Flying high: How Jetstar's David Hall snared the top job

If there’s one piece of advice he’d like to give CIOs, David Hall, Jetstar’s CEO for Australia and New Zealand, says it’d be to never typecast yourself around one industry or career path.

“No technologist should lock themselves into a purely CIO role and believe that’s the glass ceiling,” he says. “There is a world of possibility out there and you should have the confidence to give it a crack.”

Hall himself is a great example of how to rise to the top job through hard work, strategic intent and a willingness to embrace new challenges.

Hall began his career as a chartered accountant. He spent seven years with Deloitte in Melbourne and London, then worked for several mining companies including Rio Tinto in finance roles. Returning to Australia, he spent five years gaining treasury experience with NAB and ANZ investment banking.

“Mining attracted me again and I went back into a GM of finance role with Western Mining [Resources], as well as external investor relations,” he says.

Western Mining was the subject of two takeovers during Hall’s tenure – the first by Xstrata, then as WMC Resources by BHP, in one of the largest takeovers in corporate history at the time. Hall stayed on to transition business operations, such as legal and finance, across to BHP, picking up strategic skillsets along the way.

Nine years ago and less than a year after Jetstar’s formation, Hall met the low-cost airline’s first CEO, Alan Joyce.

“Alan was looking for a CFO that the new organisation would grow into and I came on-board,” he recalls. “It’s quite unusual - generally people grow into the role - but Alan had huge aspirations for Jetstar. Nine years on, we are one of the largest low-cost carriers within Asia-Pacific and very proudly part of the Qantas Group.”

When Joyce was promoted to CEO of Qantas Group in late 2008, Hall was offered a chief-of-staff role at the parent company, encompassing technology as well as managing the office of the CEO. Strategy and transformation programs were quickly added to his duties list.

“The real attraction was to put a non-technical person and business leader into a big technology function,” Hall says. “It was the first time that had been done at Qantas and it brought a different perspective to things.”

For two years, Hall worked with the Qantas Group IT team, enabling the business through technology.

“Running one of the largest technology functions in Australia has absolutely been a highlight of my career,” he says.

Notes from a CIO

With his strong finance and strategy background, Hall says his technology leadership approach at Qantas was framed by the function’s business contribution.

“I never claimed to be a great technologist – I have always seen myself as a savvy and commercially-oriented business leader,” he claims. “I have also always been agnostic to the hardware or software solution; it has to be about what is good for the business.”

Hall’s brief was to work closely with the Qantas Group executive team and lead the IT from a back-office to front-office activity that could drive huge transformational projects.

He highlights significant improvements to the customer experience through smarter and faster check-in technology and self-serve bag drop as one of several milestones achieved during this time. Hall also oversaw a major project to transform the group’s engineering function through new platforms.

“What I was able to bring was financially savvy, strategic intent, but also the message that business-led technology was a true enabler,” Hall continues. “I needed to help people focus more on customer service aspects rather than just the technology aspects, and assist in transforming the Qantas organisation.”

Much like any executive-level role, Hall claims a good CIO must successfully balance cost and performance, efficiency and value-add capability. This is a key driver for current Jetstar CIO, Grainne Kearns.

“The challenge for any CIO in corporate Australia is going to be to manage costs effectively – that’s a given – but to also ensure the ongoing and sustainable quality of support and services to the business,” Hall says. “One can easily strip costs out, but we need to ensure we’re doing so by leveraging the greatest technology and importantly, maintaining or improving service levels and adding value to the business.”

Stepping up to CEO

In August 2010, Hall was promoted to CEO of the Jetstar business across Australia and New Zealand. From the outset, it was important to set the right strategic priorities for the business, he says.

According to Hall, all CEOs need to have strategic and visionary thinking at their fingertips but also be able to switch over to detail when required. He describes his approach as ‘eyes in and fingers out’.

“CEO roles have a huge breadth and depth to them,” Hall says. “What I’ve learnt in this role is that success is about being strategic and having a willingness to leave the tactical details to others. You need to provide parameters for the team so they can excel, then give them the autonomy and empower them to do the day-to-day.

“Importantly though, I need to know when to be in a strategic and visionary mindset, when to be in a detail mindset, and to tell the difference between the two.”

