Think at London Business School
Tuesday 26 May 2020
Airline executive bringing empathy and authenticity to leadership and women’s empowerment
By Annette MacKenzie
It’s not a good time for Amina Taher to talk to me. The airline industry is reeling from the spread of the coronavirus Covid-19 and as Vice President Brand and Marketing for Etihad Aviation Group she has a lot to deal with – from top-level emergency meetings to informational videos demonstrating the cleanliness of the company’s planes to be published on Instagram and LinkedIn.
But she is calm, focused and very clear that what is central for her in all of this is the passenger.
“What would the passenger be thinking? What do they want? That’s the way I think and the way I want my team to think,” says Taher, who joined the company in 2014 and has moved through positions as Head of Corporate Communications for Etihad Airways and Group Vice President of Corporate Affairs to assume her current role in August last year.
“You need to be factual but you also need to be empathetic, especially in a business where we are connecting people – connecting them to places and to people.”
Being empathetic. Being direct. Knowing how to connect. What’s clear throughout our interview is that Taher’s reactions to the crisis are also her codes for life.
So deeply embedded are those values that they give her an air of confidence that shines through in her approach to her work, making it seem effortless.
That’s reinforced by a desire to learn that saw her become the youngest member of the inaugural Executive MBA Dubai programme when London Business School opened the campus in 2007. She was 24 and was one of the four faces featured on the brochure. She still talks regularly to friends she made on the programme – from Oman, South Africa and elsewhere – and says the experience opened her eyes and helped her to grow, taking her to electives in London and helping her to meet a diverse group of people.
She went on to gain a Master’s in Public Administration from Harvard Kennedy School of Government which saw her moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for the academic year ending in 2015.
Still, Taher admits that being a pioneering woman in a traditionally male industry is not easy. While we can celebrate her presence on Etihad’s executive leadership committee, she is still the only woman in a room of 12. Something that demands her to utilise plenty of “emotional intelligence,” she says, “because you are dealing with a lot of different leadership styles. For me it’s about reading the room and making sure that when you share your opinion, you share it at the right time.”
The gender imbalance is a situation she is a little embarrassed about but one she hopes – and believes – will change. Not least because so much has changed already in her fledgling country of United Arab Emirates since it was founded in 1971.
“For me there is one common thread about change when it comes to my country, my organisation, my family, and that is women’s empowerment,” says Taher.
“You need to be factual but you also need to be empathetic”
“Female Emiratis are now Government Ministers. They make up 50% of the parliament. There is a belief that women are equal and for me I see this as a responsibility.”
It’s a responsibility that she takes on by stepping up to senior leadership even though she admits she doesn’t have “a proper” work-life balance, getting home at 8pm or 9pm each night after commuting from Abu Dhabi to her home in Dubai. It leaves her with an hour or so to spend with her 15-year-old daughter. She married her daughter’s father when she was 20 and since divorcing has built an “ecosystem” of helpers from her childcarer, mother, four sisters and friends “who support me, who lift me. I wouldn’t be able to do my job without all these strong women that I have who are amazing.”
She also looks for ways to bring change – recently emailing Etihad’s Group CEO Tony Douglas when she spotted an old-fashioned bias enshrined in the company’s planes. Where western carriers refer to Business Class passengers on their planes, Etihad had somehow adopted the term Businessman Class in its Arabic naming. “I said can we just remove this across all touchpoints and he sent me a reply saying absolutely with a thumbs up emoji. We worked with the operations team, the commercial team and launched it on International Women’s Day. From a western point of view that shouldn’t be there at the beginning, but for us it’s big steps.”
Taher does her best to support the women on her team – in particular the head of social media and the head of Etihad’s in-house creative agency who are both women.
And she is always open to helping and mentoring young women who want career advice – whether inside or outside the organisation, with many contacting her through social media.
She’s in a good position to give guidance – recently being named for the first time in Forbes magazine’s list of the Middle East’s 100 Power Businesswomen. As if to back her point about her country’s support for women, Emiratis are the most prominent nationality in the list with 23 entries. Next comes Egypt with nine.
Equally telling is her appearance in another Forbes list – this time of The Storytellers, recognising the region’s top 50 marketing and communications professionals – and this time made up of men and women.
But while she appreciates the individual recognition, what Taher prefers to talk about is her team. They have had to persevere through Etihad’s recent run of loss-making years, gradually reducing from $1.87 billion (£1.53 billion) in 2016 to $870 million last year. “When I inherited my team their employee health rating in the organisation’s survey was 64 per cent,” she says. “They held that survey again four months after I took my position and it was 81 per cent. We’d gone from red levels to green.”
“For me there is one common thread about change when it comes to my country, my organisation, my family, and that is women’s empowerment”
In her previous role she turned around a department “with no processes or structure” to win in-house of team of the year in the 2017 Middle East Public Relations Association awards.
“For me that is what I will brag about – when my team is happy, when I’m empowering my team. That’s something I am happy to share. That really makes me happy and drives my energy and makes the commute worth it.”
Part of her secret for success is taking the time to listen to people – that could be customers, cabin crew, but especially her team. When Taher joined the Brand and Marketing department last August she started by making 15-minute speed dates with the 100 people who work there to get to know them and what they do. Split into five divisions of brand, global marketing, social media, digital and the in-house creative agency, they support all the brand and marketing activities for the Etihad Aviation Group in more than 50 countries, round the clock, in combination with a roster of external creative agencies.
She knew it was important to hear from them. “I told my team you need to be patient with me, you are the subject matter experts, I’m going to learn from you, and that’s how we all grow together and make people fall in love with Etihad.”
Taher has a treasure trove of partnerships and sponsorships to play with, including the Premier League’s Manchester City who play in the Etihad Stadium in shirts bearing the airline’s name and a role as the official airline of international fashion weeks including London, Milan, New York and Mumbai. But Taher also took the step of launching Etihad’s first brand audit since the airline started in 2003.
The next phase is to build relationships with internal and external stakeholders – including “Abu Dhabi Inc, because we are trying to promote brand Abu Dhabi so it’s about how do we work together, hand in hand.”
After initial jobs with General Motors and a series of investment companies, an airline is a good place for Taher to end up. Her father was in the travel and tourism industry and she remembers travelling widely with her parents and sisters to see family in Malaysia and visit places like France and the UK, always being made to read up on the country in advance and learn some of the language. It instilled a “love, respect and openness to learn and grow from different cultures and backgrounds”.
Her family remain important to her today. She will catch up with her sisters – including the youngest who is still in high school – and other family members and friends every Friday when the tradition is to have lunch at her grandmother’s house. Conversations range from current affairs to weddings and she calls it her “sanctuary”, “the best day of the week”.
And it’s here that those values are back on display. The values of empathy, honesty and openness that have shaped her approach to the workplace and her ability to forge the way for women leaders.
“For me it’s the way you grow up, the way you respect people,” says Taher. “It’s about empowering people and authenticity and that would be my advice to anyone.”