Women in Business Q&A: Aireen Omar, CEO, AirAsia

Aireen Omar was appointed AirAsia Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director in July 2012. Prior to this role, she was the Regional Head of Corporate Finance, Treasury and Investor Relations, and a member of the Safety Review Board.

She began her career at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc, where she served as an associate in New York and London, her last position being at the Equity Arbitrage Proprietary Trading Desk. She served in several major local financial institutions in Malaysia, including Maybank Group, the country’s largest banking and financial services group.

Aireen joined AirAsia in January 2006 as Director of Corporate Finance, her portfolio expanding quickly to also include Treasury, Fuel Procurement and Investor Relations functions. Taking on these roles, she was instrumental in shaping the development of AirAsia into one of the fastest-growing and most highly-acclaimed airlines globally.

How has your experience made you the leader you are today?

First of all, I am a leader only in terms of my designation which came by appointment. I am assuming my bosses, the co-founders of AirAsia, and the Board of Directors saw in me some qualities which they thought have the skill sets that would fit with what they were looking for in a CEO to lead AirAsia. Perhaps, what they saw in me is that I can have an open mind, I’m not afraid to try new ideas, and I’m someone who can prioritise, organise and be firm and decisive.

How has your previous employment experience aided your leadership at AirAsia?

My previous career was focused mainly in finance, which provided me with good grounding and understanding of numbers, market dynamics and what makes a business tick.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at AirAsia?

I take greatest pride that AirAsia has continued its run as the World's Best Low Cost Airline by Skytrax for 9 consecutive years.

My biggest challenge was in 2008 and 2009 when I was head of Corporate Finance for AirAsia Group. It was at the peak of the global financial crisis, when credit lines dried up and uncertainty and volatility ruled the markets. During that time, our challenge was to ensure AirAsia continues to operate as scheduled so we could continue to grow during a period when others backed down. For us, we must continue to stay ahead of the curve. I refused to allow the credit crisis to be an excuse for not getting funding, and I negotiated really hard to ensure we had the funds to continue for many years at competitive rates.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?

Mindset is key. Think of yourself as an individual and how to be the best version of yourself. Then, gender becomes irrelevant.

Equip yourself with knowledge. Know your subject matter well and make full use of it. Knowledge is a very powerful tool. Nobody can challenge you if you know your facts.

Pick your battles and always aim to beat the expectations. You will be pleasantly surprised with what you are really capable of, and the many opportunities that suddenly present themselves to you when you give more than 100%.

There will be many challenges along the journey we choose. It is therefore important to stay focused, persevere and stand firm on your principles.

Life is precious. Remember to be human. And fulfill that human potential - not just monetary potential.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career to date?

For every problem there is a solution. Never give up.

In every problem there is an opportunity. Face it and seize it.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

Work & life balance is a skill that I always find difficult to improve. I do think it’s important to have a balance but quite honestly, it’s quite a difficult task to do. So, it is really important to enjoy what you do in your job because then work becomes play. It becomes part of your life so that you don’t really mind.

At the same time, we must strive to prioritise how we spend quality time with family, friends and work. There will be days when you will need more time at work and there will be days when you need to focus more time with family, and delegate your work to team members.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?

The biggest challenge of women in the workplace is society’s perception of what a woman can or cannot do. Many girls or women do not realise their true potential; instead, they follow what they’ve been told.

At AirAsia, everyone here stands an equal chance to chase after their dreams, and we encourage them to do so. We have female employees across various departments, including pilots, cabin crew, aircraft engineers, aircraft technicians, head of departments, ramp agents, security personnel and many more.

Realising we have our own amazing examples to girls, we started our women empowerment campaign called ‘#GirlsCanDoAnything’, where we hope to inspire young girls to pursue their dreams in any field, break barriers and believe that they can do just about anything.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?

To me, mentorship is like a form of therapy. It helps keep your spirits up when you are down and guides you when answers are not so apparent. It can be a humbling experience if we know how to make it work for both the mentor and the mentee.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?

Angela Merkel. The longest serving chancellor in Germany. She is intelligent, firm and forthright.

Locally, Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, Malaysia's former minister of international trade and industry. She is genuine, has strong convictions and does not make excuses.

Serena Williams. She continues to break barriers, she’s relentless and she keeps reinventing herself.

What do you want AirAsia to accomplish in the next year?

To continue to be the leading airline in this region. We do this by embracing technology and innovation while expanding our footprint. In the next year, I would also really like to see AirAsia speed up its transition into becoming a fully digital age corporation.

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