An Interview with… Christine Ourmières-Widener, CEO of Flybe.
Written by Tracey Duke, Photography by Pip Andersen
With a background in aeronautical engineering and the travel industry, French born Christine Ourmières- Widener; CEO of the UK’s largest regional airline Flybe, currently heads up a workforce of 2,400 employees. She holds one of the highest profile roles in the industry and is respected, across the globe, by both industry peers and staff alike.
Christine is, without a doubt, one of the most inspirational women I’ve had the pleasure of meeting; calm, focused and genuinely invested in the well-being of her staff, she truly is a role model for us all.
Much has been written of her first year at her Exeter Airport base, and of her career in general, but I was looking for something a little deeper from this interview; wanting rather to explore the habits and practices she puts in place, to ensure the sustainability of growth.
Christine, it’s great to be here with you at the end of your first year with Flybe; thank you so much for taking the time to show me around this this morning. As usual, we’ll jump straight into the conversation, picking up on a comment that you made earlier with regard to the importance of education. As you say, that’s where it all starts; it’s where our journeys begin. Christine, exactly how important are the decisions we make during our teenage educational years?
First of all, I think that it’s not only important what you study from a young age, but it’s also important for children to understand that they have to work hard if they want to be successful; you have to try your best to get the best results for you. There has to be a willingness to be successful; a confidence that you can achieve. And then in addition to this, you have your chosen subjects. So yes, it starts with education.
I’m a strong believer that you can learn everything. I believe in the power of education, but the influence of parents is more important than anything else. As a parent, if you have the humility to think that you will never be perfect but that you’re trying to do your best for your children and give them the best education and framework for them to be successful, then I think that it’s definitely where it all starts.
Absolutely! And it takes self-discipline to achieve and to get those learning habits in place. Are there any habits or practices that you have; either daily or monthly that you can share with us today? What, for example, does your morning routine look like?
Ok let’s take, for example, this morning when I went to the gym; I really like to be able to go either to the gym or for a run. So I have the gym at 6 and by 7 I’m done. Then I’m at work before 8; if you’re at work after 8, then it can be difficult to catch up. After that, in a typical day, there’s normally a series of meetings, updates, and interviews with the press.
I try as much as I can, every single day, to meet different employees in my company like we did this morning in the hangar. Communication is so important; it’s important for everyone in the organisation to understand priorities and strategies; you really can never communicate enough. You can never think that everyone understands something just because you’ve sent an email; it doesn’t work like that. We spend a lot of time communicating at Flybe; when I’m away from Exeter, I will always optimise my time with meetings or calls with my team.
To keep going the way you do, is remarkable; your days certainly, appear to be highly energy zapping. How do you look after your own wellbeing & recharge?
Your whole wellbeing is really important. It’s not easy, but it is important to look after your whole self. That’s why exercise is so important. And also healthy food. That doesn’t mean that from time to time you can’t indulge yourself, but 95% of the time you have to be careful on eating the right things; it has a direct impact on your levels of energy.
And then also you have your family. You can take care of what you eat, how many hours you sleep, how much you exercise, but you need also to have your family supporting you. Your husband and your children, that’s very important.
Absolutely. We have to have a team around us; none of us get anywhere on our own. Which brings me back to your interaction with your staff, who are clearly so very important to you. It was really quite incredible to watch you walk around the aircraft hangar earlier and take the time to speak individually with your staff. I know that your roots are down there; you look so incredibly at home.
I think that you need to be seen as a leader who is able to have a discussion at all levels. I feel that leadership should not only be about talking to your senior managers but also being able to have a discussion with anybody in the company. That’s my style but it doesn’t mean that it should be the style of all leaders.
I think that your style reflects who you are and being gregarious is not something that you can suddenly be. Some people are not gregarious and are a different type of leader, but I think that by being able to talk to everybody in the company, as much as you can, you can have very good feedback and you can be aware if there are any issues.
And the approachability of the leadership is something that is also easier in Flybe because of the size of the company. We have 2,400 employees; it’s more difficult to do that in massive global companies. But it’s already complex in Flybe because we are based in regional airports; we need an executive team to visit these places and meet people, our crew, engineers and our onsite staff. You need that human connection. If you don’t, you lose the real-life essence of what you want to communicate.
Any kind of change is about human connection. I think that you cannot see a change in the organisation if you’re only sending emails. It’s much more powerful and easier to push forward change when you meet people and have an interaction with them.
But that takes time because meeting everybody on the first day is difficult. If you don’t meet people though, it’s difficult to see how you can really change things.
And it’s that sense of connection & respect that we all want to feel. We all want to feel that we’re important to our employers and that what we’re doing matters. You clearly make people feel valued.
Thank you! I think that we are lucky because our staff are so loyal to the company, like the engineers you met this morning. They want to do the right things and I think that they need to see that the top management recognise that and fully support them. If people don’t feel they are important, or that what they are doing matters, it’s difficult for them to have the right level of motivation. When you have an aircraft hangar, you can walk around and meet the engineers. When you want to do something with other populations, who are more difficult to meet, such as pilots and cabin crews, you need to try to connect with them each time you travel or when you visit a base.
That’s why I’m in an open plan office now. I was feeling a bit isolated in my closed office and I wanted to be open plan so that people can approach me. A closed-off culture is not what I want to see in Flybe.
