Qantas Chairman Leigh Clifford on making the tough decisions

Photo by James Brickwood

In a candid conversation with Alan Kohler at an AICD Leaders’ Edge Lunch in Melbourne last 14 November 2017, Qantas Chairman Leigh Clifford AO FAICD opened up on the airline’s decision to support same-sex marriage, the long-term benefits of grounding the fleet and the evolution of the Australian icon’s board.

On selecting Alan Joyce as CEO

“Alan was the outstanding candidate. He was seven lengths ahead…

When you’re looking for a CEO you’re wanting someone who’s got the intellectual capability which includes – it’s quite a numerate sort of business, you have to be strong on numeracy. And what I saw was his understanding of the airline business. It’s a complex business. But what I was impressed with was his manner and his leadership capabilities which had been demonstrated in Jetstar.

There were some tough decisions to be taken in Qantas, and I think Alan was up for it… And I could see that sort of characteristic. And those of you who know him, he’s a proud person, but he’s quite a humble sort of person. He doesn’t have tickets on himself. So I was pretty impressed with him to be honest.”

On the Qantas decision to support same-sex marriage

“The fact that the CEO is gay is a contributing factor. And Alan [Joyce] felt very strongly about this. And we’d talked about it over a period of time. And I said, well, that’s fine. You want to progress that from [your] own point of view, and I can understand that. And we would like to support you. What do the customers, the employees, and the shareholders of Qantas think about this?

Now, instead of sort of saying, tell me, Alan, I went in and spent a lot of time talking to our major shareholders. I also had the investor relations talk to them.

One was a bit ambivalent about whether we ought to do this. But not opposed… A couple were strongly supportive of our stance. And most were acquiescent, if not supportive. That was the shareholders. So we had strong shareholder support for it.

I wanted to make sure that our employees were not being pressured. And I satisfied myself of that with discussions with a range of people in Qantas including a lot of discussions with the Head of Human Resources. And we do an employee survey, and we got their views. Most of their views were a bit like the rest of the community: I’m sick of hearing about this as distinct from opposed to it.

Then, so, what would the customers think? And you don’t get direct feedback.. our Net Promoter Score, it has never been higher. And they knew our stance… I had a bit of a contretemps with a church leader, and I got a lot of support for it. I got criticism too. But I got a hell of a lot of support too.

So that concluded. We discussed it at the board. And we wanted to support the CEO, and we just had to satisfy ourselves that it was being done fairly.”

Read more of AICD’s The Boardroom Report here.

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