Perspectives from the Top

Leading Through Complexity, Creating a Community (ft. Tony Douglas)

Episode Summary

Tony Douglas has made a remarkable career out of dealing with complexity and creating inspired communities of people who are able to work together and deal with that complexity as a unit. From engineers to pilots, customer service people to administrators, all from around the globe, Tony’s brought the best out of diverse teams for some of the world’s most respected organizations. This week, we get his amazing perspective.

Episode Notes

Leading Through Complexity, Creating a Community (ft. Tony Douglas)

Tony Douglas on managing complexity in high-stakes environments


“It's about people. There are no organizations without people. Simple as that.”

-Tony Douglas


Tony Douglas is CEO of Etihad Aviation Group with over 30 years of international leadership experience in aerospace, transportation, infrastructure, and government sectors. He joined Etihad in 2018, after being the CEO of the UK's Ministry of Defense Procurement Arm, supplying all the services and equipment for the British Armed Forces valued at over $20 billion pounds a year. Tony has previously held senior leadership positions in the UAE, such as CEO of Abu Dhabi Ports, and in UK, his roles included the Managing Director of the Heathrow Terminal Five Construction Project, CEO of Heathrow Airport, and COO and Group Chief Executive Designate of Laing O'Rourke, a massive global construction company.


[10:53] - We All Have a Part to Play

Junior, senior, everybody in-between

While managing production lines of 4,000 or more people, all heavily unionized, Tony quickly learned that engaging with their community would send productivity through the roof— and failing to engage would be catastrophic. “We’ve all got a part to play,” he says. “Some parts are bigger than others, but unless they all play together, you’ll never get the potential that is clearly there.”

[26:06] - Embracing Diversity from the Ground Up

The difference between success and failure

In his role at Etihad, Tony works with people of 112 different nationalities and an average age of just over 30. He’s learned that diversity must become something that you embrace without a second thought, or you and your teams will fail. Tony even speaks to finding joy in the complexity of navigating diversity, knowing that it ultimately leads to more diverse perspectives and greater success.

[37:47] - Clarity of Purpose in an Organization

Translate what’s required and deliver it

Tony speaks to the importance of clarity and purpose at an organization from the top down. When that clarity is present, everyone within the organization can interpret it and deliver results built around an organization's purpose. 

[48:36] - The Power of Ramesh

Being brand ambassadors— and recognizing great ambassadors for your brand

Tony shares a story of an Australian family who stops at the same hotel in Abu Dhabi every time they have a stopover there en route to the UK. Why? Their children have connected so much with an excellent hotel employee named Mr. Ramesh. But the hotel managers not only had no idea what an impact Mr. Ramesh has had for their brand, but didn’t even know who he was.

Imagine if management had realized the power that Ramesh was having for their brand and capitalized on it, instead of being unaware of his impact?


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Episode Transcription

Tony Douglas:

I'll almost leave it there, because it's about people. There are no organizations without people. Simple as that.

Chris Roebuck:

Welcome to Perspectives from the Top. I'm Chris Roebuck, global keynote speaker with unique leadership experience, from military, business, and government, bestselling author, and your guide to greater success. Together we'll discover powerful insights from the world's leading thinkers, doers, and trailblazers, the must-know trends, thought-provoking revelations, and practical actions you can use immediately. This is your exclusive and personal shot of insight and inspiration to help you get to the top.

Welcome to you, and all of our Perspectives from the Top community of listeners around the world. It's so great to share the insights of such successful people with you to help you get to where you want to be. My guest today is Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad Aviation Group. Now, Tony's got over 30 years of international leadership experience in aerospace, transportation, infrastructure, and government sectors. He joined Etihad in 2018, after being the CEO of the UK's Ministry of Defense Procurement Arm, supplying all the services and equipment for the British Armed Forces, valued at over $20 billion pounds, or $25 billion a year. He previously held senior leadership positions in the UAE, such as CEO of Abu Dhabi Ports, and in UK, his roles included the Managing Director of the Heathrow Terminal Five Construction Project, and then being CEO of Heathrow Airport, and he was also COO and Group Chief Executive Designate of Laing O'Rourke, the massive global construction company.

Tony, thank you so much for spending some of your valuable time to talk to our listeners on Perspectives from the Top. It's really kind of you, given your leadership role in a critically important industry. Let's start at the beginning. One of the things our listeners are fascinated about is we know that you've got to be successful as you are, but often with successful leaders, deep in their distant past is somebody who triggered an idea that started this journey. Maybe a family member, a friend, a mentor. Was there somebody or a couple of people in your distant past who got you going on this journey?

Tony Douglas:

Well, first of all, thank you, and I guess I've been very lucky, and I'll be very transparent. I don't believe I ever possessed a master plan or a magic formula, but I guess the question about having the benefit and the privilege and the pleasure of being surrounded by some special people has been the gift that certainly helped me on my journey. And it's actually a combination, I guess, between family members, my father in particular. The fact that I come, I think, from an agricultural, humble background. I've always been using my hands, be it fixing things in that kind of environment, all the way through, as I started in an engineering environment. And I've had the good fortune of being involved over the last 40 years in a number of different sectors, and it's given me exposure to some fascinating people who have been very generous in providing the gift of their experience.

