Five months ago, Merren McArthur was appointed CEO of Tigerair Australia, the low cost carrier of the Virgin Australia Group that has flown more than 25 million people since commencing operations in 2007.
Charged with taking the company through the next phase of its development, McArthur seems unperturbed by the challenge before her. She tells me she’s excited about the myriad prospects that lie ahead and sees “a massive opportunity to turn the business around by leveraging Tigerair’s people and assets.”
A former lawyer, McArthur has held various executive roles within the Virgin Australia Group for the past decade. She says the industry fascinates her and has yielded an excellent career pathway, but one that certainly wasn’t on her radar as a young woman starting out.
Currently, women hold just three per cent of pilot roles and three per cent of airline leadership positions. McArthur says there’s a two-pronged obstacle that needs to be overcome by the industry.
“I think the aviation industry has a problem in the sense that I don’t think women are naturally drawn to the aviation industry in the way men are,” she says.
“It certainly didn’t occur to me growing up that I would end up in aviation but it’s a fabulous industry and a fabulous career for men and women. So, I think we need to get out there and actually increase the pipeline of women coming through schools and graduate programs.”
Because of this, there are not enough women in management, which means that less women are being promoted to management roles.
“I think it’s human nature that you tend to promote or admire the skills in others that mimic yourself, and so when you have a majority of men in management positions they expect upcoming managers to reflect their own management style,” McArthur said.
Ensuring a greater number of women are promoted into decision-making roles is the only way for the circuit to break. “The more women you have making those decisions, the more women you’ll have coming through the ranks. And when you do that, it brings a very different perspective,” McArthur said.
She’s quick to add that diversity isn’t simply about gender. “It’s about personality types, cultural backgrounds and industry backgrounds,” she says. “The more diversity you have in decision-making, the more you’ll bring through diverse talent and also better business outcomes.”
McArthur attributes her success to three critical traits: Tenacity (and the confidence to seek out challenges), curiosity and passion. “I give all of what I have to whatever I’m working on,” she says.
She also emphasises the role that informal mentors and sponsors have played throughout her career.
“In my day (that terrible phrase!) mentoring really wasn’t much of a thing in a formal sense. But when I was in my law firm, I did have a wonderful mentor and sponsor who helped me up to partnership,” she tells me. More recently, she credits Virgin Australia Group CEO and Managing Director, John Borghetti, as a “fabulous sponsor.”
“I’ve been with the organisation for ten years and I’ve had five different executive roles across different aspects of the business and he’s really trusted in me and given me massive opportunities to prove myself and grow and develop and to step into the next challenge,” she said.
It’s hard to imagine that a leader with so many notches under her belt could be reflective about things she might have done differently given the chance. She tells me that if she could speak to her teenage self, she would advise her of two things.
“One, have more confidence”, she says. “People probably find that surprising because I do come across as quite confident now, but I think that when you achieve success that builds your confidence so the more success that I have achieved, the more confident I’ve become. If I could talk to my younger self, I’d try to drive that confidence earlier on,” she explains.
“Second thing would be patience. I’m naturally an impatient person so I want things to happen quickly and I want to achieve my goals pretty quickly, but they don’t necessarily come the way you expect. I’ve had a pretty unexpected and winding career, so you need to be patient and flexible to be able to take the opportunities as they come along.”
Merren McArthur will be speaking at this year’s Women in Leadership Summit set to move ahead next week.