In the words of his chairman, Mueller has transformed Aer Lingus into “a strong, consistently profitable airline with a clear strategic direction”. So what’s his secret?
Helping to turn around businesses in trouble excites me as a leader. Many people ask me why I specialise in this area as it’s generally perceived as painful. But I compare it with someone who, at the end of their initial medical training, decides not to specialise in cosmetic surgery but to work in the emergency room.
It can be like a war at the start of a business turnaround. You need endurance, a lot of optimism and a very good team to get through it. You cannot have a nine-to-five attitude – more of a 24/7 one – and you have to win people’s trust very early on. As the CEO of a company on the brink of bankruptcy, people rely on you and you cannot disappoint them.
You find out more from the shop floor than the boardroom. At the beginning of a business turnaround, I am down on the shop floor first thing in the morning, talking to people. They know the most about how bad the situation is – and they discover it faster too. They are also more reliable about telling you the truth than those in the boardroom. In fact, I think spending a lot of time on the shop floor is important for any kind of leader. I once worked with the MD of an engineering company who knew every one of the 2,500 people who worked there by their first names. He had an exceptional memory, but still, he set a very good example.
The biggest challenge of leading in a crisis situation is that nobody wants to join you. When a business is in great trouble, you don’t have the luxury of being able to pick the best people because nobody wants to join you. But although this is a huge challenge, I see it as a positive one because the result is that you see unexpected people flourishing. Indeed, only in a crisis do you learn people’s true personality. That was a very early lesson for me as I watched people I admired become failures, whereas some of the people who appeared shy had their moment and thrived.
Risk taking is essential. In today’s corporate world, you often seem to get three consultants making one decision. What is missing is the entrepreneurial ability to take risks. I once had a situation where I took the risk of letting a CFO go after just three months because I felt it would stop the leak in the business. The most important thing was not to get the best replacement, but to get a replacement tomorrow. As such, there was a further risk that the replacement might be only temporary. But in fact, I got one that stayed five years. Basically, I go with the 80/20 rule – that sometimes not every decision is right, but calculated risks very often do pay off.
Sometimes it’s the most basic principles that matter the most. I could reel off around fifteen basics of leadership – things like, “never criticise an employee in front of another”. These basics are all obvious, yet they still sometimes get forgotten and when they do, you can undo years of hard work in a single moment.
I like leading people from a diversity of cultures. I once had to move a team of 36 people from one country to another and they had 29 different passport covers among them. But it worked well. Not only do you find that they are naturally very interested in each other, but they also learn tolerance quickly, for example if someone has to take time out to pray.
Being a pilot has taught me a lot. For example, there’s this thing in the aviation industry called “Just Culture”, which encourages pilots, air traffic controllers and other aviation safety professionals to report their own mistakes in an environment based on trust, rather than blame. It acknowledges that a large proportion of errors are honest – the kinds of slips and mistakes that even the best people can make. I believe the business world has much to learn from this non-punitive approach. If you think about it, most families do too. You want to raise your kids to feel they can come home and tell you when they do something wrong, rather than finding it out from the teacher every time. It’s very basic stuff when you think about it, but it’s often the basic stuff that’s missed in the business world.
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Christoph Mueller, CEO of Aer Lingus, was the Cambridge Executive MBA after-dinner speaker at St John’s College on 5 September 2013. Learn more about the Cambridge Executive MBA