And for me, I think part of the trick is knowing how to receive gifts gracefully, and the benefit of learning that comes from it. And I remember that was, in the case of the automotive industry, certainly when I transitioned into aerospace in the late eighties, some incredible people in that environment that really did help me. And I guess I'm almost kind of hedging away from calling out particular names, because I'd be anxious that what I don't do is fully respect the many that should fall into it.

But I remember when I was in my kind of late twenties, early thirties, and I was involved in British Aerospace, Woodford, which used to be the manufacturing center for the regional jet, the Avro 146 RJ, and the guy, and a couple of members of the more senior team down in Farmborough, gave me a very big break as a result of really sad circumstances where my boss passed away unexpectedly at a very early age. And I was given the captain's arm band, probably on a temporary basis to start off with, whilst they looked for a successor. But I remember the guy at the top at that time saying, "If you're good enough, you're old enough." And whilst it sounded like a bit of a cliche, what he also said is, "Young people who are driven seldomly let anybody down."

And for me, that was a great confidence in one sense, but I guess in equal measure, a burden of responsibility not to let him down. And I'd like to think I didn't. I became the full-time or full-term appointee, and I had six incredible years at Woodford, which I'll never forget. And that was 30 years ago. My first real engagement in aviation, and it's kind of threaded throughout my career, and has been something that's brought me into contact with some incredible leaders in both airports, military infrastructure, in Europe, in the Middle East, in North America, in the Far East.

And I guess there's a piece maybe there about diversity, that to bring a Lancashire farmer into becoming a citizen of the world means that adaptability is probably something that if you crave it and you're comfortable with it, you're more likely to get the benefit of the gifts that I described before. And for me, the kind of parallel I would explain, which might be somewhat convoluted, but I guess people will take the point, is when I watch expat children being schooled, where they're overseas, and their colleagues and the people that they're being schooled with are from so many different nationalities and so many different backgrounds, they get a secondary education without even being conscious of it.

And I think that's part of being aware. When gifts are around you, the self-awareness of probably how to take maximum benefit from it is a key. And I'll be honest, many things for me happened by good grace, by chance, and by fortune. And I probably wasn't, as it were, as maybe I am now, when I was younger, that those things had presented themselves. And I think a call out would be, if I'm now clearly towards the back end of my career, if I was putting Professor Hindsight's hat on, I'd probably say to people who are at the kind of earlier stages of their career, "Probably be a little bit more self-aware and reflective, particularly in regard to how to take full advantage in a constructive and positive way of the amazing people that you're likely to come into contact with, who will freely give to you their knowledge if only you ask. And if only they can see that you'll put it to good use."

And there's probably a few things I would have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, but in the main, I'll kind of finish this answer in the same way that I started. I think I've just been very lucky.

Chris Roebuck:

But that's a beautiful set of points there, and I would add in, at this point, that I also come from an agricultural background, so I have sat on a tractor, and I have driven a harvester. But you are so right. It is within that context. It is the hands-on practical dealing with problems that come up on a day-to-day basis that gets your brain working, which I used to love myself, but the greater point that you brought in, and there's some really interesting statistics that actually leaders who have talented people on their teams and recruit talented people develop between 25% and 30% faster themselves, as well as the people on their teams. Because you create that amazing environment.

And certainly, your breadth of experience was one of the reasons why we really wanted to get you on the show, in that I think it shows that if you have the right mindset, if you have the ability to adapt, listen, grow, and learn, you can move from sector to sector. Because you did your initial career at Rolls Royce, airport management, Heathrow, construction, ports and airports, UK military procurement, and then over and then back into airlines, finishing up where you are now.

So what I think is really interesting is those are all very different roles in very different sectors, and it would be interesting to hear, what were some of the things that you learned on each of those mini career steps? So what were the sort of things that you really picked up on, for example, maybe in the aerospace sector, in consumer, and then your first airport management?

Tony Douglas:

I guess I'd probably almost go one step further back. I left school at 16, and I didn't go straight to university. So I actually started with General Motors, and I did over 10 years with General Motors, and back in the late seventies, eighties, they in those days were the biggest company in the world, and they gave me an education in many ways that I couldn't buy, in that regard. And I did the one day a week, three nights a week for 11 years, in terms of all the engineering side of it, and the post-graduates in management and MBAs, and what have you.

But what was interesting, I was involved in the GM, General Motors Training School program, Kokomo, Indiana, Flint, Michigan, et cetera, and it was a delight, because you, at a very early age, got introduced to colleagues from places all around the world, North America, South America, Europe, et cetera. And then you get placed in many different places as well, at a relatively young age. So when I was in my mid-twenties, I was actually back in the northwest of England, running quite sizable production lines, and there would be like 3,000 or 4,000 people working in these factories. And I guess the University of Life experience would be for me as follows, that they were heavily trade unionized back in those days, and they were challenging environments. They were in a city environments. They had all sorts of social challenges, and so on and so forth.

If you could find a way of engaging with that community, you could get productivity off the end of the scale. Equally, the polar opposite would be, if you couldn't engage, they could make life so difficult it was intolerable. And obviously the productivity consequences, you can only imagine what that led to.

