What role does care for our colleagues play in leadership?
Marie-Frederique Romain is one of the youngest female executives in the aviation industry. As the Head of Sales Pacific for Airbus, she has contributed to the sale of over 450 aircraft across Europe, Asia and the Pacific since joining the company in 2011.
Marie-Frederique (or MF as she is known affectionately in aviation circles) leads with passion, authenticity, and most importantly care.
In this episode, Marie-Frederique discusses how her early mentors shaped her desire to be a leader who cares, how she influences and leads a large organisation when most individuals don’t report directly to her, and the challenges she faced as an executive and a mother.
If you’d prefer to listen to our conversation you can do so here: Apple Podcasts or Spotify
Did you have any early experiences in your career that influenced where you are today?
[Marie:] When I joined my first company, I joined a team where I was the youngest, the only woman, working with colleagues that were on average 20 years older than me. That was an eye opening experience, because I discovered care.
I was carried forward, I had a lot of unofficial mentors who were willing to transmit their knowledge to me and I had never experienced that before in my life. And I thought, ‘Wow, are all companies like this?’
‘My colleagues didn't discriminate against me, because I was far younger or a woman, they embraced me, and my ideas and my energy. And I thought I want to reproduce this going forward.”
I have also been very impressed by some of the leaders I've had in my career.
One leader in particular really made an impression on me. He had such a big team, but he knew everybody's name and everybody's spouse's name. He knew which people had kids and which people had gone somewhere on holiday. And so even though he was there, arbitrating on very strategic deals for the company, he always had a kind word for everyone.
And my observation is the amount of loyalty that you have for people that care for you is huge. And you could feel their sincerity and authenticity. And I always said to myself I want to be like him one day.
Could you share a challenge you faced early that has helped define you as a leader today?
[Marie:] When I began my career, most sales people were men. And not only that, but there were middle aged men. And when I began, I had this complex, that people wouldn't take me seriously because I was only 26. And I remember I used to age myself as much as I could physically so that people would think I was older.
At the time, I felt very self-conscious that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, because I didn’t have a lot of experience. But what I discovered was that if you acknowledge it, if you come out, you're not trying to be something you're not. I always knew there was no point in saying I was experienced when I wasn't.
So that was one thing that I did find challenging when I began.
And I also think it's a challenge for every woman out there, when you decide to have a family. Suddenly you feel like people look at you differently. This challenge is a huge one. And I think it still is and I wish it wasn't.
When I have mentees that ask do you think having a family is an issue? I wish I could say, oh, no, don't worry, you'll have no issue. Because you will.
There are still people that are uneasy with the fact that they don't want to develop somebody who's going to potentially be away from work for a little time to care for their loved ones. And I see my position today as a great opportunity to fight against this.
What are your thoughts and approach when it comes to leadership?
[Marie:] My observations on leadership is that alone, you're nothing. Truly, you're not very much. But together, when you come together as a team, when you find the right people, the right vibe, the right energy, you're able to move mountains. And so having been part of teams like this, that's what I’m trying to reproduce as a leader.
And it starts with who I recruit and how I develop people. Most of my team are men. So I actually enjoy telling them that it's okay to be vulnerable. And then of course leadership is about development and growth. Of course, you want to love your team, you want to love the dynamics. But the biggest gift you can do as a leader is help people grow.
And then you get in that comfort zone as a leader where you feel surrounded by a great set of caring, motivated people, and you don't want people to take them away from you. But that's the best gift you can give them. So for me, those are three steps.
And in all the recruitment, the development and the growth, it's again about the same values, I recruit for humility, I believe that is the number one quality of a good salesperson. If they’re humble. Take my example, we sell aircraft to airlines. Let's be clear, airlines probably know our aircraft better than we do, because they operate it every day. So you're not going to teach them anything, you're there to help them find a solution to their needs.
How many people does it take to close a large deal with an airline?
