'You Either Fall or You Fly' - Siza Mzimela

The airline founder shares her leadership strategies


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Blue Crane Airlines founder and CEO Siza Mzimela

Picture: Peter Morey/www.star-allianceemployees.com

Every month SME South Africa talks to leading South African business people to discuss their insights on leadership and strategy.

Siza Mzimela has a number of firsts to her name, the biggest of which is founding the first majority black- and woman-owned airline in South Africa - Fly Blue Crane.

The airline followed what was years of experience in the airline industry. After first joining South African Airways (SAA) in 1996, in 2010 Mzimela was appointed Chief Executive Officer of SAA, becoming the first woman to hold that position. She was also the first woman to join the Board of Directors of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), a trade association for the world's airlines, in 67 years. 

'Fall or Fly'

Fly Blue Crane launched to much fanfare in 2015, including praise for Mzimela for breaking multiple glass ceilings. Their first scheduled flight went off on 1 September 2015 with flights on secondary routes including between Johannesburg, Cape Town, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Mthatha and George.

"I didn't know I couldn't do it," is how Mzimela answers the question of how she knew she could undertake such a feat. "For me it was just a natural progression. No one ever told me that I shouldn’t do it; I just thought I will do it," she says.  

As well as taking big risks, Mzimela is known for facing challenges head on - this ability was put to the test when Fly Blue Crane recently announced it was facing funding constraints. 

Earlier this year Fly Blue Crane announced that it would temporarily interrupt its flight services, in order to "restructure its operations, reach critical agreements and fine-tune its schedules," according to a Business Day report. The expectation from its business rescue practitioner Etienne Naude, is that Blue Crane will overcome its current challenges.

"The real challenge that I’ve actually faced as a leader is that all the time it feels like you have to prove yourself"

SME South Africa speaks to Mzimela about the legacy she wants to leave behind and learning to smile in the face of challenges. 

Q: When did you know that you could launch your own airline? 
A: It was not about me knowing that I could do it, but I never knew that I couldn’t do it. 

It’s only now that people are negative, or they will come with negatives like: "but why would you do this," or "why would you think you need to do this," and so forth.

That’s the importance of people. People will talk about the importance of self-belief – yes it is about self-belief, but it is self-belief on the basis that people around me and the people that have always surrounded me have never ever told me any different. Instead it was the opposite. It was always why wouldn’t you do it?

Picture Facebook/Bluecrane Airlines

Siza Mzimela together with Fly Blue
Crane Airline flight attendants.

Q: How do you think your team sees you? What do you think they would say about the way you lead them? 
A: Whenever [someone] introduces themselves to other people they would say "I’m so and so, I work in this division".

Whenever I introduce myself I say, "I am Siza and I work for everyone". And that’s what [my staff] understands in terms of how I carry myself. My understanding is that I work for everyone else. That’s my job description. 

They would tell you that I am very open, I’m very direct. There is never any hidden agendas because for me that’s absolutely critical.

I always say, don’t ever worry about saying I don’t know what Siza thinks of me or, I heard Siza might have said this about me, because if you ever hear that it's not true. If I have anything to say, you will be the first to know. 

And you know what, that builds a level of trust, people can trust you. And it's not about them liking what you are saying or what you tell them, but at least they can trust that [they] know if there is an issue the first person they must talk to is me, not anybody else.  

They know that I can push. That it’s all about performance. I really believe that each one of us is capable of doing so much more. So yes, I will always be pushing them to do something different. I try as much as possible to expose them to different things.

Q: What kind of company culture do you think you are creating as a result? In the next 10 years what do you want Fly Blue Crane to be known for? 
A: I want to be known as a professional organisation of people who do things right, are always willing to go the extra mile, and people who basically feel like they own the organisation. It’s the kind of culture that when you walk in you can't tell the difference between who is the employee and who is the owner because everyone feels like they own the organisation and it's theirs. 

Q: You project a huge amount of confidence and certainty, but who do you go to for advice and support? 
A: There have been a lot of people, but it is mostly family and friends, but it depends on what the issue is at that point in time. If it's a very technical business issue it will probably be business people. 

If it's about me having a rough day in terms of having to make a difficult decision, I have access to other people who can actually help with that.

I utilise anybody that I have around me, including my children as sounding boards. People always say, "but Siza how can you say that?" but I always say my two favourite groups of people are young people and old people. The common denominator between those two is that they just tell it like it is. They don’t try to sugarcoat things - they will tell you "but you are wrong". So you need that sometimes.

Q: What leadership lessons did you take from your 20 years experience in the corporate world?
A: Quite a lot. Definitely I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for learning from other people and observing their leadership styles. There will also be certain people that stand out. For me Cheryl [Carolus]. She was actually board chair. I used to look at her and go wow. Why? Because you are in a position of authority, but you also take the time to get to know the people around you, to talk to the people around you. 

[I learnt] sharing, the openness, the honesty, mentoring and wanting to take people along with you, and that you must never be selfish with information. 


See also: Polo Leteka Radebe On the Importance of Leading With Vision

 

Q: What is the biggest challenge that you have faced as a leader? 
A: The real challenge that I’ve actually faced as a leader is that all the time it feels like you have to prove yourself. Over and over again. You want to get to a point where you can say enough already. WelI, I guess you just have to accept it. 

Q: What drives you? The pressure to succeed – where does it come from? 
A: We all push ourselves. Look it's a positive thing to me. It's positive as long as you don’t allow it to get to a point where it creates negativity.

[For me] it’s always been about pushing myself, doing something different. I want to make sure that I am [doing] the best that I can. Yes, I do think that sometimes it's self-imposed because it's like I really really have to do this or that.

We also have the additional pressure as women that it's not only about us, but it's also about others because the world is still a place where [if] Siza messes up they are not going to say Siza, they are going to say women. So there is that additional pressure to just constantly strive to do the best that you can. 

Q: The airline business is one with extremely high barriers to entry – what would you say to other entrepreneurs who may be thinking of going into what may be considered "difficult" industries? 
A: I would say that they have to at least try, even if they fail, at least they can always say I tried. It’s about just going for it because that’s the problem, we worry, we box ourselves. Only because someone else has actually done it before do we think we can do it.  

Just take that step, do your research properly, try to limit the risk, but nothing is ever completely risk-free. Take that step because, as you said, you can either fall or fly. 

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