Chris Roebuck:


Tony Douglas:

Exactly. And I guess what it really taught me was the importance of everybody, no matter how senior, how junior, and everybody in between is equal. We've all got a part to play. Some parts are bigger than others, but unless they all play together, you'll never get the potential that is clearly there. And it was really a PhD course in human factors. Social science, I guess, would be the sophisticated way of trying to describe it. But the blunt reality is, it's the University of Life, in terms of how you bring people to a place where they want to, as opposed to they have to, or they're forced to, type of thing.

And I guess ditto when I went to British Aerospace at 28 or whatever age I was, 27, and I remember literally the first week starting, and again, similar kind of situation, 4,000 guys working in Woodford, and I was greeted in week one. It wasn't in a kind of aggressive way, but the statement stuck in my mind, and it was, "You've been in the automotive industry for a decade. What do you know about building commercial aircraft? There's 4.4 million components in each one of them, and if anything goes wrong, the consequences are dire, so you're not going to be able to do it." Now, for me, that was the ultimate motivational speech. "You can't do it." Different people respond to things like that in different ways. At that time, probably still today, in all honesty, that was the ultimate motivational speech. "You can't do it."

And I guess over the period that I had the privilege of being involved in that, what I embraced again was the fact it was 4,000 people in a very complex engineering, design, manufacturing, assembly, and delivery process, that you had to try and get the best out of. And they were fantastic. And without going through all of the other steps unnecessarily, I guess for me, perhaps the takeout is, where are the common denominators? I think for me it would be lots of people and complexity. It would be those two things for me. Lots of people and complexity. I prefer it where there's lots of people, because of the social side of bringing it together as a community, a family, a cohort, call it what you will, and complexity has always presented itself using those early stages of my career. From automotive to commercial aircraft manufacturer, it was a different level of complexity with a motivational speech of, "You can't do it."

And in some ways, I'll be very frank, when I first went into the Ministry of Defense, you can probably imagine there was a variation on the same military, in the same military way of that motivational speech. And as a four star representative of Her Majesty's Military, and it was only seven of us at four star level, that was one of those, again, character building, motivational ways-

Tony Douglas:

Character building, motivational ways of embracing what was a budget of 178 billion sterling. Supporting all of the armed forces, Army, Navy, Earth Force, Special Forces, everything from aircraft carriers, F-35 lightning aircraft, nuclear submarines, down to the boots on the guys' feet and the food that they eat. What was it about? It's about lots of people and lots of complexity. And I think commercial aviation is as good an example as that, as you're ever likely to see. Etihad's not the biggest airline in the world and we don't aspire to be, by the way. But we operate to 71 different cities. And as a consequence, the outreach and the amount of people we interact with gives the people and the complexity dimension. And I think, for me, that's probably both the excitement and the motivational side of it because complexity means that, quite often, you can't possibly know the right answer. It's how you try [inaudible 00:18:14] and more importantly, give the confidence to others to follow. I guess that's the way I would summarize it.

Chris Roebuck:

That's really interesting in that you use the word that I don't often hear from leaders as senior as yourself. The words bring together as a community. And what I find absolutely fascinating is that even in your early career, you were in an environment that was engineering, therefore it's totally logical, it's figures based, it's structural, et cetera, et cetera. But achieving the delivery of the rational plan successfully isn't just about having a good rational plan. As you said, it's about getting people to want to make it happen, and building that community, and inspiring people.

Going back to your earliest lessons in the unionized environment, if you don't reach out to that community, it will come back to bite you pretty dramatically. One of the things I often say to leaders is, look... And you actually have this running as a theme through everything you've said was that the secret of success is treating people as if they're human beings and that they will respond as human beings. And that the emotional responses that leaders claim people give them when they suggest something, it's not unpredictable, it's highly predictable because if you're a leader and say something uninspiring or stupid, we know from the neuroscience the response you're going to get is not going to be positive. And that's the way we work as humans. And I think you've emphasized the point that leaders have to appreciate people. As you said, everyone is equal, we're all human beings, we all need to be treated with respect, and reaching out to do that.

Give us a little bit of insight because in each of those you made a transition into a new world. And I'm assuming you did a lot of listening, a lot of investigating, and seeing how it worked. The military world, having been in there myself, I find very interesting when comparing it to the civilian world in terms of the way things are organized on quite a slick process and a structured process that is ultimately focused on excellence in execution. What were the lessons you drew from that differential between the military operation and the civilian operation, particularly around the effectiveness of leaders?

Tony Douglas:

So I think probably as a lead-in to my response to that question would be again, risk of simplifying things. People often say there's two primary dimensions, what you do, and then how you do it. I think more often than not there's less complexity in what and there's more complexity in how. And what do I mean by that? The how dimension... So back to what it's quite often rational, it's quite often something that you can cognitively reason to a conclusion. It may have some degree of definition as to how you benchmark best practice or compare and contrast and give you a confidence of what you are doing is likely to deliver a beneficial outcome.

