Head in the sky - Issue 54 - Magazine | Monocle

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When John Slosar took over as chief executive of Hong Kong-based airline Cathay Pacific in March last year, he had a lot to live up to in replacing the charismatic Tony Tyler – a Cathay stalwart since the late 1970s who had taken the company through turbulent times. But then, Slosar is no newcomer to the business either, having been with Swire Pacific, Cathay Pacific’s majority-owner, for more than three decades.

“Making sure the entire company understands your management style on day one is key when you’ve got big boots to fill,” says the easy-going American-born Slosar, speaking from a sofa at Swire Pacific’s towering glass offices at Pacific Place on Hong Kong Island. While other newly minted ceos may have spent their first week embroiled in meetings with senior management, Slosar issued his now famous “management manifesto” to all of Cathay’s 29,000 employees. An unequivocal statement of purpose, the 13-point programme for airline staff is liberally sprinkled with Slosar’s distinctly all-American approach to teamwork: “no politics – we’re all on the same team”, “time, once lost can never be recovered” and “challenge old habits”.

Starting at the bottom seems to be integral to Slosar’s approach – no easy feat for this aviation giant that stands as one of Hong Kong’s major employers. Slosar is boyish and approachable, however, and has a fondness for dropping in on employees unannounced. “People rarely get phone calls from me,” he says. “I think it’s more relaxed to walk into someone’s office and say ‘how’s it going?’ and then get straight to the point. I think that makes the whole atmosphere and place more intimate and friendly.”

Whether all of Slosar’s employees feel as relaxed with the possibility of an impromptu “how’s it going” from the boss at any time is unclear, but it certainly keeps the company on its toes. “One of the complicated things about running a big company is that you have wider spans of control and it takes effort if you want to get everybody on the same page,” says Slosar.

As a Swire Pacific insider for more than 30 years, Slosar knows the company back to front, working his way through the labyrinthine divisions. The company prizes long-timers and Slosar ran its beverage division, its shipping arm and aircraft maintenance subsidiary haeco before getting the top job. “Running haeco was a personal highlight – what man doesn’t love tearing airplanes apart and putting them back together again?” This hands-on approach and aptitude for overhauling the system was recognised when he was made Cathay’s cfo in 2007 and he still works closely with the current cfo Ivan Chu – who has been with the firm for almost three decades himself.

“People join when they’re young and they stay right up to management level so we don’t have to bring in people who have completely different standards – they often have them right from the get-go,” Slosar explains. A strong supporter of Cathay’s mentor programme, he sees the future of the company as coming from within, ensuring that each company director mentors a trainee from year two until year eight in their careers.

“Being hands on is the only option in Hong Kong, where the service culture is just the best in the world,” says Slosar, “looking at the airline with the eyes of a customer should be a priority for all of our employees, and showing leadership in that respect is number one for me.” To that effect, Slosar reads all customer emails personally, instead of farming them out to an assistant. “I ask myself, ‘is this someone who’s just having a bad day or is there a system problem here and can we do it better?’”

After just a year on the job, Slosar has proved a safe pair of hands. To stay ahead of competition in the Asian market, Cathay has 92 new aircraft on order, and is currently completing the roll-out of its new business-class seat (the old herringbone-configured seat was scrapped in response to customer complaints) and its new premium economy product. This comes under a €293m upgrading programme, taking on an additional 1,900 staff and building its own cargo-terminal at the airport. With sights set firmly on China for future growth, the airline is adding flights to the mainland on Cathay Pacific and its subsidiary Dragon Air.

Giving the company a united purpose is obviously key during this period of growth, and Slosar clearly aims to lead by example. “I listen to my staff’s issues, if they have anything they want to tell me, they know where I am, they know that I’ll listen and they know I’ll follow up.” Keeping staff happy and motivated makes for happy customers in Slosar’s view, which will become increasingly important if Cathay wants to keep its current hold on the regional market.

And how does the new boy want to be perceived? “Well I hope my employees see me as friendly,” Slosar says. “And I hope that people say that I’m better looking than Tony Tyler. Though that’s rather unlikely because he was such a movie star. I’ll have to settle for second place on that one.”

The Rules

What time do you like to be at your desk?
About 08.00.

Where is the best place to prepare for leadership – an MBA school or on the job?
About 70 per cent comes from on-the-job experience.

Describe your management style.
No politics. Never avoid the truth. If it’s bad, face up to it and do something about it.

Are tough decisions best taken by one person?
You don’t want to be a debating society but then everybody who is tangentially or directly involved in the implications of the decision has to be involved.

Do you want to be liked or respected?
I think you want both. People have to respect you and they have to respect that you’re serious, that you take your job seriously, and that you’re in it for them.

What does your support team look like?
I have a secretary who is fantastic and keeps me organised and out of trouble.

What technology do you carry on a trip?
There’s always a phone nearby.

Do you read management books?
I have read a lot of management books in my time. At the moment, I’m reading The Origin of Financial Crises and Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

Run in the morning? Wine with lunch? Socialise with your team after work?
I try to go running in the morning – it tends to vary with the jet lag cycle. I have a lot of social lunches and drinks and dinners.

What would your key management advice be?
Develop an ability to see a different and better future, to be innovative in the sense of saying, “We’re doing this now but I think we can do something better and this is what I think we can do”.

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