“Emotional intelligence is important for leadership,” says Carolyn McCall ©Getty Images
“Emotional intelligence is important for leadership,” says Carolyn McCall ©Getty Images

How to lead a business like Carolyn McCall

Picking up rubbish on flights is an excuse to have a chat for the CEO, who is obsessive about customer and employee experience

Carolyn McCall is one of the most admired and powerful female bosses in Britain. Scrap that – she’s one of the most admired and powerful bosses in Britain. This January, after almost seven years as chief executive of easyJet, she is taking on the role of CEO at ITV. Before joining the airline, she was CEO at Guardian Media Group.

McCall, who was voted the most admired leader in Britain by Management Today magazine two years in a row, is known for her down-to-earth, warm and inclusive leadership style. As one of only seven female CEOs in the FTSE 100, she has always embraced her femininity and supported other women in business. “I believe that women in leadership positions need to inspire female leaders,” she has said.

She believes in putting people front and centre. “You must look after your people,” she said in a 2013 interview with Management Today. “Taking care of colleagues is the way you will make yourself the best operator within that [low-cost] model. If you’re a value brand as an employer, you need to ensure the same rules apply to everybody.”

Emotional intelligence is also critical. “For me, it’s about being able to relate to other people and to show you want to nurture that relationship,” McCall has said. “Emotional intelligence is important for leadership.”

She doesn’t have an office, having worked on the floor with her staff at both The Guardian and easyJet to ensure she remained in touch with what was actually happening on the ground – or in the air. She gets close to both staff and customers, visiting the cockpit to talk with pilots and picking up rubbish from customers on flights as an excuse to have a chat.

As a former marketer, she is obsessive about customer experience, and has even been known to personally call up disgruntled customers to apologise. She has said she spends between 20 and 25% of her time talking to staff and customers, adding: “As a CEO of a consumer facing business, you’ve really got to like your customers and your people. When I’m with them I try very hard to listen, to actually hear what they say. They will always tell you what’s wrong, what’s not working.”

To be a senior woman in business, McCall believes you need energy and resilience. Both have served her well. When she first joined easyJet, there was widespread cynicism about her ability to lead an airline, having never worked in the travel industry, and she had several difficult altercations – including one over her pay package – with the airline’s founder Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

But by 2013 she had launched easyJet into the FTSE 100 for the first time. Her rival, Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary, once called her “a media luvvie”. In 2017 he told the Financial Times: “I clearly underestimated her and I was proved wrong. She forced us to up our game on customer service.”

Now the world will be tuning in to see how McCall’s people-focused leadership style plays out at Britain’s biggest commercial broadcaster.

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