female leader compared to less than 1% when a male was installed. Women’s collaborative, transformative, inclusive leadership style seems to be able to have most impact on countries which have been divided by ethnic conflict and inequality. The research authors talk of a motherly sensitivity and healing that might previously have been derided but now seems to be needed in complex situations, particularly ones with high levels of conflict and division.

Qantas would be one of those complex situations that might benefit from the transformative power of a woman leader. And two things to note.

Firstly, the old way of doing things has been to rely on the individual expert / leader. The media portrays a lone Alan Joyce carrying the weight of this disaster that affects an entire nation, on his shoulders. Today’s problems may be beyond the thinking of one single visionary individual who has the broad range of skills now needed by leaders including a warmer, more empathetic way of relating to people.

Maybe it’s time to shift where we look for answers and take an approach that includes more of the wisdom of the crowd and values a more diverse input. Everybody who works at Qantas will see something of the whole and could contribute to a new vision of success … they all have a vested interest to do so rather than simply putting energy into fighting for their jobs or against a freezing of wages. An inclusive, feminine leadership style would be ideal here.

Secondly, women have enormous practical and creative insights. Just reviewing a LinkedIN conversation in the Professional Women’s Network where 169 women have answered the question: “If I could snap my fingers and be the CEO of any company, I’d be the CEO of  (fill in the blank). And how would your leadership be the change you’d wish to see?”, many of the women’s answers show impressive innovative thinking. Perhaps, it is time to bring in the women. Their collaborative group thinking could well bring up answers not thought of before and maybe today’s complex challenges need that. Fill a round table with women and throw the Qantas dilemma out over lunch … see what happens!

Join our breakfast discussion this Tuesday March 4th in Sydney, Business Insights for Men on Women’s Leadership & Profits. See more details here.

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