Virgin CEO address QUT Business Leaders’ Forum

Australians will need to live with a level of COVID-19 transmission in the community for the country’s health and economic recovery, according to Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka.

Speaking at the QUT Business Leaders’ Forum on Monday, Ms Hrdlicka said as countries rolled out vaccine programs, Australia needed to change the narrative around COVID-19.

“We got where we are because we didn’t want our hospitals overcome by people with COVID-19, now we need to get our borders open for our own health and for the economy,” Ms Hrdlicka said.

Jayne Hrdlicka at the Business Leaders’ Forum.

As she strategically repositions the business during one of the toughest times in aviation history, she said state borders needed to remain open and confidence needed to return to the travel market for the airline to thrive in Australia.

“The grand goal is to play to our strengths and goal to become Australia’s most-loved airline.”

That includes taking the airline back to its former glory, with a focus on growing the business bigger than its pre-COVID-19 size by investing in 10 more aircraft, currently hiring cabin crews and plans to hire new pilots soon.

“We have lived with adversity in the past and we will learn to live with COVID-19,” she said.

One of Australia’s most senior business leaders, and one of only three female CEOs of the world’s top airlines, Ms Hrdlicka was appointed CEO of Virgin Australia in November 2020 when Bain Capital took ownership of the airline.

Before joining Virgin Australia, she joined Qantas in 2012, before going on to become group CEO of Jetstar Airways. She then moved on to become Managing Director and CEO of the a2 Milk Company.

Born in Kansas in America’s Midwest, she says being a good leader is about surrounding yourself with a great team and walking the floor.

“Firstly, you need to be flying at 40,000 feet as a CEO until something goes wrong and then you need go down to two feet and really understand the detail of what is not working. It’s about looking around corners to see what’s coming next”.

Secondly, she said walking the floor was important to find out what the issues were with the front-line teams. Thirdly, a good team to create solutions and build collaboration was essential.

“You’ve got to figure out solutions to the problems together – getting momentum going makes the job easier and you can work faster as an executive. Empower people by opening their hearts and minds.”

Finally, she said people should never work with others that they didn’t trust.

“You need to surround yourself with people who have a similar agenda – not those who aren’t committed to your ideas. Business is about people and you can’t make anything happen without them.”

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