Business leaders ‘must be trustworthy in times of crisis’

The importance of trust, openness, planning and flexibility are key for businesses to succeed in times of adversity such as the Covid-19 pandemic.

That was the message from Andrew Swaffield, chief commercial officer of the Virgin Group and chief executive for the Virgin Red loyalty scheme, who spoke at Abta’s Travel Convention about his own experiences of dealing with crises during his career.

Swaffield, who joined Virgin in 2018, was previously chief executive of Avios and was chief executive of Monarch Airlines until its collapse in 2017 after spending 17 years with British Airways and 10 years with Thomas Cook.

During the pandemic, the Virgin Group restructured Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Australia airlines, closed its fitness clubs, put the launch of Virgin Voyages cruiseline and hotel openings on hold as well as cancelling plans for a party to mark 50 years of Richard Branson setting up the group.

The group raised $400 million by selling shares in its space businesses Virgin Orbit and Virgin Galactic, which was then “pumped that into our travel businesses to help them get through the pandemic”.

Swaffield spoke about the lessons he had learnt, not just during the pandemic, but from other crises during his career.

He said: “Trust is really critical. When you are in situations of adversity your relationships, integrity, and credibility come to the surface and matter a great deal.  Your own reputation as a leader and whether or not you can be trusted when things start to get difficult is really important.”

The strength of relationships built face-to-face over the years will show when a crisis hits, he added. “Although video conferencing has been important over the last 18 months, the importance of face-to-face really comes into its own when things start to get difficult.”

He urged new starters in the industry in particular not to rely on technology and instead to use it as a “back up” for face-to-face relationship building.

Swaffield said his time at Monarch had taught him the importance of treating and communicating with people fairly and openly.

The “perception of unfairness” can act as a barrier to getting staff consensus while being open and honest with employees and other organisations such as banks can result in understanding and support, he added.

Swaffield described business contingency planning as “one of the best things you can do” even if they often turned out to be “the wrong plans” while flexibility in times of adversity was also key.

On a personal level, Swaffield encouraged business leaders had to avoid “burning the candle at both ends”.

“It’s really important to look after yourself,” said Swaffield. “For me it was a walk. On many occasions when I had stressful emails, if I took a five-minute break for air, four or five of the problems would have resolved themselves and were no longer a panic [when I got back]. Getting a change of perspective was very good for me for coping.”

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