[Marie:] One thing I'd like to share is that generally selling one aircraft or 100 aircraft is the same job. That's the first point, people think that suddenly because you're selling 100, you have 100 times more things to do. But actually, you'd be surprised.
There are no small customers or big customers for us. What makes the job so interesting is the latest deal that we won involved more than 250 people within the company, spread across five continents. The customer will have a very specific question on a point, and I don't always have the answer. So I reach out through my network to try to find the person who's got the answer to the question. And it may end up being somebody in Canada, who's super engaged, and on a Sunday morning, wakes up, the question is on his lap, he'll check his phone and give us the answer immediately.
And you think, wow, that person is sufficiently engaged that is going to unblock a problem. And so it's super varied. We work across all departments at Airbus, we work across the programs engineering, support, design office, final assembly line, and everybody's involved because you know, they're buying a product that's going to stay with them for 20 years. So that necessity takes a lot of expertise throughout the company.
So 250 people, many of which I’m assuming don’t report directly to you. How do you lead and influence across an organisation when you aren’t in direct control?
[Marie:] You're very right. Most of the people don't report to me. But yes, you need to create engagement. And especially on the last transaction that we did, it was right in the middle of COVID. So no traveling, no meeting in person.
“How do you build a team and engage a team from a G meet or Zoom perspective? And get them to buy in and do the work and be engaged? “
I always think that it's about giving the bigger picture. Why is the airline wanting to buy aircraft? What is it that they're trying to achieve? Are they replacing a fleet? Are they trying to grow? Are they trying to start traveling new routes that have never been explored before? What’s their why, and then how do we fit into this?
So you're going to try to use those angles internally, to share the message and think and brainstorm. You make it a common objective. The other thing I've noticed is it’s about spending time with people so that they get to know you, even if it's just through a video screen. Not so they just know your title or what you do, but they know you as a person. And that makes the connection so much more human.
What do you think about diversity and how do you approach it?
[Marie:] This question of diversity is one I get a lot. And it's mostly about balancing. I see my role as a leader, as a good way to share my own experience and change and break the bias that I observe in a company.
I mean, we already talked about age. And if we focus on what it means to be a woman in a male dominated environment, actually my experience has been rather good. I've been evolving in a world of men that were mostly caring.
Sometimes, they have interesting comments, to say the least. And they have the feeling that they need to express an opinion on how a woman does something or not. But I feel that I've been fairly protected from some of the most horrible comments I've heard in the industry.
But my observation is that men don't even realize they're making weird comments. And so I see it as a necessity for us to speak up. When you hear somebody saying something that isn’t appropriate, we collectively have the responsibility to say something.
For me personally I was mostly challenged on my ability to be a good mum, and a good sales person. I remember flying from Toulouse to Sydney sitting next to a male colleague of mine, and my daughter was maybe nine months at the time. And as he sat down he said, “Oh, my wife doesn't understand how you can go on the other side of the world and you leave your nine months old baby.”
And I replied, “Well, you have children, right? Yes. How do you feel about going on the other side of the world?”
Why is it that a woman should feel any different than a man when they leave? It's hard for everybody. So I think it's about rephrasing that, when you hear something like that and put it back on the person. Help them to understand in a very caring way. It doesn't have to be aggressive.
Of course in my career, I’ve questioned myself a lot about how good of a mum I was. And I think that's any parent's question. Whether you travel, you don't travel, whether you have a really demanding job or less demanding job, just because it's more unique today, it may not be tomorrow.
What's a question that you ponder when it comes to topics around workplace leadership, diversity, equity and inclusion?
[Marie:] My question is, how can we bring more care inside companies? When I'm being challenged, how do I walk the talk about diversity and helping others?
I think that in all the interactions you make daily, you meet a lot of great people. How can we, as companies, as leaders, make solidarity and caring for people something we don't even think about? How can it just come naturally to all of us? I think that's my question.
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