It is 11:30am on a Tuesday and I am standing in a corridor at Qantas’ Mascot headquarters with Olivia Wirth. We are mid-photoshoot. The photographer is tweaking the lighting and Wirth is not fixing her makeup. She is not checking for a crease in her dress. She is instead selling me the Qantas Wellbeing app which awards Qantas Points to users who refrain from checking emails at 2am. The ‘Sleep Health Challenge’ is not only important because it’s the first initiative launched by Qantas Loyalty in 2019, a year marking her first 12 months as CEO. It’s important because Wirth is a reformed workaholic with a tendency to check her emails at 2am. And it also portrays the force with which Olivia Wirth catapults herself into a job.
There are a lot of descriptors used to classify Wirth, who has been labelled a “smiling assassin”, “titanium tough” and an enigma in the Australian business world. There is a level of fascination she carries with her, partly because she prefers to shape the story than be it. But, today, Olivia Wirth has agreed to make the story all about her as she hits a trifecta of milestones; 12 months running a P&L for the first time, in her fifth job at a company she has spent a decade with. A company which, next year, will celebrate its very own milestone of 100 years in operation.
The fire in Olivia Wirth’s belly has been burning brightly from a young age. “It’s not necessarily a drive for success, it’s a drive to do more,” she says. Growing up on the NSW Central Coast in Terrigal, her mother was a nurse, her father was in real estate and she was raised a “beach-loving tomboy” with an outlook beyond the Central Coast. She had ambitions to be a journalist but never made it to the newsroom. After studying at Bathurst’s Charles Sturt University, she landed her first job in the late ‘90s with former Liberal MP Bruce Baird – who, at the time, was heading up Tourism Council Australia in Sydney – and never looked back. Hopscotching her resume across the Australian Tourism Commission, Joe Hockey’s office (when he was Tourism Minister), Prince Charles’ charity in London, the Tourism and Transport Forum in Sydney, she eventually landed at Qantas. Beginning as Head of Corporate Affairs and Public Relations in 2009, she became the airline’s chief spinner and emerged as CEO Alan Joyce’s right-hand woman. At just 35, she was appointed to the executive team.
There’s an old trope that if you don’t narrate your own story, someone else will do it for you – and Wirth has been very good at controlling the Qantas story. She endured the Chilean volcanic ash saga grounding Qantas flights in 2009, the A380 engine explosion over Indonesia in 2010, and the ongoing public battle with the unions, causing Qantas to eventually ground their flights in 2011. As a result, you will probably recognise her from a 2011 newsreel. But for Olivia Wirth today, navigating team culture as a leader comes down to three important traits you may or may not see at a common press conference: transparency, authenticity, and vulnerability.
“Information isn’t power, it’s freeing,” she says. It may sound odd coming from a former spinner, but it’s what Wirth has found works best for her, as she’s moved out of media and management, and into a leadership role. “I think we’ve moved from the stage where the leader was all-knowing and on a pedestal. That’s just not how the world’s evolved. Particularly from a generational perspective, you think about the openness and transparency that social media has forced, you think about what’s needed and what’s expected – particularly from millennials – and there’s an expectation that what you see is what you get,” she says. So when a high-performing female staff member came forward last month to admit they were ‘lacking confidence’, Wirth – the “titanium tough” overachiever – admitted she also battled with it in the beginning of her career. She was just exceptional at hiding it. “This hasn’t always been something I’ve been great at, but showing vulnerability [is vital]. Because I think as a leader, if you do show vulnerability, or if you do talk about mistakes, it means you’re going to create a culture where people are going to be prepared to take risks, make mistakes and be bold and brave. And in the business I’m in, you need to have that.”
