COVER STORY: High Flyers Clear for Take-off – Cooperation On The Flight Path

Graham Lintott and Rob Fyfe both started their careers in the Royal New Zealand Air Force but they have since taken very different paths: one working his way up to the top position in that organisation and the other taking the skills the Air Force gave him and transferring them to different areas.
Lintott has spent 35 years in the Air Force, rising to the top job in May 2006. Fyfe left the Air Force after few years and worked in the banking, IT and telco sectors before taking over as Air New Zealand CEO in 2005. Private-public, military-commercial – what is it that gives the pair common ground and has led them to work together? Leadership – acknowledgement that their own will benefit from the relationship, that their respective organisations will do better together and strong and shared belief that more New Zealanders need to cooperate rather than compete.
The initial idea for this article was the differences between military and business leadership – what these were and how each organisation could learn from the other – but during the interview it quickly emerged that the similarities far outweigh any divergence and the RNZAF and Air New Zealand are well into the journey of working together.
Rob Fyfe: “Graham asked me last year to come and speak at the Air Force leadership conference. The thing that stood out for me most from being at that event, was how the language between the organisation that I’m part of and the organisation that Graham is part of is essentially the same – around leadership, around what we’re each trying to do, around our philosophy. I left the Air Force just over 20 years ago and that conference was the first time I’ve reconnected with the force in professional sense. I was amazed. I was expecting there to be quite difference in philosophy and purpose but it was all aligned, despite the fact that our organisations exist for very different reasons.”
That said, both men acknowledge that successful leadership is definitely not one-size-fits-all proposition. They firmly believe in listening, learning as much as possible – and in sharing information freely – but also in taking care to avoid blanket adoption of somebody else’s solution.
Graham Lintott: “The recipe for every organisation is slightly different, so you can’t just take the recipe for someone else and expect it to work. You have to take bits and pieces and what feels right and work with that.”
Fyfe: “It’s the same in business. I’ve worked in many different industries and you pick up experience and knowledge suitable to what works and what doesn’t along the way. Those experiences have shaped who I am, how I operate and how I lead in my current role, but there isn’t cookie cutter solution. There isn’t master plan either, saying we operate like this now and that we’ll operate different way in five years’ time. You know you’re heading in that direction, but you evolve, adapt and respond according to how people react back to you as you shape the organisation.
“We certainly do benchmark though. I fly on competitor’s aircraft at least once quarter because I want to see what they’re doing and what we can learn from them. I’ll always go down the back and tell the crew who I am and it’s amazing how open people are. And when people come and visit us because they want to learn about us, we talk about what we do, but I’m always conscious of warning them not to just try to replicate what we do. Look at what we do and why it works, figure out what you can learn from that and then see how you uniquely create what you want to for your environment.”
Lintott: “Even within the Air Force I fight constant battle against over-standardisation and precedence. I’m always saying to people that this doesn’t work for everyone so let’s get rid of that rule and start doing things differently. That’s quite hard because people like rules and like following them. But as long as they don’t hurt anybody or get us on the front page of the paper for the wrong reasons, then I encourage it.
“It’s hard for senior management who have spent 30-odd years in the place because they’ve got senior by following the rules. They’ve lived through the shrinking Air Force and stayed staunch and led their troops through against all the bad publicity of nobody loving us. Then you get to the compliance regime that we all live in now and these senior managers have had to learn to cope with compliance issues that have affected their ability to do operations and, dare I say it, political correctness. It’s heck of job to get them to change because they’ve been successful and promoted in the organisation by not taking too many risks and following the rules, and by working really well and hard.
“So for me, the fertile ground is below them, without disenfranchising them, but by empowering those younger officers and [non-commissioned officers] to have go. That it’s okay to trial things and actually get them wrong. That’s the tricky bit, but we’re only going to change the organisation by concentrating on the future leaders rather than the current leaders – but at the same time coaching and bringing those current leaders on while respecting their methods and contributions.”
Fyfe: “We have the identical challenge. We’re small airline and airlines are by their very nature risk averse: and that’s what people want to hear. They don’t want to hear that the pilot is up the front thinking ‘oh I might try this, I’ve never done that before’. So operationally everything is about procedure, it’s about experience and what’s worked in the past, but commercially that’s the last thing we want. We’re small and we’ve got to move fast. If you want to move fast then you have to take an element of risk, you can’t afford to spend your life analysing things and not actually implementing them. Commercially we get things wrong all the time. Last year we put an extra row of seats in our aircraft and the customers didn’t like them so we pulled them all out again. I remember going down to the engineers to shout them morning tea because I’d asked them to do all these seats and they all sat there looking at me oddly while I told them it was all great and that we just needed to keep trying things.
“Trying to get our organisation and people to have these two appetites for risk is tough: operationally we have no appetite for it, while commercially we have high appetite for risk. It’s hard getting those two things to coexist in an organisation and for people to be able to cope with that ambiguity.
“Which comes back to another aspect of leadership. To be an effective leader you have to be able to cope with ambiguity. Life is never so orderly that you can lead without having to deal with compromises and with trade-offs and so on, getting everyone in our company to deal with that ambiguity has probably been my single biggest challenge in two years in the role.”
Both men encourage – and expect – leadership across all levels of their organisations, but while Fyfe hasn’t read management book since leaving university, Lintott is regular reader.
Lintott: “We have stated goal of having leadership at all levels. So while we have hierarchical structure, we expect and we train for leadership from the very earliest stage of recruitment. We look for it particularly in officers, but we grow it everywhere. At the start it’s really about people leading themselves and if you teach people to do this, first and foremost, and align that against an understanding of values then it’s very powerful. It’s very different from the old school of recruit and break them down. You’ve all seen the cruel sergeant scream and shout on TV and we’ve been little like that, especially for officers where we break them down and then teach them how it is. Then we start to berate them for not having enough confidence and initiative that we’ve just spent four weeks beating out of them. So now we see that we’ve got this significant talent coming in,

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