Leadership & Productivity

Airline's first female CEO shows us what leadership skills matter in business

8 min read

07 January 2019

Features Editor, Real Business

What does it take to become a great CEO? How do you ensure effective leadership as the years go on? The appointment of a female CEO of a major airline gives us the answers. (Clue, it's not about gender.)

What does it take to become a CEO? For many, reaching this position is at the top of their ‘professional ambitions’ list, and why wouldn’t it be? Getting to this point signifies that you have built up invaluable experience in your sector including the strategic and leadership skills to captain the ship of a particular business, and take it where you think it should go.

This is legacy building, and an opportunity to leave your mark on a company.

So, for most ambitious entrepreneurs becoming ‘CEO’ is the ‘promised land’ of business leadership, but how much harder is it to get there when you’re a woman working in a commercial world dominated by men?

Being a successful CEO: Is gender important?

We know that female business leaders are steadily unpicking the locks of the door that leads to CEO. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg, Pepsi’s Indra Nooyi and IBM’s Virginia Rometty are but a few of a growing list of women who are transforming and growing major companies.

Spanning industries, they are normalising the visibility of female CEOs on the world stage.

Recently, another female leader has been added to this growing list, and her name is Anne Rigail.

She has been making headlines for breaking down leadership stereotypes in the airline industry by becoming the first female CEO of Air France last year. But as we will find out from Rigail’s story, business leadership capabilities have no gender, they only have talent.

Anne Rigail helps female leadership in aviation “take off”


Source: aerolatinnews.com

The end of January 2019 will mark Rigail’s first full month as CEO of the Air France-KLM Group, she is the first woman to lead the airline.

But why was she appointed in this role? Was it done to fill quotas or does Rigail possess some transformative leadership qualities?

“Rigail has paid particular attention to staff throughout her career, while successfully implementing transformational projects.” – Ben Smith, Group CEO, Air France-KLM

Her appointment comes at a challenging time for the company, complete with rampant pay negotiation issues with its staff, costly strikes, and the resignations of the last two CEOs in charge of the group’s parent company.

So, whilst 2018 was something of an “annus horribilis” for the group, early 2019 will see Rigail focus on internal negotiations, and ensuring that these payment conflicts come to an end. In all, her new role is to re-establish the airline as a trusted and reliable consumer brand once again.

Why was Rigali picked for the role? What can we learn?

If you look at her previous roles, she has the right experience to deal with the challenge of her new position, including her prior experience working in customer-facing roles as well as for different airline brands:

Rigail spearheaded her career in the airline industry by joining French airline Air Inter in 1991. This journey led to the appointment of the head of customer services for Air France at Paris-Orly in 1996. In 1999, she became director of passenger and baggage connections at Paris-Charles de Gaulle (CDG) and subsequently became head of customer and baggage products for ground operations.

As Smith infers in the above quote, as Group CEO, he was looking for a problem solver to smooth out the dents in Air France’s operations and customer service record. With her previous roles focusing on managing airline customer experience at a high level, Rigail seems to be the ‘right man’ for the job as she is used to roles where she has to manage expectations. This will come in useful when negotiating the pay issues for the airline’s staff.

How to become a more effective CEO

Whilst Rigail was “handpicked” for the role by Smith when he was revising his management team last year, all prospective CEOs can draw on her example to improve their chances of landing that top CEO position and succeeding in it.

Pitch yourself as the problem solver

Is there an identifiable issue occurring within the company that you have experience dealing with in previous roles? If so, use this as a central justification to pitch yourself for the position.

Especially if a founder of a company is looking for a CEO to run things on a daily basis, you have to assure them that you possess the skills and tried-and-tested experience to solve the long-term issues that are affecting the health of a company. Identify what these are and why you are the only person that can solve them.

Provide an impartial and analytical perspective

Especially if you’re pitching yourself as a CEO of a company where the founder is still involved, make it clear that you are the impartial medicine the company needs to succeed in the future.

This company is their baby, and whilst they may feel conflicted about handing over the reins to an external figure, you have to convince them that your perspective is required to solve issues that they might not see due to their emotional attachment as the founder.

Balance responsibility for macro and micro company issues

If you’re already in a CEO role, it’s crucial you allow yourself the time to balance your responsibility for managing your staff as well as dealing with external associates including stakeholders.

If you focus on one element too much at the expense of the other, you’ll either become an office micromanager and will neglect your role as the company ambassador, or if you focus all your time on external issues, you’ll look like the distant CEO and appear as a weak leader of your team.

Micro implementations

On a more micro level, you should be an advocate for simplifying processes within the business. This includes allowing for budgets for software that empowers staff and gives them more time to fulfil the more critical aspects of their job roles.

This can include the introduction of software that provides shortcuts on administrative aspects of roles (which is crucial at a time when many jobs are made up of an amalgamation of roles.)

Take your time, and allow for more

Part of the responsibility of being a CEO is having the self-discipline to balance strategic thinking for longer-term goals (such as pursuing sustained growth over a number of years) to helping streamline daily operations within a business.

This is when CEOs should make time to catch up with senior management on a regular basis to see what their staff need to become more productive and effective in their roles.