In her first year as CEO, the lucrative loyalty business has returned record earnings in the first half of the 2019/18 financial year, with underlying before-tax earnings of $175 million and up four percent compared to the first half of last financial year. That has been a direct result of new bold businesses and partnerships. More than 90 new retail earn partners have been added, including new financial services partner, Australian Super. Wirth has introduced a new Qantas Points credit card that is outpacing the market and, just last week, the loyalty business launched the first Points Plane, a series of dedicated flights across its network only available to members redeeming Qantas Points. What began as a business rewarding loyal customers for flying has evolved into a business rewarding buyers, and a scheme now with its own health insurance and wine business. As the tech boom forces large companies to adapt at the pace of new and nimble startups, innovation is as much of a necessity as confidence in these roles.
“We’ve moved from the stage where the leader was all-knowing and on a pedestal. That’s just not how the world’s evolved.”
In her early professional years, Wirth’s self-doubt was plagued by the fear of making mistakes, but in the end, they emerged the building blocks to her confidence. “Being a perfectionist at heart, that was the most difficult thing [for me] to come to terms with – that you’re going to make mistakes,” she says. “Alan [Joyce] has always been someone I can have an honest conversation with. I’ve made lots of mistakes, but you front up, you have the conversation, you talk about what you’re going to do differently. And I do think, weirdly, the role in media forces you to do that in some ways, because your mistakes are really public. There’s nothing to hide behind, so you may as well own it. And I think that actually helped me along the way.” Nowadays the worst outcome will be a little embarrassment, something she’s realised over time isn’t the end of the world. “It took me a while to come to that conclusion, but I think you just have to have confidence that everyone around you has their own insecurities, and even the person who comes across as being so full of bravado also has their own insecurities. It’s human nature. It’s about recognising that and giving yourself a break to make some mistakes.”
In a 2013 interview with The Australian, Wirth claimed she was attempting to wean herself off her workaholic ways. “I have a life, I want to do more things,” she said at the time. Six years later, she believes she has succeeded. And it’s not all testament to the Qantas Wellbeing app. She attributes the shift to a “holistic” re-evaluation of her time, defining where she can create the most value in her day-to-day; an easier life shift to manage in a business role outside of the relentless news cycle. “For me, there’s probably been an evolution around where you spend your time and how you align that to values, because you could spend 24 hours a day [working], but that 24 hours is not going to provide any value to the business, or value to the team, or value at home. So it’s about working out how I can personally contribute in the best possible way,” she says. “In any relationship, whether it’s the relationship you have with your work or colleagues, or your relationship with your friends and family, it takes investment and it takes time, and it doesn’t work when you’re starving one. So it’s okay to find that balance and have a life outside of work… Every individual’s different, but you need to work out what makes you happy in work and at home, what makes you healthy, what’s going to make you perform better, and the answer is different for everyone. There’s no one set path. I think particularly for women, it’s about giving yourself permission that you can invest in yourself as well.”
Travel is on the list of ‘Things That Make Olivia Wirth Happy’, as well as exercise and spending time with her friends. But most importantly, spending quality time with her family, husband Paul Howes – former National Secretary of the Australian Workers’ Union turned KPMG partner – and three step-children. “In the past, I would not have been able to say that,” she says, though being present during those times is always the tougher feat. “I’ve been very guilty of this in the past. It’s about being mindful about where you are at a given time, so if you’re at work, you’re at work, if you’re at home, you’re at home. Give it your all. It’s very difficult, but you need to be constantly reminded of that.”
In 2019, Wirth’s daily reminder is the beach. After navigating her career with full force, her life has come full-circle: back to the beach. Howes and Wirth recently moved to Tamarama in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, a move she says has absolutely “centered” her. “Being able to go to the beach everyday sounds very simplistic – because it is – but I love being in touch with nature. I love the ocean. It’s what I grew up with. It just feels like home,” she says. “No matter what’s going on with my day, it washes it away completely. It’s the best way to start the day. So yes, I’m still a beach-loving tomboy.” Whether that beach-loving tomboy wants to run Qantas one day is another question, and one she dodges. She may be running a P&L now but her former spinning days have not been lost on Olivia Wirth – and the fire in her belly is stronger than ever. “It’s not extinguished yet,” she says.
Main image credit: Future Women
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