Tribute to James Strong – Alan Joyce

Sydney | Published on 11th March 2013 at 2:36

Tribute to James Strong – Alan Joyce

As we honour James’s life and stellar achievements today, we might be tempted to  assume his successes were easy and inevitable.

But that would not be true.

When James was appointed Qantas Managing Director in 1993, controversy erupted.

The newspapers said he was either too tough, or too smooth, or both.

A fight broke out in Federal Cabinet, and Prime Minister Paul Keating had to push  through the appointment.

One detractor even declared that James was a Ken Doll – too good-looking to be head of Qantas. Obviously that trend hasn’t continued since!

Everyone knew that James had done a brilliant job at Australian Airlines.

He had taken a loss-making, bloated enterprise, modernised its name, look and culture, and created a dynamic new force in air travel.

But Qantas was another matter. With the airline heading into its biggest transformation since it was founded in 1920, this was the hardest job in aviation, and one of the toughest in corporate Australia.

How James succeeded is a lesson in leadership.

He overhauled his management team, seeking out managers who met his three criteria: They had to be ‘hands on’. They had to have a sense of urgency.

And they had to have a sense of excitement about what Qantas could be.

He found a way to bring together the two warring tribes – Australian Airlines and Qantas.

His genius was to understand that the best way to do this was to get everyone focused on the future.

As he said, ‘jointly working on new and exciting things, because that’s how you stop people looking backwards’.

Most of all, he reached out to frontline staff. As a pragmatist and humanist, theories of management were always less important to James than people. He was out and about.

Passengers were surprised to see the MD sitting beside them at the back of a Qantas flight. He spent time in the galleys and on the jet base.

He always made time for a chat and made people feel special.

James also pushed his managers out to the front line, sometimes to talk, but mostly to listen.

He proved that once management set the broad strategy, many of the detailed solutions would come from the employees themselves, those who knew and dealt with customers every day.

James made Qantas ready for the future, uniting the tribes into one cohesive whole, building a stronger business, investing in our great brand, and leading Qantas through its successful rebirth as a public company.

Through a dramatic period of change, James never lost sight of our core Qantas values. ‘Qantas has to be, and will be, a class act,’ he once said.

Aviation is an industry with very long lead times, and decisions made in one era, for better or worse, can resonate down many years.

It was James who forged the ground-breaking Joint Services Agreement between Qantas and British Airways in 1997.

That arrangement was so good for Qantas, and our passengers, that it continued in its original form for more than 15 years, in fact right up until the end of this month.

But James was a moderniser, and always knew that changing times call for new approaches.

He was instrumental in Qantas Board support for the next great transformative event in the life of Qantas – our new partnership with Emirates – which launches at the end of this month.

And it was James who boldly ordered the world’s leading aircraft, the A380, in the year 2000.

I was privileged to take delivery of our first A380 for Qantas eight years later. We now have 12 A380s, and they represent the best in modern long-haul travel.

Over these sad days there has been an outpouring of emotion from the aviation community around the world.

The head of the international aviation body IATA, Tony Tyler, declared simply that “the aviation industry has lost one of its heroes, a true global leader.”

James was a hero on the ground as well. Those at Qantas who worked with James back at Australian Airlines, and many others, have written to express their respect, gratitude, pride and deep affection.

There was the new flight attendant who was delighted to chat about how much she loved her job with the lovely man wearing a bow tie.

After a while James said, “You have no idea who I am do you? “ But he told her not to apologise, it was he who should apologise, and that in future he’d make sure employees were taught who their managers were.

Another remembered being an impressionable 22 year old in Melbourne when he went to the canteen to hear his CEO.

That was 25 years ago. But he was so inspired by James’s passion for customer service that it changed his career, and as a leader he still draws upon James’s words.

Many of the affectionate reminiscences extended to embrace Jeanne-Claude as well.

And many of those staff have made long journeys to be here today, including Keith King, who worked with James for many years.

I have had the privilege of working with James since he became a Board Director of Qantas in 2006.

For me personally he was a mentor and a model of corporate leadership. Whenever James spoke, everyone listened.

He knew exactly what would or wouldn’t work. I valued his insights, his breadth of knowledge, his wise counsel.

Finally, James showed all of us a better way to be, a bigger way.

He was a true gentleman but also a fighter; an opera buff and a rev-head; mountainclimber and bookworm; businessman and dreamer.

Yes, he was both tough and smooth! And always a class act.

Today we are saying goodbye to James too early, and with great sadness.

To Jeanne-Claude, Sam and Nick can I once again express, on behalf of all of us at Qantas, our deepest condolences.

We can only offer thanks that such a tremendous citizen and gifted leader chose to participate so generously in our national life.

The many organisations that James worked with are better and stronger for his skills and leadership.

And James will be remembered forever as a giant of Australian aviation and of Qantas history.

Quite simply, James Strong leaves Australia a better place for all of us.