But I've observed so many times in the past where the best laid plan, in terms of how it was executed, fails to deliver because the complexity could well lie in things such as what we've just covered. In particular, how you align everybody behind what and how you get them to sign in almost discretionally to what needs to be done, and what the element is. Back to everybody's equal they've all got a part to play in the system. And your comment about some of the military leaders I've been around, they've been truly exceptional, and they've had wonderful skills. I've learned so much from them, in terms of the cognitive ability to reason what. And the calmness in how you translate even under huge existential threat and pressure into given alignment. And I think there's something, again, in terms of all those how dimensions that I've observed that make quite a difference to me.

And I've also had experience of leaders, again, in my early career in automotive, back in the 80s, there was a tendency of some of the most senior people were table bangers and shouters. The presumption was that everything that came out of the table banging shouter's mouth must be the right answer. And of course, nobody has the right answers all the time, it's impossible.

Chris Roebuck:


Tony Douglas:

It was a cultural flaw in terms of, quite often, how some of those characters went about it. And it was quite often a function of seniority, as well. The bigger the title on the door plate or the business card...

Chris Roebuck:

What? The harder you could bang the table.

Tony Douglas:

Exactly, and the louder you could shout.

Chris Roebuck:


Tony Douglas:

I guess it almost back in those days in some cultures gave them the burden of having to perceive they were right even I'm sure when they went home at the night knowing only too well that with the benefit of hindsight they might have said many things in a different way. And it's just, again, it's back to those gifts of observing what works well, what clearly doesn't work as well. And some of it is how you respond as well. So I'm far more likely as an individual to respond to somebody who is more collaborative than the table banging shouter, the person who will give accountability or expect the performance that goes with it.

And I've got no problem with what I would describe as tough love. Feedback is a gift and sometimes the best kind of feedback you get isn't necessarily what you always want to hear. But if it's sincerely offered in a way to try and encourage you to improve, tough love is then by far and away the best sort of feedback. And leaders by definition can't be leaders unless they've got followers. And again, if you look at the many definitions of leadership, the library books are full of it but in my mind you can look at it along the lines of what I've just said, that by definition it doesn't matter what the brass plate says, the business card says if you haven't got followership by definition you can't be a leader.

And back to complexity, I live in the Middle East, I love this environment within Etihad, I think we've got about 112 different nationalities. Average age is a little over 30 and you have to almost embrace diversity without even giving it a second thought. Unless it's just naturally within you, you will not succeed in an environment that is by definition so diverse. I'm not a millennial, I'm not a baby boomer. So yeah, I'm caught in a situation where I've got a generational difference and for me that's almost the joy of it. And I guess where I'm going with this is people and complexity maybe where I would distill it, how you create followership by how rather than what you do on the presumption that most senior people should really be reasonably competent in the cognitive side of figuring out what you need to do. But it's how you translate it I think is the important thing such that others really understand it, get it, and more importantly want to be a part of it.

Chris Roebuck:

Yeah. And it's how you get that across it. And your comments about some of the senior military people. One of the things I think that drives that behavior, excuse me, is that from the moment they start at Royal Military Academy Sandhurst constantly put into their minds is the motto of that academy, serve to lead. And that is what it is about. And that within the military context, if you are going to tell people... Admittedly in the military context, when you have to do something there is pretty much one thing you need to do and everybody knows they need to be focused on that one thing. And it's not a plethora of different sub organizational agendas.

But as a result of that, the clarity with which the military specifies what needs to be done, the fact that there is an underlying we not me culture and that serve to lead ethos means that everybody just gives it. And I think there's another interesting point that links to commercial organizations. One of my other podcasts guests, Jack Jarvis, who is a 27 year old Royal Engineer Commando who's just rode the Atlantic. At the age of 20, he was in charge of leading seven other commandos as a Lance Corporal because the military had given him that basic leadership training about delegation and about communication at that tender and age. So that even then he was actually a good leader and really got it.

And I just find it quite astonishing sometimes that commercial organizations don't get that those basics need to be in place. The prioritization, time management, delegation, communication, giving feedback at first line management level. And I think it's something that people need to think about. But your point about discretionary. That discretionary element I think is the key because so many leaders out there don't realize that there is this concept of discretionary effort, which means that somebody can give enough effort to get a satisfactory performance appraisal, but there's an extra 30% of extra effort they could give on discretion if the environment was created, as you said, where they want to engage in doing it.

Tony Douglas:

And I'd like to give it what I think is a really good example of that in the context of Etihad. And I would say this, wouldn't I, but I think we've got the best cabin crew in the world. And during the pandemic there's been challenges for everybody. But when you are the representation of the brand, when you are the primary touch point to the traveling public, our guests. And in a situation like that where you've got to wear a mask like everybody did and rightly so, how can you engage in terms of facial expression, the big warm smile and so on and so forth to the same degree. Obviously it's a challenge. Now we had conversations about all manner of things with our incredible cabin crew and ensure it's about smiling with your eyes. Now try it if you've not done so before, put your hand over the lower part you face in front of the mirrors, bit of fun by the way. Try and smile with your eyes. It's easier said than done.

