Five things I learnt about leadership from outgoing Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah

Paul Scurrah

Outgoing Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah. Source: AAP/Joel Carrett.

I’ve always been obsessed with people who thrive when the chips are down.

And when I think about the leaders who’ve had the sharpest curveballs thrown at them this year, I think of outgoing Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah.

In February, as the world was coming to grips with this mysterious virus called COVID-19, Scurrah was watching his company go into freefall.

International flights were grounded, and Virgin decided to double down on its domestic offer — only to watch that slip from its grip days later.

After working day and night to keep Virgin Australia alive, and finally inking a deal with US-based firm Bain Capital that would save many jobs, Scurrah was thrown the ultimate curveball: he was shown the door in favour of fresh leadership.

I spoke to Scurrah for my leadership podcast Curveball, and what struck me was how calm and positive he remained through such a turbulent year, both professionally and personally.

Here’s what I learnt.

1. Communicate, even if you don’t have all the answers

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first crisis Scurrah has dealt with during a turbulent time at an airline. He was a general manager at Ansett when it collapsed just days after the September 11 attacks in 2001.

A lesson he learnt then served Scurrah well again this year: as a leader, you need to keep your staff informed, no matter what.

“It’s important to keep everyone as calm as you possibly can. But, at the same time, you need to keep them as informed as you possibly can as well,” he said.

“It’s not a time for being cute with your words or being a little bit less than transparent.

“I took the approach that even if I’ve got nothing really to say, I need to go and say I’ve got nothing to say.”

At Ansett in 2001, that relied on an old-fashioned medium.

“At times, I remember people working for me had to race to their letterbox every day to see if there was any news, and then they would be disappointed and flat knowing that, at the very earliest, tomorrow might be the time they hear something.

“So getting communication out and keeping [staff] updated and informed was a really difficult thing to do compared to today. But I always remember the feedback and the need for people to stay informed.”

This year, Virgin Australia instead utilised Workplace by Facebook, which meant Scurrah could communicate to every employee “at an instant’s notice”, including streaming live and taking questions from across the country.

“Remembering that we had over 8,000 people stood down, what kept us all connected was this tool, this platform.

“It allowed me to communicate with them really frequently as things changed … three and four times a day at the height of it all.

“[I was able to] tell them a story as it evolved, and that really helped a lot.”

2. You have to believe to achieve

In his early years, Scurrah says he learnt the importance of goal-setting, positive self-belief, and discipline through playing competitive Aussie Rules football. He carries that spirit into the board room.

“Anything can be achieved. People talk about limiting beliefs and the impact they have on achievement,” he said.

“I go into things with a very optimistic view — not an overly optimistic view, a realistic optimistic view that says, if we do these series of things, why shouldn’t we be able to achieve this.”

And that’s not just about believing what your company can achieve, but believing in what you can achieve in your career. Scurrah recalls that early in his career in aviation, he was applying for a promotion to a role as reservations manager.

“I was young, ambitious, maybe too cocky too, by the way.

“In the interview, a guy who was two levels above me said: ‘Where do you see yourself going in the airline?’

“And because I’d been working on my mind and belief, I said: ‘Well there’s no reason why I can’t be the CEO here one day.’

“And he said: ‘You’re kidding me?’

“I didn’t get the job, and in the aftermath, he berated me for being so cocky and even daring to believe that I could be the CEO.

“But he was right — I never ended up the CEO of Qantas.”

3. In a crisis, you can’t be a pretender

When it comes to managing through a crisis, Scurrah says you need an unflinching belief that you can get through.

“I truly believe that I can’t allow people to see me not in control — in a sense of knowing where we’re going,” he said.

“If I lose a bit of hope, or they see that I’m not as on my game, I think that has a ripple effect through the organisation.”

But it can’t be an act, he says. It’s all about mindset.

“I can’t pretend to be in control, I have to be. I can’t pretend to be optimistic, I have to be.

“That’s another curveball that’s been thrown at us, so I have to find a different way.”

4. It’s all about the people

Talking to Scurrah, it becomes very clear, very quickly, that for him, a huge part of managing a business is looking after the people who work for you, and their families.

He’s not shy about talking about his “love” for the people at Virgin Australia, and it’s not just about all their hard work.

“Every time I fly, I sit in the cockpit for a period. I then talk to the crew at the front and the crew at the back,” he said.

“It’s a really good way to get a handle on how well or otherwise we’re doing culturally, how the leaders are doing and how the customers are feeling about us.

“I think that exposes me to the frontline a little more than other CEOs.”

Scurrah’s approach becomes apparent in a story he shares about his time running Queensland Rail. He was at the helm during the massive floods in 2001, which put 4,000 kilometres of track underwater.

“That really tested what was the focus of us as leaders.

“As well as having to deal with all the customers that needed to be dealt with, which were incredibly important, we had 75 of our own people lose everything.

“So we prioritised them, and we got the tradesmen in our business to go and help reconnect water and power, and we empowered their leaders to go and buy them a new fridge and a new kettle.”

During Virgin’s COVID-19 crisis, it became apparent Scurrah’s staff wanted to reciprocate and look after him too — someone even anonymously shouted him a month of coffee at his favourite cafe.

5. You need to live your values, not just talk about them

When Scurrah took over Virgin Australia, he wanted to find out what was working and what wasn’t working from the airline’s thousands of staff, so his management team designed a survey, nicknamed their “mojo” survey.

As in, ‘how’s our mojo?’

Staff provided feedback that, while Scurrah talked about Virgin being a “high-trust environment”, a number of policies and practices made the staff feel like they weren’t being trusted.

“It was a pretty good to-do list just to tick off and go, well there’s no reason to continue with that policy for policy’s sake. Let’s prove we’re serious about this high-trust culture,” he said.

For example, staff didn’t like how if they took up Virgin’s offer of cheap travel for their own purposes, the airline checked up on them to make sure they were following the policy by dressing up.

“We would treat all of the people doing the right thing as if they were possibly going to do the wrong thing, and it was a low-trust environment,” Scurrah says.

“So we said: ‘We trust you, we trust you know how to dress appropriately to fly on our airline, and if one or two people turn up in board shorts and thongs, we’ll deal with them, but we’re not going to take your comfort away for that reason.’

“And that was a flip of trust, and we did a number of those things in the early days which proved that we were listening and proved that we did trust our people.”

This interview is based on the first episode of the Curveball podcast, hosted by Deadset Studios founder Kellie Riordan. 

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