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'Never compromise': How Virgin Australia CEO dealt with the Covid-19 crisis

·5-min read
Virgin Australia Group Chief Executive Officer Paul Scurrah. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)
Virgin Australia Group Chief Executive Officer Paul Scurrah. (AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah will be speaking about leadership during a pandemic at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit on 17 September. Register here for your tickets.

Paul Scurrah, the chief executive of Virgin Australia, has had to oversee the near-collapse of his company, let go of 3,000 staff, cut low-cost carrier TigerAir, and find a buyer for the airline.

He’s worked seven days a week for the last six months, and has barely taken any time off – save a brief rendezvous at Thredbo two months ago, throughout which he was still working anyway.

But while the airline is going through some serious turbulence, Scurrah knew one thing had to remain consistent of him as a leader.

“Importantly, what I’ve learnt through the most recent period, although I knew it anyway, was: calmness and steadying the ship under enormous pressure is very, very important,” he told Yahoo Finance.

Having held CEO and other leadership positions at supply chain company DP World, the Australian Data Tourism Warehouse, Queensland Rail and TravelOnline.com, Scurrah distills some of the most important qualities that have seen him through all the roles.

“The first thing as a leader is to provide a level of clarity about the purpose of the company to make sure people understand what they’re turning up to do every day, and what’s important. So that can manifest itself as a vision or a mission statement,” he said.

“But I think there needs to be clarity around the path from where you are today to where you want to be.

“And no matter how challenging that path might be, it's got to paint a path, or at least give a bright future to your people in all of the circumstances.”

In Virgin’s case, Scurrah’s job is to communicate that the airline has a future of any kind at all, he said.

And to do that, he sticks close to his personal values.

“From a leadership point of view, it’s about being true to that yourself. Being a leading example, the right example, about how you never compromise your vision, your purpose or your values, and making sure you are the epitome of living and breathing that.”

In fact, he still remembers what he learnt decades years ago from Qantas’ former chief, James Strong, where Scurrah spent more than three years working during the earlier stages of his career.

“One thing I've never forgotten is what it felt like to be a newcomer at the so-called bottom of the organisation coming in at entry level, and the way both good and bad leaders would treat those people.

“I modelled myself on people like James Strong who was a very successful CEO at Qantas, who used to make everyone feel much taller and feel better for an interaction with him.”

There’s nothing like being prepared

As a leader, Scurrah is a big believer in having the best people around him, and ensuring they’re prepared for any eventuality.

“Airlines really do crises well. Not that they want them to happen, but you need to be prepared for them, and there’s regular rehearsals for all sorts of scenarios. So when something like Covid comes along, we are already very well rehearsed which means that we don't have to invent things as we're going along,” he said.

“I think it’s really lack of preparation and lack of a remedy or a process that causes stress for you.

“It really is important to just accept the circumstances that we are in, and to, in a sense, roll with the punches and not try to hope that you weren't here.”

His advice is straightforward: come up with a plan.

“Make sure that you're very task driven...make sure everything is as safe as it can be.”

How Virgin Australia CEO prioritises in a crisis

Scurrah has a laser focus on dealing with the task at hand, and has perfected a clear-cut process for deciding which problems need to be dealt with first.

“Stress is about clearing your mind to focus. It’s really important to prioritise under times of stress,” he said.

“If it's urgent and important, it needs your focus.

“If it’s important, but not urgent – defer it,” he said.

“They're the sorts of things that I focus on: making sure that the most important things get done and that's a challenge.”

But this doesn’t come without its emotional toll, said Scurrah; the stress often comes with the uglier parts of the job, such as the “heavy weight” of advising people they’ve lost their jobs.

On a more personal level, how does the CEO destress to keep his head above water?

Meditation and exercise.

“I actually recently purchased the Muse headband, the one that actually can tell you…how deep into meditation you've gone. It's got music or soundtrack that helps you get there and [it’s] very effective,” he said.

Scurrah also runs on a treadmill to get him in the zone.

“Some days It feels like that 25 minute run takes an hour. Some days I’m off after 25 minutes feeling it was only five minutes. And they’re the days when I know I’ve got into the zone.”

Virgin Australia CEO Paul Scurrah will be speaking about leadership during a pandemic at the Yahoo Finance All Markets Summit on 17 September. Register here for your tickets.

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Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit 2020 is on 17 September. Buy your tickets now.
Yahoo Finance's All Markets Summit 2020 is on 17 September. Buy your tickets now.
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