EasyJet CEO Carolyn McCall on how marketers can soar

When it comes to climbing the career ladder and gaining a coveted place at the boardroom table, easyJet’s CEO Carolyn McCall believes marketers are “fantastically” placed to do so. But to become a senior leader, confidence is key.

Carolyn McCall

Carolyn McCall is a bit of a rarity. She’s a mother of three and a self-described “marketer by background”, but she is also CEO of budget airline easyJet – making her only one of six female CEOs in the FTSE 100.

She is also a member of a select group as a marketer who has climbed the stairs to the boardroom and sat at the head of the table, but she thinks that marketers are “in a fantastic position” today to become the CEOs of the future.

“[Marketers] need to have customer insight and know the customer, but they also get to know the brand inside out, so they know how they can improve it,” she says.

Three tips for becoming a CEO

There is, however, always room for them to improve themselves too. In particular, more marketers should get their heads around company balance sheets, says McCall.

“They need to broaden from [focusing on] the return on investment of marketing to the P&L [profit and loss] of the company and its balance sheet. If you are not confident about that financial side of things, then learn about it. There are lots of courses you can take to learn these types of skills,” she explains.

Marketers should also gain operational experience. “When I say operational experience, I don’t mean run the easyJet operational control centre, I mean get some hard delivery experience.”

For instance, the company’s CMO Peter Duffy is in charge of everything associated with the customer experience, running call centres, customer disruption and customer follow up. “That’s quite an operational piece that not many people know about, which gives him a huge amount of exposure to the brand’s operations,” she says.

Finally, marketers should look to become non-executives elsewhere, giving them an understanding of how other boards work.

She explains: “It doesn’t have to be a FTSE business, but it can be a company that they find interesting that could be floating [on the stock market] in the future. This widens their remit and allows people not to pigeonhole them.”

Staying close to the marketing team

A recent study by Research Now shows that despite a fifth of FTSE 100 CEOs now having a marketing or sales background, marketers are still failing to communicate the strategic value of their role to other departments. However McCall, who began her career at The Guardian newspaper in the late eighties, going on to become its chief executive, hasn’t observed this image problem.

“At The Guardian marketing was very closely involved with product development and I have always worked with incredibly talented marketers – easyJet is no exception. When I joined easyJet, the first thing I did was appoint a top marketing director. So I’ve never seen that [image problem] in my years of marketing,” she says.

McCall works “very closely” with the brand’s marketing team, and says it remains something she is involved in as CEO.

“It’s an area I’m always interested in because you are your brand. You can’t say one thing about the brand and then not be it, because that will catch up on you and lead you to fail. A critical part of running any company is to be close to customer insight and brand position,” she comments.

The brand’s marketing team also adds “huge strategic value” to the business, and she credits it for launching easyJet’s loyalty programme ‘Flight Club’, which is currently being rolled out across markets.

“We would never have come up with that product or launched it [without our marketing team], because we have a low-cost model. Loyalty schemes tend to be very bureaucratic and expensive,” she says. “Without marketing and the insight that it brought us about our highest-value and -frequency customers, we wouldn’t have launched that product.”

Why women “drop off”

Throughout her career, McCall was adamant to jump on tasks that others snubbed, like launching the first incarnation of tech magazine Wired in the UK, as a joint venture that was part of Guardian Media Group.

Off the back of that, she was asked to roll out The Guardian’s website in 1999, before taking on the merger of The Guardian and The Observer newspapers four years later, and she became CEO in 2006. She joined easyJet as CEO in 2010, growing the company’s annual passengers to 70 million.

McCall was a speaker at the Omniwomen UK Leadership Summit earlier this week [8 March], where she spoke of her “leadership journey”. She believes that many of her leadership qualities were formed during her childhood, crediting her adaptability and independence to her boarding school background.

Carolyn McCall
McCall speaking at the Omniwomen UK Leadership Summit

Even though McCall has managed to steadily climb the career ladder, she believes that not enough women are doing the same and that the pace of change is “very slow”. As a result, more businesses should focus their efforts on developing executive-level women.

She says: “For me, the focus [should be] on executive women. That’s what we’ve done at easyJet. It’s all about the executive stream of women, retaining them, developing them and making sure they have the confidence [to progress].”

A common problem is that women tend to reach a level of seniority but then “drop off”, McCall argues. A 2014 study by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising showed that while the UK marketing profession had an overall gender split of 50:50, only a quarter of top jobs in marketing were occupied by women in 2014. McCall says this problem is predominantly due to expensive childcare and inflexible companies.

“Childcare becomes very expensive and women don’t get any tax relief,” she says. “It’s proven that women get to a stage where they’d rather work for themselves instead of a corporate structure that they find exhausting, as they have to negotiate and navigate to get what they want.”

She says easyJet strives hard to change this status quo, implementing various schemes to make sure it retains its female talent. These include job sharing and offering four-day weeks.

“[These schemes] make it that little bit easier for women to come back to work full-time – and they all do eventually. If women don’t ask, or their company is not receptive, then you lose women.”

Confidence is also a trait that more women should develop as it will help them negotiate future challenges, she says.

“Women have to feel confident in their own ability, as they can then go to their boss and say: ‘I really love what I do and want to stay, but it would make it easier if I did my job this way and can we talk about that?’. But they need to have the confidence to have that conversation.”

Carolyn McCall on….

Being curious

I love learning. Whether I was a teacher or an analyst, I learned from everything I did. Even if you’re doing something that you don’t think will be for the long term, it is important to learn, whatever you can from it.

Knowing your strengths and weaknesses

Identify what you’re good and not good at, and develop those gaps or work in teams where you can complement the gaps. That’s how I’ve built high-performing teams.

The importance of coaching and mentors

I would encourage both. With coaching it’s important to work on things that will develop you, while mentors are people who will always tell you the truth. If they think you are not on the right track, they may be wrong but they will tell you. That’s a very valuable thing.

Emotional intelligence

There was quite a lot of cynicism a few years ago about emotional intelligence. It was seen as a soft skill and polarising men and women. For me, it’s about being able to relate to other people and to show you want to nurture that relationship. Emotional intelligence is important for leadership. It makes for a great skill.

Having integrity

To be a senior woman in business you have to have energy and resilience. It goes without saying that you need to have integrity. If you have to communicate something difficult, say it with honesty. Even though they might hate it at the time, they respect the fact you’ve done it that way. Trust is an important thing.

Finding out what energises you

Identify what drains you and takes your energy away. If you can’t change the people that drain you, find people who give you good energy. Pursue activities that you enjoy and give you positive energy.

Not being afraid to ask questions

Always ask questions. As long as you ask them with confidence, that’s the only way to learn something new.

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