Now back to discretionary effort. How could you ever write that in a set of orders? How could you ever have that as part of a formal process? Because what does smile with your eyes mean? Does it mean the same thing to every person? Clearly not. The intent that sat behind it is how you engage in a warm and empathetic way with our guest knowing full well that you can't smile in the conventional way because they can't see it. But they still want to have that same connection and experience of being looked after within the context of the hospitality that we like to provide with a human touch. They did that because they understood what the brand was about, they understood the importance of getting that human connectivity with our guests, the traveling public. And therefore I just find it incredible the way our amazing team, over 3000 of them have this ability to light up a room even wearing a mask.

And that's discretionary. And it's discretionary because it's aligned to what the brand stands for. And it's discretionary in terms of they all want to do the right thing for the right reasons. And it was explained in a way that found a pathway through the complexity of the situation to provide it in a very clear and concise way that made sense to them such that how they did it would make the difference in terms of what we were trying to do was to maintain that very, very personal hospitality warm welcome with the traveling public.

And it's a simple example, but in many ways for me it's probably a good example of, you cannot put that in terms of what we need to do is smile with your eyes. And anybody in an organization who thinks it is, just in a bit of fun, try it, it won't last for long, believe me. You've got to get people who want to do it because they understand why and how important it is type of thing. And I could translate the same kind of example or the same concept into probably many, many other examples in different industries I've had the pleasure and the privilege you're being involved in crossing the bridge of people wanting to do it.

Chris Roebuck:

Yeah, it's that difference between...

Chris Roebuck:'s the difference between saying I want you to do this, that's the task and what you are talking about, which is why organizations are successful, where people understand the vision, they understand the big picture, not just the people at the top, but even the people right at the bottom of the organization understand that vision. And because they understand the vision, if they're given an objective to achieve, then they will achieve it through their own empowerment to do that. Because in the end, I think what you are talking about it is the fact that you are turning just doing the what into belief in something greater that we not me culture that I mentioned. And I think there is so much of this is about belief that is inspired by leaders at all levels.

Tony Douglas:

Yeah and I guess I'm going to flip it back to the what and the how again. In terms of the what dimension, I need the foundation. You need to be able to provide clarity and it needs to be converted into plain vocabulary, be it plain English, be it plain Mandarin, [inaudible 00:35:18], be it plain Arabic, be it plain whatever language, it needs to be translated with the same degree of clarity such that everybody goes, yeah, I get that and more importantly I want to get it so how I then do it is connected.

And like many others, I imagine, I've certainly observed organizations that struggle to present clarity of purpose, or at times they do, but it's not consistent. It's always kind of ebbing and flowing and moving around in a way that makes it even more difficult therefore to translate it into how you expect the organization to follow. And I know there's a risk of trivializing or oversimplifying there, but in some ways I think unpacking what that means and how you do it certainly, in my mind, is part of how you can get greater organizational alignment and therefore better organizational performance.

Chris Roebuck:

And it's that alignment that's critical because if you don't have alignment, and that's why when I talk to leaders I talk about the importance of cascading the big picture to everybody because if everybody sees the big picture, everybody knows where we are going. And even if things go wrong we can adapt and still make sure we get there. But I think one of the interesting elements is the degree of trust that leaders have in their people in terms of how far you are prepared to cascade decision making down the organization. Which is effectively, from some leader's perspective, it's me giving up control. Oh my god, that's frightening. What's going to happen if I give up control? Things are going to go horribly wrong. But it's just that simple act of putting trust in employees and giving and empowering them.

When I ask an audience of leaders, what are the things your best boss did for you that made them such an inspiring boss? And it's always in there is they trusted me, they empowered me, they let me get on with things, they understood I made genuine mistakes, they acted with integrity. But I think that cascade of decision making power down to the lower levels of the organization is a major challenge. You've obviously achieved that with [inaudible 00:37:41] but I'm sure you've seen places where it just blocks at a certain level.

Tony Douglas:

For sure. There's lots of examples where it doesn't give an effective response through the organization's hierarchy. And I guess the narrative you just used, I am of the same belief that if you've got clarity, if there's purpose, you can then actually allow that to filter its way through the organization into how they interpret and deliver against it. And I go all the way back maybe to the answer to one of the earlier questions when it was said to me, if you're good enough, you're old enough. It wasn't a differentiation of age, it was more a function of did you have capability enough to be able to translate what was required and then be able to go and deliver it.

And that kind of trust that was placed in me, I found inspiring. The responsibility that went with it was almost, I guess again as the guy said to me, you won't fail because I can see the way you are wired, taking accountability, you take it with the trust that goes with it such that you almost won't want to fail. You'll always go that extra level. And I don't think there's anything unique about that situation. I think in the main, most people in most organizations are like that, but so many of them don't get given the trust and so many of them, therefore, don't get the opportunity to have to say, I'm now going to give additional discretionary effort 'cause I don't want to let anybody down.

And the wonderful example you used earlier on with the rural marine engineer, big respect. But it's the same kind of thing, you're given that responsibility, you don't want to let the other seven or eight guys down at all, and you want it, you'll put your body on the line, in his case literally, to make sure he doesn't let anybody down. And I think great organizations around the world are those that have got alignment, as I said, perhaps two or three times already, clear purpose, the clarity of what that means, and how then people can get themselves connected to its delivery. And our example with Eddie [inaudible 00:40:15], what does the brand that's behind me stand for? It's connecting Abu Dhabi to the world and the world to Abu Dhabi number one and that's I guess in one sense obvious, but it's a foundation to it with an absolutely obsessive attention to detail when it comes to customer service.

