Breaking Travel News hears from former Etihad Airways chief executive and current chairman of Metrocore Aviation Group, Peter Baumgartner, on the future of the industry
One of the most famous children’s books ever written, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” is followed by a sequel, only slightly less famous: “Through the Looking-Glass”.
In it, author Lewis Carrol describes Alice’s journeys after she walks through a mirror into yet another unreal world of illogical behaviour.
A kind of world, I’m afraid, we all have come to know only too well, in a sense.
As we get closer to the holiday season, once again it’s a time of reflection and of trying to make sense of what’s going on.
Let me be straight with you, that’s not an easy one.
Even for a perennial optimist like me - still, I am positive, and this is why.
From a business perspective, I agree with IATA: in 2021, the tide has turned.
We are past the lowest point of this period of disruption.
From a health perspective – and I’d never claim to be an expert in this field, all I can do is research sources and listen to people I trust – things are looking brighter, too.
It is a fact: we’re in a better position than 12 months ago, and there’s a multitude of new medications coming, in new forms that should make it easier to reach those in need.
Yes, I believe that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.
This is the hope that guides me, even if right now, all over the world, governments and businesses are, once again, growing more and more cautious.
Winter will not be easy, that’s for sure.
But we cannot function for much longer in a purely defensive manner.
We cannot continue to think and act small.
A year ago, I tried to argue for looking at 2021 as a year of awakening, as a departure, a new start.
Looking back, it’s only fair to say that, as a society, we did not succeed in all those areas.
Nevertheless, I’m convinced that if your business is relatively stable today, you and your teams accepted change, listened to your customers, and courageously grabbed an opportunity or two.
You were agile and innovative, resilient.
You saw opportunity when others were hiding in the shelter.
If that sounds like you, I have highest respect for what you have achieved.
Those who invested in a company-wide approach to integrated risk and resilience management in time were in a competitively better shape as the pandemic hit.
Their crisis management was simply more effective, and there was bandwidth to think out of the box and execute on those antipodal opportunities.
I have indeed seen many such role models out there: in the aviation industry, within the companies I’m advising, with big tech companies or small niche players alike.
There is a lot of smart behaviour out there and they all deserve the rewards.
So, it’s clear in my mind, now is the time for everybody to break out of this pandemic mental prison once and for all.
The challenge today must be to surpass oneself.
To be brave and bold and fearless.
And be mindful, there is a difference between fearless and careless.
New realities bring new responsibilities
Time has moved us beyond the aspiration to “shape the future”.
We are in this future now.
We must face and accommodate the new realities.
Particularly, executives and leadership teams are in for a reality check.
We are no longer in a world where leadership can “hide” behind long-term strategies, trends and visions.
Many big decisions made by global executives used to be very hard to evaluate over time.
There were so many external factors and influences, so much that was unpredictable despite best efforts, and so much turnover before anything came to fruition (or not) that one could rather conveniently absolve oneself from any consequences or accountabilities.
That’s no longer an option. Covid-19’s unpredictability no longer allows us to hide behind the forgetfulness of hectic everyday life, the obfuscations of global transformation or the adrenaline rush of economic acceleration.
Instead, many good old virtues are given new weight: we must take responsibility for the here and now; we must make decisions today for which we will have to stand up tomorrow; what we decide today must be workable tomorrow.
Leadership abilities can be measured in real time.
This new immediacy will be difficult for some.
I cherish it. Leadership and responsibility have come to mean (again) real virtue and not professionally administered self-PR.
“Leadership” means being courageous to go innovative ways and to take genuine responsibility for them, to stand up for them – not to pass them on to the next generation as a legacy of, often, non-recyclable management nonsense.
Go big or go extinct
That doesn’t mean one bit to surrender our ambitions. Here’s where and how I would focus my energy:
- Get to grips with normalisation despite Covid-19: How? By thinking big. By being courageous. By setting ambitious goals. By aiming for growth. You need to create the conditions for growth now, even if it may be against your intuition, against your conventional forecast, against your colleagues’ opinions. There’s a reward in thinking anti-cyclical.
- Focus on developing truly sustainable business models for today and tomorrow. Be certain about what makes your business resilient to disruption, to change, to unpredictability. Because all of this is here to stay, for good. Oh, and aim for carbon neutrality – with all its consequences.
- Push the development of alternative ways of doing business. Be systematic about facilitating and fostering innovation and agility. Agility is an immediate necessity, not a hip buzzword. This also means, and I may be repeating myself here, to embrace new forms of working together. Leverage collaboration and the power of start-ups. It’s now or never.
- Put “trust” above all else. You need to find a way to manage reputation pro-actively and systematically. If customers and other stakeholders don’t trust your brand, your business model or your people, consequences will be immediate and very harsh. Do you really know how they define trust? Do you really know what factors contribute how much to your reputation? The pandemic has increased the meaning of the trust factor, especially for the services industry, and aviation in particular.
- Look at your purpose, again. It’s no longer a mere ambition, it’s the driving force of organisations. In the industry I’m most familiar with, this means making people happy by bringing them together, making businesses and trade more efficient. By creating positive experiences and raising beyond expectations. So, think about how your stakeholders experience your purpose – in the big, strategic ways, and in the small, everyday encounters with your brand.
- Empower people and businesses through technology – even more so than before. According to Forrester, eight out of ten customers look at the world as “digital only”. And that’s what they expect from brands, too. Industry 4.0 is here, as are the sharing economy and peer-to-peer platforms. Think about technology in a very hands-on way: digital certificates, “contactless”, customer service through chats, virtual tours of destinations, and so on. With all that, don’t forget to make a point of investing in cyber security.
What else? Just this: we all need to re-learn to lead constructive arguments.
We need to re-learn to “agree to disagree” and still work together for a better tomorrow.
Throughout the waves of pandemic emotions, we made major steps backwards in what should have been a guarded virtue.
And this unfortunate trend needs to be reversed if we aim at being collaboratively successful within our respective ecosystem.
As collaboration will indeed be key to overcome many of the current challenges, that would be my sincere wish for 2022.
For you, I have heartfelt wishes that you and your loved ones stay safe and healthy.
Let’s use the holiday break to celebrate once again.
And let’s start into 2022 with great ambition!
This piece first appeared in German in aboutTravel.