A big question for any operational executive weighing up their future career path is how to know if you have the ability to become a CEO. Looking back, Hall claims he always had that c-level aspiration, at least as a CFO.

“It was during my time at Qantas, and Alan’s coaching and wonderful leadership style, that a world of possibilities opened up for me, and a passion for this Jetstar business,” he says.

“Alan’s willingness to create a whole new airline with people with different perspectives, and a fantastic customer offering and strategic asset for the Qantas group, gave me the opportunity to broaden my commercial and strategic acumen.”

Stepping outside of finance with a transformational role was also vital in the journey to CEO. “There was a realisation along the way that I needed to do this, and I was passionate about doing it,” Hall says. “Having someone capable and equally passionate about it sets anyone up for success.”

Hall’s lesson from this experience is that no one should typecast themselves. “Good skills are portable across industries – I have worked across banking, mining, chartered accounting, aviation - and with a desire and willingness to learn, there’s a world of possibilities,” he says.

Next up: Can CIOs be good CEOs?

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Can CIOs be good CEOs?

CIOs can absolutely be successful CEOs, Hall believes, noting the likes of David Thodey, CEO of Telstra, and Rob Fyfe, CEO of Air New Zealand, as stellar examples of CIOs who excel at the top job.

“The CIO role provides a fantastic platform to really understand the business and to gain great perspective and insight into that business,” he says. “CIOs now are predominantly direct reports to the CEO and are sitting at very senior levels of their organisations. They have the ability to talk to the person sitting on their left or right and help their CEO transform the business.”

Hall suggests the reason we’re not seeing more CIOs rise to CEOs is down to behavioural traits, rather than intellect or business ability. He also claims the limits technology may place on CIOs are also often self-imposed.

“CEOs have an ability to manage more by intuition and instinct,” he continues. “CIOs are great at connecting businesses through technology. But as a CEO, it’s about building that emotional connection with customers, team mates, the teams they lead and their colleagues.

“You rely on wisdom to make decisions in a more timely, decisive and strategic way.”

Hall also notes CEOs require more of an earnings, rather than cost-focused approach.

“I’ve no doubt there are great opportunities for CIOs to progress further in their organisations and they should aspire to the CEO role,” he adds. “Amplifying the behavioural skills around leadership, self-assurance and intuition will get them there.”

Innovating Jetstar

Technology continues to play an important role at Jetstar, Hall says. He describes the relationship between technology and line-of-business functions as a “push and pull” relationship.

“CIOs are in a very fortunate position to be able to see the art of the possible and seek out technologies that solve corporate problems, whether it’s resource management or customer experience,” he says.

An example of this was rolling out Apple iPads to employees. With 70 per cent of its 7000 total staff mobile, how to put technology directly into their hands was a big challenge. Today, all Jetstar pilots have iPads featuring flight manuals and flight plans, and the devices are also being rolled out in other parts of the business.

“That has transformed the flight deck for pilots – they have readily accessible, up-to-date information at hand,” Hall says. It’s also transformed the cost base and helped with compliance.

“This was a great example of technology driving enablement – here’s a problem we have, here’s how technology can fix it, and here’s how we can use it further across the business,” he says.

Having celebrated its 10th birthday and with his sights firmly on the next decade, Hall says he continues to face razor-thin margins, constantly changing market conditions and extreme competition. His priorities include strengthening the underlining fundamentals of the business while keeping costs down and driving better customer engagement, and Jetstar’s Asian expansion.

Through all this, Hall says his success will come down to resilience, confidence, the ability to quickly adapt to circumstances, and to provide inspiring leadership.

“I need to be able to withstand the constant shocks and keep the team focused on what’s important,” he adds.

Can you be a CEO? Hall’s top tips

  • Strategic intent
  • A good eye for talent and getting the right people into your organisation
  • Focus on the things you can control
  • Resilience, confidence and the willingness to adapt to quick-changing circumstances
  • Optimism peppered with a good dose of reality
  • Being well-rounded and humble
  • Inspirational and visionary leadership
  • Being an industry leader; knowing also when to be the pioneer, and when to follow.
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