Now how we unpack that is back to the clarity of what that means to the cabin crew example and so on and so forth. And the third one is to be environmentally sustainable, hence all the things we're doing around that. So it's no surprise that the organization understands those three things because it links from the brand to the purpose that sits with that brand. And just about everything therefore we do is connected to those pillars or the combination of those pillars and some of the best ideas we've had on improving that obsession when it comes to attention to detail on customer service have been from the bottom up. Some of the amazing ideas that we've had on the furtherance of commercial aviation sustainability have come from all different parts of the organization because they know it's so fundamental to what the brand stands for and how we want to achieve it.

And we have an annual stimuli competition, it's actually called [foreign language 00:41:44] in Arabic means idea. And it's an engagement process for encouraging all the family to share their ideas no matter how big or small. And we get thousands and thousands and thousands of brilliant ideas. But rather than being crop sprayed all over the place, they tend to land themselves to those three pillars. And it gets that sense of we know what we're about, we know what we need to do, and we know how we're going to get better at getting better if it contributes to those things.

Chris Roebuck:

What I love is I go back to my word belief because what you've done is you've created an environment where people genuinely believe and if people genuinely believe in what you are trying to do, they believe in delivering the best service to customers, then no matter what happens that might get in the way of that, they will find a way around it to achieve that and it's that belief.

And I think there's also that additional element which so many organizations miss, that one of the things when I was Global Head of Leadership at UBS, when UBS was being created, was the chief executive said to the top 500 leaders of the organization, next year your main challenge is, and everyone was thinking, here we go market share, share price, blah blah blah, whatever it is. He said, I want you to ensure that every single member of this organization is a proactive ambassador in their community and in their family for this organization. Because if we can do that, everything else will follow. And I think that's what you've just beautifully set out that because your people believe, because they're given the opportunity to be empowered to do what needs to be done, then also in outside of their jobs, they must be powerful brand ambassadors as well.

Tony Douglas:

I'd completely agree. I think the point that he made is something, again, I'd align to and you could almost take a textbook view of it. So many organizations don't tend to do this and that is, the best brand campaign you can ever do starts on the inside.

Chris Roebuck:

Yeah, absolutely.

Tony Douglas:

Because if you've converted the whole of your organization into the best brand ambassador of what it stands for, by the time you put the same amount of effort into an external brand campaign, you have got so many more people articulating, explaining, and providing the reasons why. And let's face it again, I'm sure many of us have come across organizations that spent tens of millions on promoting what their brand's all about externally. You can walk around the inside of their organization and many of the family members, employees within that company, will probably fail a rudimentary exam in terms of what is your brand all about.

Chris Roebuck:


Tony Douglas:

And again, I run the risk of trivializing, over simplifying but in some ways actually, it's not. And it go all the way back to some of the early experiences that I had the good fortune of being around, how you get an alignment in difficult situations where there's complexity is through having lots of people "getting it" and more importantly, wanting to get it and seeing how that then connects to how their contribution translates to performance.

And commercial aviation I find wonderful in that regard because we deal obviously with many millions of people traveling and from all nationalities, young to old. And you see the effect that the difference between smiling with your eyes, just going back to that for a convenience example on a young family versus not being able to provide the same degree of human interaction. You can see the difference when things go wrong. And let's face it, in all organizations there are challenges and things go wrong, in the way in which you respond from an interpersonal point of view. And in the same way it's almost textbook, we see it in terms of our customer feedback. Sometimes we're actually rated slightly higher in how we dealt with something that went wrong because of how that then translated into we really cared because things always go wrong. You know, can't prescribe a hundred percent delivery all the time.

Chris Roebuck:

It's life, it's just life. Things go wrong.

Tony Douglas:

So you can't have people who saying, well because the flight's been delayed three hours and our shift finishes, we've all gone home. Because you've got families, you've got people who may need assistance in all manner of different ways, it just doesn't work like that. And okay, you have contingency plans in terms of what, you've got call out procedures which is what, but how people want to engage in that because they know it makes a difference is that discretionary component that I referred to earlier.

Chris Roebuck:

But it goes back to one of the comments I make to people. It's about whether you are a leader or a colleague or you're working with customers, it's actually about showing you care about them. And as human beings, we are really good at intuitively picking up on the fact that somebody else is showing they care. To your example that you gave about the response to customers and my comment about everyone being a brand ambassador, that isn't just about the customer services side. So many examples I've seen, UBS and other organizations, where that ethos of me as a brand ambassador, I'm an employee, but a brand ambassador where what's happened is that because that person believes so much in their organization, they've actually proactively talked to, for example, friends of theirs who are really talented people who may be leaving university. And they would say, hey, I'm having such a great time at [inaudible 00:48:31], why don't you come to [inaudible 00:48:33]? And you get talent.

