Former Tigerair Australia CEO Merren McArthur has said the management teams she worked with “didn’t understand” how to work under a female CEO before her.
Speaking with Australian Aviation’s Sky’s The Limit podcast, McArthur revealed that she had to “adapt” her leadership style, in order to support and encourage her teams to work more collaboratively together.
Notably, by the end of her time at the helm of Tiger, 8 per cent of the airline’s pilots were female – far above the international average at the time. Meanwhile, McArthur’s senior leadership team shifted from near-all male to 40 per cent female.
Prior to her role at Tiger, McArthur had risen through the ranks at Virgin Australia, ultimately becoming the CEO of Virgin Australia Regional Airlines and Virgin Australia Cargo, before being moved to the top job at Virgin’s budget subsidiary.
“I inherited a fully male team… and I really struggled to get my message across to them,” McArthur said.
“So I got very frustrated, I literally felt like the nagging mother constantly telling them to ‘go out, go and talk to each other’, and ‘don’t come into our leadership meetings, still debating these issues, you should be resolving them outside of these meetings and coming in and presenting to me’.
“You know, teamwork, collaboration, all these things. But they would look at me, it was like talking to a brick wall. They didn’t seem to absorb it no matter what I did.”
McArthur went on to say that her team suggested that she change the way she runs her team meeting to better cater to how her senior management team was used to operating, which opened her eyes to the real problem.
“I then had this aha moment. I thought, it’s because they’ve never been led by a woman,” she revealed.
“They’ve come from largely operational areas… and they’ve always been led by men. So they haven’t been asked to collaborate to communicate, or [prioritise] teamwork, because that’s not that’s not often the key driver for male leadership.”
McArthur said her style of communicating and collaborating with her teams was “a whole new world” for these managers.
“They just didn’t understand, it was just a whole new world for them. And I needed to allow for them to adapt to that because it takes a lot of effort to actually change the way you go about things and the way you behave.”
She said that she had realised she was now asking her teams to adapt themselves in much the same way that she had been forced to when she was working under male leaders.
“From very early on in my career, I had to adapt my style my thinking to be able to deliver what they expected from me,” McArthur said, ” and now I was asking the same thing of these men – to adapt their natural style.”
The now-CEO of budget Canadian startup LynxAir said that once her team were finally on the same page, they managed to be a more functional and highly productive team.
“Then I became more patient and adapted with them and had that conversation with them. And we had further workshops and when they really got it, they became a very, very high performing and very collaborative team,” she said.
“I’m still in touch with all of them. In fact, one of my best leaders actually took over running the airline after I finished up there so they all did come on the journey in the end!”
Tune in to the full podcast episode, released on Wednesday 22 June.