Because then it becomes them and us.
Exactly. But we’re a big team. I always say that my job is to make sure that everybody has everything they need to be successful. It’s not my success, it’s the success of the team. I’m part of the team; just trying to help them.
You’re very clearly a people person; it just shines out of you. Ok, so let’s drop into challenges. We all know that a journey, wherever you start from or wherever you’re going, is not a straight line. We know that there will be challenges and setbacks along the way. What’s your approach to dealing with challenges Christine?
I think that I’ve been facing challenges from the start. I think that the first thing to ask is why is it a challenge? Is it because I’ve never done it before, or because I’ve done it before and it was difficult and I know that it will be difficult again? Or is it because it’s a lot of work? Or maybe you don’t have the right team or the team is overloaded? I think that what is also important with a challenge, is to decide whether it’s high risk. If you can rationalise the challenge, you can take back a little control.
Our industry has a significant safety culture and I’ve been trained to rationalise. In our world a challenge could be a safety risk, so you have to make sure you have a system or ways to mitigate this risk. And don’t forget that you’re part of a team; you’re not supposed to be alone in dealing with them.
Perfect. So Christine, you’re almost at the end of your first year with Flybe. What’s been the highlight for you?
I joined on the 16th January 2017 and after almost one year, I’m still so excited! It’s a great company to work for. Flybe already has a fantastic story but will have an even more successful story.
I can see more of the details at a ground level; our action plan, our business plan and how we will achieve it. We had challenges this year; first because when I started the results weren’t where they should be. We had a second adjustment just before our half-year results, but for me, it was a new position. It was my first experience as a PLC CEO and I’ve learned a lot. It was one of the attractions for joining Flybe.
Being a public company, with the rules of governance and a high level of integrity, is exactly what I wanted to see. I think it’s the strong support of the Board, fully supporting the strategy so there is more consistency between where we want to go, our business plan, support of the Board and our shareholders.
And then there’s the connection with the company, the executive committee and the understanding of the strategy. So building this consistency and building the engagement from the executive team, is another highlight.
We are still working on the full engagement of the staff because again you cannot deploy a strategy and expect from the first day that everyone will completely understand. We are still on this journey, but I think we are much better than we were at the beginning.
We’ve also launched many projects. We have a business plan in place and we can see some improvement on the revenue side. We are now in full control of our fleet capacity, we are handing back aircraft to give us an opportunity to right-size the fleet and we have launched our technology evolution with full migration to a digital platform.
We will not change the dimension of our business plan for next year, but we have more in-depth projects for each pillar of our business plan; very important to our stability.
Whilst we are still the biggest European regional we’re still facing headwinds. Fuel is still a challenge, Brexit and Foreign Exchange another. There are some airlines around us who have quite significant challenges; we are aware of that and we just have to translate challenges into action and changes that will improve our performance.
So I’m really delighted. It’s hard work and I was not expecting it to be very easy, but the support of the Board, shareholders and the engagement of our staff has been a game changer for me.
And it sounds as though you have the full support of your family as well.
It’s not easy when you have a career as a woman, but I think that my family understands that quite well. When the children were younger it was a little more challenging. Now that they’re older you can have some discussion with them and recognise how proud they are; so that gives me some motivation to continue.
I have one daughter and two sons and my husband has two children too. So we have a big family. I can’t wait until Christmas because we’ll have all of them home, with some girlfriends and boyfriends too. That’s something that is very important to us; to make sure that we create a time to get together because they are all over the world.
So how do you make the transition from being the CEO of the UK’s biggest regional airline to then being a mum?
I think that just because you have a successful career, there’s no reason to change who you are. I do try to be as organised as I can though.
The week is always very busy but the weekends are more about trying to share quality time; we could be at the movies or at the Exeter Chiefs watching a rugby match.
You’re an incredible role model for your children and many women wanting to move into engineering and aviation. Are there any role models that you look up to or mentors that you would turn to?
I think that with mentors I’ve been quite lucky. In my career I’ve been able to talk to different mentors at each step; most of them I’m still in touch with.
Mentors are not easy to find and actually, it was difficult for me to find women mentors. I had one who worked in the travel industry and she was very good. I wanted to have a cultural mentor because, when you work in an international environment, whilst mentoring is about how you lead and manage challenges, you can also be managing different cultures. I’ve been trained to work with different cultures across the world, but you’re never really prepared. Never take anything for granted and always be ready to learn something different.
Feedback is important too because when you face a meeting, you can think that you are prepared to open it, but it might not be the right thing to do; the culture in New York will be different to the culture in Kansas for example. Or the culture in London is different to that in Devon. It can be different and you have to understand that and where people are coming from. So mentoring is all about business best practice.
One woman that I really admire is Christine Lagarde. Head of the International Monetary Fund, she is responsible for one of the most powerful organisations in the world. I think that she has a profile that is very unique in our world; her involvement in world dynamics has been amazing.
And to wrap things up, your final words of advice?
The need for continuous improvement is something that everyone should aspire to, both in our personal and business lives. It’s always good to ask questions; why, why, why? That’s how we learn and continue to grow and improve. However, the thing to never do is ask ‘why should we change?’ Change in life is inevitable and it really is the only way to keep moving forward – it’s all part of the continuous improvement process and something that we should always remember and embrace.