The Head of International Relations of British Airways, Helena Flynn, in this interview with Charles Ajunwa in London, speaks passionately about her job and her experience during an official visit to Nigeria
How long have you been working for the British Airways?
I have been working for the British Airways for about 15 years and I came straight to the airline from the University. I have always admired British Airways because it’s a company I wanted to be part of because it’s a brand that is very exciting. Infact, when I was in the University, I did my thesis on British Airways. When I left the university, I came straight to British Airways and I did a graduate programme where I worked round the business. I have done everything within the programme from working as a member of its cabin crew, sponsorship, marketing and handling a lot of events. Now for the past five and half years, I have been taking care of PR (Public Relations).
My role involves managing 63 markets and it keeps me incredibly busy taking me across Europe, Africa, Asia Pacific and the Middle East. It’s incredibly an exciting job. Today, I could be speaking with a Nigerian journalist in the morning, in the afternoon it could be a Russian and in the evening it could be an American. It certainly really differs which makes it exciting because the job involves travelling. As a brand, I am incredibly lucky because every day they are doing something new. There are lots of exciting things happening which keeps me and my team very busy.
Don’t you think the job keeps you so busy?
You know what? Every day we choose what we want to do. I can’t imagine not doing it and everybody chooses their time when they want to slow it down a little bit. Fortunately or unfortunately, I love what I do. There is something really special about that and I think I am truly blessed that I got to go to different countries to meet people. I grew up in the middle of nowhere in Ireland, and my local village has a population of about 500. So for me to be fortunate enough to do a role like this that makes me come across all the different cultures is just awesome. I told you, I met a king in Nigeria. I’m so proud of things like that and this year alone I have met William and Kate, and I met Orlando Bloom in an event in Australia.
Don’t your friends complain about your job?
They do so at times but my friends are so used to it now and they love the excitement of what I do. I don’t work 24 hours so on the weekends my friends and I have the opportunity of socialising. I live in London which is quite exciting and my family also lives in London. They live close by and I get to see a lot of them.
What are the challenges around your job?
I think when I started the job the huge challenge was getting to all the markets because it’s such area you get to know other cultures. It is incredibly interesting just to get to know all the different contacts within the markets and to understand the unique challenges within given markets. That was the challenge and it was an exciting challenge. With many markets it keeps you busy. I am very fortunate and I always say to people “I got the best job in BA.” I definitely got the best job in BA because in the work that we do you touch everything whether it’s product launch, whether it’s issues in market, whether it’s government policy you get involve in everything. You get to know little about everything and have a nice broad spectrum of the business and how it operates. That is the best I enjoy.
Can you describe your experience in Nigeria?
I went to Nigeria in November 2012 and it was so exciting. It was my first time to go to Nigeria. At the time, I didn’t know I was going to meet a king in Nigeria ( Oba of Lagos). I thought it was going to be my boss, Keith Williams. When we went to the palace, they said “please come in.” I never thought I would be allowed in but we went in and it was the most amazing thing in my life. I didn’t realise that I was going into the room where the king was.
We went in and there were all these gentlemen dressed in white attire. I looked to the top of the room and it was like is it the king? I said “oh my God!”, I didn’t know what to say at that point because I was confused. He was so lovely. My colleague, Camilla and I went up to shake hand with the king. He asked us about our jobs and thanked us for what British Airways does in Nigeria. It was such a great honour. He was interesting and above all, he is a very clever man because he spoke about my CEO, British Airways and British citizens doing business in Nigeria. We had a great time; we celebrated 70 years of British Airways in Nigeria and we also launched ‘The Leaders of Tomorrow.’
This project is about young children in Nigeria who want to get into business and needed some help and support. The idea is they can apply for this to be part of Leaders of Tomorrow programme and the group of children that will be successful will fly to the UK. While in London, they will spend a day in the office with the CEO, working with Keith Williams. So the idea is they get to work round the business for a couple of days and they will have the opportunity of meeting other top executives of the airline.
After your visit to Nigeria, what is your perception of Nigerians now?
I didn’t think about anything before I went there, I only met Nigerian friends and we had great fun together. When I came back, I just felt real impact. I love Nigerian girls they are very glamorous. The girls dress beautifully and I was really impressed. Nigeria is just a place I love and I can’t imagine it coming back very soon. Nigerians travel a lot and they are very industrious people. That is one thing I respect them for. They work hard and they prove to be very serious in what they do. I like their family unit, Irish people like this a lot.
Have you ever experienced intimidation from the men in your work place?
Certainly no. In British Airways they are very strict and I haven’t heard of that happening. In fact, look at me from a small place I came from to the UK and gradually rose in my job. In British Airways, our Country Commercial Manager in Nigeria, Mr. Kola Olayinka, will tell you this, “if you are prepared to work hard and it doesn’t matter where you come from you can do anything.”
What’s your strategy like, in terms of getting the best from your subordinates?
Well, it depends on an individual. When I sit down with any person, I ask him or her how do you like to be managed because everything is different. Some people need that protective, constant guidance and supervision. My attitude to work is that I work with everybody and I will never ask them to do something I am not paid to do. So everything I ask them to do I have done it, I have done the late nights…At the end of the day, we are very lucky we work for a very successful brand and you will never get bored being busy.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
To really be honest to you, I always look towards my peers and some of my managers like Gavin (Halliday), he incredibly an inspirational manager. I take care of the big areas and he takes care of the huge area. No matter how busy in the day, in the night, I will get a text message from him saying “Thank you so much for today”. Though it’s a little gesture but it goes a long way in firing me up to do even more. That means so much to me and sometimes I send text messages to my team just to show them that I appreciate what they do.
What is your message for your Nigerian customers?
It’s really very exciting times in BA. We have just acquired the first A380 aircraft, who knows what is next for our Nigerian customers. In terms of investments, Nigeria is a key market for British Airways. Nigeria is very important to British Airways and as such our priority is to try to meet customer’s satisfaction both on the land and in the air. Our Nigerian customers will definitely like our new products and new sales.