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Divina Paredes | Aug. 20, 2013
For Rob Fyfe, innovation and risk management go hand in hand, and he shares how this was demonstrated during his term as CIO and then chief executive at Air New Zealand.

He, however, found the other airline CEOs did not necessarily share that thinking.

"I found the willingness to trial, that acceptance of risks, that approach to innovation was very, very rare amongst the fellow CEOs I was interacting with," says Fyfe. "The typical CEO was poring over big decisions over what aircraft to buy, how to manage the balance sheet, or influence the government policy or regulation."

He recalls the time he spoke with another airline CEO, and they compared what their typical week looked like. This CEO "is sitting in his office poring over spreadsheets, flying on aircraft but never talking to the staff on the aircraft because they always complained to him."

"I described a typical week for me — 70 percent of my time I was out of the office out there talking to people around the business. It could be in IT, with flight engineers, helping people understand what we are trying to achieve, listening for ideas."

His most difficult decisions?

Fyfe says he can "power through" actual strategic decisions like resource allocation. "It will come as no surprise the hardest decisions for me were always the ones that affected people's lives negatively."

This happens when he has to let people go, because the business "is not performing in the way you like or you need to adapt or adjust the business which you need to do at speed."

"I never shied away from making those decisions, because if you are not prepared to make those decisions to constantly evolve, then you put the whole enterprise ultimately at risk."

He says he had some "very difficult conversations" with the affected staff.

"I think it is really important that you front up to the personal consequences and you are prepared to talk openly with people. They deserve that respect if [these decisions] are having such a large impact on their life."

Working sabbatical
Fyfe left Air New Zealand in December 2012, and is on what he calls a "12-month sabbatical".

"What that means is I am on a few boards and doing consultancy work, and doing some travelling," says Fyfe who is director at Icebreaker and Ecoya and is on the board of Antarctica New Zealand.

As Air New Zealand CEO, he spent three to four months of the year travelling. "But I never got to see anything. You are just in hotel rooms, in meeting rooms, in conferences".

He is going back to those places to explore and experience the culture. "At the final quarter of this year I will start thinking about what next [to do]."

As for his next role, "I am not going to run another airline, I have crossed that one off," he states, despite several offers to do so.


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