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Air Canada CEO on marathon crisis management

  • Kailey Howell-Spooner
  • |
  • Aug 5, 2020
Air Canada CEO on marathon crisis management

Kailey Howell-Spooner is an MBA candidate and Forte Fellow with a professional background in communications and marketing. She chose to pursue an MBA to grow her network, build a foundation in business and refine her leadership skills. When not studying, she is a passionate advocate for creating more opportunities for female leaders in business. In her blog below, Kailey outlines her perspective on the key takeaways from Calin Rovinescu, President and CEO, Air Canada, for the Ivey Teachable Moments Series, a program designed to provide Ivey MBAs with unprecedented access to accomplished leaders.

Setting the stage of a global crisis

Even though the situation facing global airlines hardly needs an introduction, the context of the crisis facing Calin Rovinescu, President and CEO of Air Canada, as well as his team, bears repeating.

Since COVID-19 has disrupted the international stage, the global airline industry has faced:

  • A 95% drop in revenues – $370 billion to date
  • The risk of losing at least a third of all airline-related jobs
  • Almost ubiquitous international border closures
  • Unprecedented market constraints for customers, suppliers, and partners

Most companies often face some sort of crisis at some point, but the magnitude of this one is not only shocking in its scope, but also devastating due to its unknown duration.

Marathon crisis management

Mr. Rovinescu has already faced crises before as a leader in the airline industry, including the SARS pandemic, 9/11, and taking over as President and CEO of Air Canada during the global financial crisis.

Rovinescu compared the current business situation to a marathon. You need focus, resilience, and a strong desire to win. Discipline is required when you know you are not going to win next week or next month – and you need to ensure you have enough resources reserved for your comeback moment.

With everything that Air Canada has had to give up, Rovinescu reminded us that you need to draw a line in the sand and stand by what key differentiators you won’t give up – including corporate culture and strong partnerships -  these are very tough to reestablish once they are lost.

When leading through a marathon crisis, businesses can be dragged down by external factors. However, establishing a small team of senior leaders capable of making fast, decisive decisions is the key to weathering the storm. Rovinescu also warned us not to take undue risks for short-term benefits when looking at a long-term business environment. He also cautioned not to dwell on mistakes at the cost of your strategy. Worse than any mistake, according to Rovinescu, is freezing and being unable to make decisions.

Beyond these key lessons, Rovinescu reiterated the importance of transparent, authentic communication – something that is close to my heart as a communications professional.

Entrepreneurial spirit

Another key topic was the entrepreneurial spirit this crisis spurred in Rovinescu’s team. Their desire to win empowered them to make strategic shifts rarely seen in a company of Air Canada’s size.

Entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to change because they have no baseline for comparison. By rallying behind a single purpose fearlessly, you empower your team to great effect.

This all has to do with a culture of survival. More motivating than making money or increasing share price is the will to survive. Rovinescu’s key factors to take an 84-year old company and turning it into an 84-year old startup, include:

  1. Make decisions quickly
  2. Be agile and willing to try stuff on for size – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t
  3. Empower team members to be nimble within their role
  4. Don’t be afraid of change

Rovinescu challenged us to adopt the mentality of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur creating the latest tech unicorn in her garage – to push analysis paralysis aside and embrace our inner entrepreneurial spirit to launch, learn, recover and grow.

When opportunity knocks

When your business is in crisis, you need to create as much stability as possible to relaunch successfully when the crisis is over. With airlines facing decreased demand for flights, increased risk to jobs, as well as the marketplace constraints that COVID-19 had unleashed, Air Canada had to get creative.

Part of this creativity involved searching for opportunities to rethink business structures and models for both short-term and long-term growth. First, the short-term opportunity that less passenger volume provided meant that Air Canada could lean into their cargo business, shifting to delivering PPE and online orders now that so many businesses have moved online.

Additionally, Air Canada is refocusing their current AI revenue management tools to predict future business volumes based on how lateral businesses, like hotels and tourism destinations, are recovering, as well as when governments are lifting restrictions.

The ongoing theme of the Speaker Series this year is resilience – how organizations respond to challenges and then rebuild and recover, and there is no better guide than Rovinescu.