"Their livelihood is reliant on my ability as the CEO to ensure the company stays healthy"

Aireen Omar, AirAsia's CEO of Malaysian Operations, discusses why and how businesswomen in Asean are holding their own among female executives worldwide

Sacha Passi
May 13, 2013
"Their livelihood is reliant on my ability as the CEO to ensure the company stays healthy"

Aireen Omar, AirAsia’s CEO of Malaysian Operations, discusses why and how businesswomen in Asean are holding their own among female executives worldwide

Interview by Sacha Passi

Aireen Omar
Photo by Soe Than Win/AFP

Your appointment as CEO of AirAsia Berhad acknowledges your success as a businesswoman. In less than a year you have proven a great asset by pushing the airline forward in the aviation market…
It has been overwhelming, but at the same time truly challenging and exciting. As the CEO, I have a high responsibility towards our stakeholders, and generally the biggest stakeholders are our employees. Their livelihood is reliant to my ability as the CEO to ensure the company stays healthy and profitable by introducing various cost initiatives.
It is equally important for me to know inside-out how things are done, eradicate operational efficiencies, and to find out ways to further improve the whole process. AirAsia’s direction now is to aggressively focus on regional growth by introducing new routes and additional frequencies especially on popular routes to expand our market base to 600 million people and bring Asean closer.
AirAsia was recently awarded the LIMA 2013 Asean Low Cost Airline of the Year Award. How have you managed to guide a team to such success during an economic slowdown? 
Our success is due to our people. We dare to go out there and take risks. We fly to places where others never fly before, and invest heavily to develop markets. It’s the whole culture of the way we do things here which allows you to be your best and makes you accountable for what you do. The co-founders Tan Sri Tony Fernandes and Dato Kamarudin Meranun have instilled an entrepreneurial culture in us because they’re entrepreneurs themselves.
You trust that you have employed the best people to help you with your expansion plan. When you have that trust and you delegate as much as you can, you give employees the freedom to be creative and reward them for it. That is extremely motivating for anyone who wants to build a career. That passion and team effort is the key to where we are today.
You oversee 6,500 people and manage a company that reported revenue of $1.477 billion in 2011. How do you do this successfully?
I believe that to be a leader you need to be fair, which is always a very difficult thing to do. You need to be diplomatic. You need to be open-minded. You need to stay calm all the time and you need to be honest because employees will always come to you to seek direction.
You need to be decisive and firm and you need to have a vision because you have to lead the company to where it should be. More importantly, you need to remember to be humble because I believe that you achieve a great deal with a little humility.
Could you have imagined as a child the influence you now have in the success of Asean’s business environment?

I’ve never imagined myself being at this level. I was also deeply honoured and humbled by the trust and confidence placed in me by AirAsia co-founders Tan Sri Tony Fernandes, Dato Kamarudin Meranun and the board of directors.
They conveyed their hope for me to continue ensuring the company’s success and to further extend our market especially in Asean, so I push myself to work hard and I’m always up for a challenge. Growing up, I was exposed to business which made me interested to learn more on the aspects of trade and the way to do that was by learning economics.
Do you feel you’ve had to make any sacrifices to get to your current position?
As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’. Success requires hard work, persistence, commitment and discipline, among others. I have gone through the desolation of being away from my family for long periods; first for study in the UK and United States and a work stint in New York. Although unnerving at first, it was a vital turning point in my life, making me what I am today.
What advice would you give to young women in Southeast Asia hoping to enter competitive industries, become leaders and contribute to economic growth across the regoin?
Whatever you produce speaks louder than your own gender really. At AirAsia Berhad we hire people from all sorts of backgrounds, all sorts of different cultures.
We understand and respect each other and at the same time it’s a way for us to share ideas and see what sits best for the whole company. I think that’s something unique: you don’t really find it in most countries or most companies. To the young women out there, keep your feet on the ground and always be humble. You’ll be surprised with what you can really achieve with modesty.
Also view
“The female factor” – Women are increasingly taking their seats in Southeast Asia’s boardrooms – a vital development if impressive economic expansion is to continue
“Cambodia: Women in business”
“Forbes’ top 12 Southeast Asian Power Businesswomen 2012”
“A model farmer warrior” – Venture northwest of Singapore’s Central Business District and you’ll come across a green oasis nestled in an otherwise grey concrete jungle
“Top 5: female film directors” – Five women who have brought a feminine touch to the male-dominated world of movie making in Southeast Asia

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