Tony Douglas:

Agreed. Maybe one of the final examples I'll use is a story obviously personal to me and therefore perhaps will mean more to me than others. But this was many years ago actually here in the UAE and close to where I lived, there was a hotel with a beach and I'd regularly go on there, particularly if my family were out the country, and have a beer late in the evening, et cetera. And of the many people that worked there, there was a guy from Sri Lanka, called Ramesh, and he's one of the guys who in the hospitality side of it, wonderful man, wonderful human being, warm, engaging, personable, had a human touch that could light up any environment. And I guess the point of the story is as follows, over a number of years I observed this guy's amazing ability to connect and make people feel special.

And I was talking with a family one day at the weekend that were there and they were from Australia and they were transiting through Abu Dhabi, they were staying three nights, and going to see family in the United Kingdom. And the guy, the father within the family said, and they had their kids, let's say were within the range of seven to 12, there was three of them. And they said, we always come to this hotel as part of the stop over. And I said, yeah, great, it's a wonderful hotel, great experience, et cetera. How many times have you done this? He said eight times. Every time we do the transit, we don't like doing it. Literally, land in Abu Dhabi, 90 minutes later we fly to London, we have a stopover, but we always come here. And I said, okay. I said, any reason in particular, and not surprisingly, because you can see where this going, the answer was the kids love Mr. Ramesh. Every time we say we're going to see grandma and grandpa back in the UK, the kids say, will we see Mr. Ramesh?

Chris Roebuck:

Love it.

Tony Douglas:

Now the bit that's the real punchline for this, I was actually speaking to the hotel general manager X weeks, months later and I actually asked the guy, was he aware-

Tony Douglas:

And I actually asked the guy, was he aware of just what a world class brand ambassador Mr. Ramesh was? And I guess you can see where this is going as well. Sadly, he wasn't. In fact, I'm not even sure he really knew who Mr. Ramesh was.

Chris Roebuck:

Oh wow.

Tony Douglas:

That's a mix of both, one extreme, brilliance, and the other extreme ... because it was discretionary, that's who Ramesh was. But just imagine if the management had realized the power of Ramesh, and it captured it to maximum advantage. He was the reason why that family had booked as often as they had done. And I almost leave it there, because it's about people. There are no organizations without people, simple as that.

Chris Roebuck:

No, absolutely. One of the things I think is great is what you have achieved since you started with Etihad, the position the organization was in, that perhaps wasn't the best position to be in. Moving forward from that, then getting hit by COVID, and now being in a position where the organization is in a really strong position. And to be blunt, from my perspective, well ahead of a number of airlines I would not politely mention. So give our listeners a little bit of insight into that journey that you've achieved, and how you viewed it when you started, the key success factors, and where you think the airline is now.

Tony Douglas:

It's a long story that I'll abbreviate in some ways to keep it a short answer. We're 18 years of age, coming up for 19 years of age now, and it's fair to say we made a few mistakes in our earlier teenage years. What I was invited to come and be involved in therefore, was a fundamental transformation program.

There was a gaping hole in our balance sheet for all manner of reasons, we got seriously over-committed. If people research it on Google, you'll see the reasons why. And as a consequence, that needed a wholesale change to our operating model, our shape and size, and everything from the fleet type of aircraft that we operated, to the effectiveness of how we aligned around a simpler and more clearer ambition, with clarity. Many of the things we've already talked about.

There was no way it was ever going to be a quick fix. It was because of the size of the numbers, and the mental change that we had to make in direction. It was always going to be a five year program, and it took many, many, many difficult decisions, there's no question about it.

Sadly, the family is not as big in number of people today as it was when we started off. But we were adults, rather than avoiding difficult conversations, we were very open about the preservation of the brand. And what we wanted to do required us to become leaner, more agile, and a lot more commercially efficient, without, in any way, losing the essence of an incredible brand, and the service offering that sits behind that. And the Etihad family, the team, has done an incredible job, in my opinion, in delivering on all of the parts of that transformation program.

Of course, we then had a pandemic thrown into the middle of it as well. In some ways, I guess the fact that we had a lot of momentum already was a gift, because if we were caught on the back foot static, it probably would've been a wholly different story. And we carried on the old cliche, never waste a good crisis. We pushed on through the whole pandemic period, and over the last 12 months, the market's come back stronger than ever.

The fundamentals that we've now established has seen us post record results, and long may that continue. Albeit, one has to be very realistic. The world of commercial aviation is extremely challenging, it is always susceptible to the many things globally that can impact how we wish to, and how we're allowed to travel. And I guess that's the exciting complexity that comes with this sector.And I'll probably finish all the way back to where I started, in our line of business, I guess in the next decade or two, what will define who are the winners and who are the losers, will probably almost certainly be those commercial airlines that have genuinely been able to embrace commercial aviation sustainability. And the ones who say they are doing it, but obviously don't translate that into hard action, will probably end up being in the graveyard, where the tombstone reads something along the lines of, here lies the airline who either didn't, or said they were going to and couldn't, deliver their part of this challenge to our industry.

And it won't just be policy setters and regulators, it won't just be what happens in terms of airlines. It will be driven by customer choice as well, probably disproportionately as time goes on. And again, final cliche from me, but nonetheless a truism in many respects, listen to the voice of your customer. If you don't, you will almost certainly, at some stage, become disconnected from the reality of the customer's expectation. And by definition therefore probably be consumed in the wrong way.

