Leading in times of crises
Light at the end of the tunnel. Leadership insights from Perth Airport CEO Kevin Brown
|5 minute read|
Being a leader always comes with responsibility for the team you lead, but even more so when faced with adversity, as Perth Airport CEO Kevin Brown FAIM would know better than most in the last two years.
“It’s important to understand that wherever you are in your leadership journey, there will be times when you have to face adversity,” Mr Brown said at an AIM WA breakfast event as part of its Inspirational Leader Series.
“It’s not always going to be a strong revenue, it’s not always going to be a growth year, it’s not always going to be great profits and shareholder returns.
“But when adversity does come, it’ll be the lessons that you have learnt along the way that you will call on to provide the leadership your teams and your business needs to survive this world.”
When COVID-19 caused grounded flights and border closure, Perth Airport was able to enact its already in place pandemic response.
“We have a detailed and practised pandemic response that was in place before COVID-19,” Mr Brown said.
“We have the right people in the right roles to deal with any emergency, and we’ve invested in their training and personal development.
“We effectively operated a war room that was set up with our executive team and members, meeting two to three times a day, seven days a week, with the senior line managers engaging on their areas of expertise when required.
“Our finance team worked almost around the clock to construct different financial models of impact, including a whole range of border closures and even airline collapse scenarios.
“The only scenario we never contemplated was closing the airport.
“I’m incredibly proud of what our team has done and gone through to keep our terminals and our runways operating throughout COVID-19.”
Mr Brown said this allowed Western Australians to return home safely from overseas, kept the fly-in, fly-out workforce going and freight coming in and out of Perth, which was important not just to the state economy but to the national economy.
“Preparation and thinking about decisions are probably the two most foundational stones of my personal leadership journey,” he said.
“I think it’s fair to say COVID-19 is probably the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced in my leadership journey, but those fundamental qualities have guided me through it, sometimes almost subconsciously.”
Mr Brown said it was important to remember in a time of crisis that you were not the smartest person in the room.
“Active listening is actually a hard skill,” he said. “It’s taken me a long time and by no means have I mastered it.
“Give your team the confidence to speak their minds, to offer their opinions and, most importantly, to challenge yours.
“Right from the start of COVID-19, my message to my executive team was to free up their team members to make decisions that needed to be made and to make them quickly with agility.
“We cut through the bureaucracy and the red tape and empowered teams to go on with what they needed to do.
“Another key leadership lesson that’s close to my heart is trusting your team.
“You’ve employed them to do a job, you’ve invested in their training and development, you now need to let them get on with it, particularly in a time of crisis.”
Mr Brown said it was crucial to remember leadership was not a popularity contest.
“As a leader, you need to decide if you want to be popular or if you want to be authentic, and that’s not a difficult one for me,” he said.
“Being popular and making popular decisions may get you liked for the short term but it won’t last, especially when times get tough."
“Being authentic and genuine will earn you respect and that remains rock solid, whatever crisis may emerge."
“The two most important decisions I made at the outbreak of the pandemic were about our team.
“Firstly, we did everything possible to keep as many team members employed for as long as possible.
“That meant asking every one of our team members, including the executive team and myself, to work at reduced hours, take a pay cut and use up their long service or annual leave requirements.
“Secondly, I made the decision to talk to our team regularly, openly and transparently, as much as you can when there’s a crisis unfolding.
“I respected the fact they knew we were facing some tough times, and we trusted our team to be mature enough to handle the truth.
“At the same time, we needed to give them confidence we could get through this.
“Looking back at it now and all of our communications to our team, they were honest, they were authentic, and that’s the way I wanted it and I wouldn’t do it any differently.”
Mr Brown said while leaders were usually driven to seek improvements and change for the better, you should take time to step back and appreciate the present.
“My leadership journey has taken me from northern Scotland, working for electrical utilities to the Hurricane Alley of the Caribbean to London and Heathrow Airport, back to Scotland across Aberdeen, Glasgow and Edinburgh airports and then on to the tropics of far north Queensland to work in the airports there,” he said.
“So I think, with my experience across the world, I’m pretty confident in saying there’s nowhere quite as special as Perth.
“We have an incredible lifestyle here, we’ve got a great climate, it’s safe, there’s good transport connections, excellent universities, education and teaching facilities, and a rich 80,000 years of indigenous heritage.
“No matter how busy you are, how much pressure you’re under, stop, take a look around at everything we do have and don’t just be grateful – be proud and make a commitment to start becoming a promoter of Perth.”
Mr Brown said one last important lesson from leadership he had gleaned was to always be aware of the sacrifices your family would make for you along the way.
“I’ve travelled to many parts of the world to advance my career and pursue my ambition to grow as a leader,” he said.
“I’ve often had to be away from my family for long periods of time – I’ve asked them to relocate with me across the globe.
“Sometimes we do get caught up in what we’re doing and it’s easy to forget those sacrifices, and work-life balance is important both for you and for your family.”