Chris Roebuck:

And I think historically one would say, looking at any number of examples, that when an organization believes they know better what the customer wants than the customer themselves, that is the road to doom, end of story.

Tony Douglas:

Clearly. There's a long list of examples. And as I said before, sounds like a bit of a cliche, but nonetheless it's as true as it was at any time in the past, and will probably never change.

Chris Roebuck:

And often the people who hear that voice, again, which organizations too often forget, the people who hear that voice are not in the boardroom, they're on the front line. And that's why it is so important. And you've cracked this, obviously. It's so important for the people in the boardroom to listen to the people on the front line.

Tony Douglas:

Yeah. There's lots of ways of hearing the voice of the guest, in our context, the customer in general. We do an awful lot of CSA and NPS, so net promoter scores and customer satisfaction indices, on big sample sizes, everything from, every flight's got the smiley face thing on the screen on the back of the seat, all the surveys, all the feedbacks, and all the rest of it. We try and go out of our way to get as many touch points as we can, and it's consistent with the way in which our service centers, and our websites, and our web apps all operate, because feedback's a gift. And if you either don't want it, or you take it and you don't interpret it, more fill to any organization that falls into that situation.

Chris Roebuck:

So how can people learn more about Etihad, what you are doing, what you are going to do, what's the best way for them to do that?

Tony Douglas:

So I'll probably leave it like this, in two ways, and one of them of course will be a cheeky one, because we're genuinely so busy right now in terms of passenger load factors, to avoid disappointments, go onto to straight away.

Chris Roebuck:

Book now.

Tony Douglas:

Book yourself an amazing experience with Etihad Airways. But the second one, again, is through You'll see what we're doing with Conscious Choices, which is the world's first green loyalty program. If you Google what we're doing with the Greenliner Program, or the Sustainable 50 program, you'll get a really good insight in terms of special aircraft that are both doing very special things in the commercially deployed aircraft. These aren't just empty flying test beds. I think it'll give you some of the many ideas of what we're doing.

And also, again, go online, download the Etihad sustainability report. We're one of the few airlines in the world that issues an annual sustainability report. It will not only tell you many of the things that we have been doing, it gives a bit of a roadmap in terms of where we're going next with all of this as well. So between, Green Liner, Sustainable 50, and the sustainability report, I think that'll give a really interesting view of what we're doing.

But I'll go back to where I started as my final full stop, get onto, come fly with us, and we'll make sure that you experience that obsessive attention to customer service as well.

Chris Roebuck:

And I will say, I have, and it was, and thank you for that. And then, finally, one last point, what is one thing that you would suggest that every leader listening to this does more of tomorrow to make them a better leader?

Tony Douglas:

I think it's pretty much what we've already covered, listen to your customer, and listen to your people. And it's back to complexity and people. Your customers are people, how your service gets delivered is through people, listen to them.

Chris Roebuck:

Listen to your people. Thank you. Tony, that was amazing. So many insights for our listeners. A great achievement that you've had at Etihad, a career where you've shown that managing that complexity, and working with people, it doesn't matter where you are, if you do those things, it will work. And that is such a great lesson for our listeners. Thank you so much for all your time. It's been amazing.

Tony Douglas:

Thank you, sir. Appreciate it. Speak to you soon.

Chris Roebuck:

Take care. Thank you.

Well, listeners, there certainly is a lot to reflect on there, and a lot that actually you can do something about tomorrow. The two things which run through everything Tony said, and which indeed run through his entire career, is the challenge of dealing with complexity, and the creation of an inspired community, to be able to work together to deal with that complexity as a team. As Tony said, many of his roles have involved highly complex projects, products, and organizations. A simple example is the airplane engines built by Rolls Royce, with over 30,000 different parts, and which are, clearly, safety critical.

What was also very interesting was his ability to build a community from, an example of Etihad, a vastly diverse group of people, from engineers maintaining the aircraft, to customer services, to pilots, to administrators, and all from so many nationalities. Now that requires a really nuanced and dynamic ability to respond to people's needs.

Tony started to do this from his first leadership role back in Rolls Royce, within a tough unionized environment, to listen, to engage, to understand, and then to create common purpose. That's what we should all be doing more of. And you can ask yourself that question, could I be better at listening, engaging and genuinely understanding, then building common purpose together? And don't forget that Tony started this journey at the tender age of 16, when he left school, working on the shop floor in the motor industry, which is testament to his achievements.

Now don't forget that in a week I will be giving you a more in depth view of the key takeaways from Tony, my insights and ideas for action in my reflections on the top. And if you've used any of these insights that you've got, either from Perspectives, or from Reflections, I'd love to hear how they went.

Thanks for tuning in. Check out the show notes from today's episodes at perspectivesfromthe, where you can not only enjoy additional resources from today's show, but all previous ones. If you haven't already, subscribe to the show on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your favorite podcast, so you don't miss any. And if you really enjoyed the show, please give us a five star rating and review.

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Perspectives From the Top is produced in collaboration with Detroit Podcast Studios. So have a successful week, use today's new learnings and actions, and remember, it's onwards and upwards. See you next time on Perspectives From the Top.