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EXCLUSIVE: Jayne Hrdlicka reveals the biggest risk she ever took

The Virgin Australia CEO sits down with The CEO Magazine to discuss life, her soaring career and how she deals with controversy.

Jayne Hrdlicka

Jayne Hrdlicka certainly isn’t in Kansas anymore, but it was her childhood spent growing up in the rural American state that equipped the Virgin Australia CEO with the mindset to soar to extraordinary heights.

Harnessing a firm reputation as a commanding and dynamic executive, Hrdlicka is quite possibly the only person suited to weathering one of the biggest aviation challenges in recent history.

At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, Virgin Australia entered voluntary administration. By November, the airline became the first major Australian airline to exit voluntary administration with newly appointed Hrdlicka at the helm.

“In this environment you have to plan on the basis of scenarios that might play out because you have no ability to adequately predict,” Hrdlicka tells The CEO Magazine. “At the beginning, if we tried to predict where we’d be now a year ago, no-one would have gotten it right.”

Viewing the unique test of the pandemic as a way to become a more efficient leader, the executive attributes her ability to productively work in a high-pace industry to her success.

“It’s been a great way to learn how to do a number of things differently and how to plan and lead an organisation,” Hrdlicka reflects.

One of the opportunities to embrace unique experiences comes with newly announced Virgin Australia’s COVID-19 Vaccination Competition aptly dubbed VA-X & Win.

“I’m happy I was prepared to take some risks along the journey in taking jobs that stretched me and took me out of my comfort zone and really pushed me to challenge myself.” – Jayne Hrdlicka

Incentivising Australian residents to become vaccinated against coronavirus (once all adults are eligible for vaccination), a range of prizes are up for grabs including dozens of free business class flights and the chance for one lucky person to become a Velocity Frequent Flyer Points millionaire.

The announcement comes after Virgin Australia and 7-Eleven partnered for the first time to bring the perks of Velocity points into everyday life.

For every dollar spent at 7-Eleven, Velocity members receive two points they can then collect for future air travel use.

“Lockdowns and COVID case breakouts are having immediate short term impacts, but the domestic travel market has nearly recovered to pre-COVID levels and the general forward demand and booking trends we see on our website every day are actually running ahead of pre-COVID travel patterns,” Hrdlicka explains. “Australians are voting with their feet. They really want to get out and see the country.

“Fares are cheaper than they’ve ever been, and the industry is making it irresistible for people to travel.”

Jayne Hrdlicka: becoming a dynamic leader

Jayne Hrdlicka

With just four of the world’s top airlines led by women, it takes a particular type of leader to create positive momentum.

“My natural leadership style is collaborative and engaging,” she tells The CEO Magazine. “I like bringing a diverse mix of people together to try and work through challenges and opportunities.”

The uncertainty of COVID has played to the CEO’s shining qualities of working in a fast-paced environment and relishing in it.

“We’ve all had to learn how to move quickly and react to changing circumstances and try to react to the next opportunities or challenge,” she says. “That’s actually played pretty well to my natural settings.

“I tend to be a relatively impatient person and I like to move quickly and so needing to do that on a regular basis doesn’t stress me or worry me – it brings the best out in everybody because it means we’re always actively thinking about what we’re doing and trying to see around corners to anticipate what’s coming next.”

This adaptable mindset has shaped exactly how the CEO has approached her decades-long career.

Hungry for global opportunities, Hrdlicka’s first big break was at Bain & Company – a senior role leading her from the US to Australia in the early 90s. It was at Bain & Company where led its Customer Practice for the Asia region and became a partner with the firm’s Customer and Strategy Marketing Practice.

Her steadfast determination at Bain & Company caught the attention of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, propelling her passion for aviation. From 2010, Hrdlicka held a number of leadership and executive roles at Qantas Group before being appointed CEO of Qantas’s sister airline Jetstar. In 2017, the executive was named CEO of Qantas Loyalty and Digital Ventures, where she was instrumental in the design of the program.

Jayne Hrdlicka

Briefly swapping her passion for aviation in mid-2018, Hrdlicka sought a new venture as CEO of The a2 Milk Company in Auckland, New Zealand – a move that received scrutiny at the time. After 18 months, she stepped down from the role to be with her family.

With more than 20 years of leadership experience in the consumer, industrial and aviation sectors, Hrdlicka has taken a number of dynamic steps throughout her career.

“I’m happy I was prepared to take some risks along the journey in taking jobs that stretched me and took me out of my comfort zone and really pushed me to challenge myself,” Hrdlicka tells The CEO Magazine .

“When I step back and look at it, every new experience that came along for me was an opportunity for me to learn more, grow more and build out a platform of knowledge that has served me well later in my career.”

Of all her extraordinary opportunities, the CEO says her biggest risk was when she was working at Bain & Company in Boston.

“I left just on the cusp of being promoted to manager,” she says.

Moving 1100 kilometres south to North Carolina for a role at a private equity company, Hrdlicka was responsible in helping to architect a transformation.

“It meant moving into a much smaller business and it was an extraordinary experience where I ended up running the operations of the company within about six months,” she recalls. “I think I’d managed about three people before. In that experience I ended up with about 450 people working for me.

“On paper you would have looked at the experience and said why on earth would you go and do that, but I was going to work with the CEO who was terribly inspirational, that I knew I was going to learn a lot from and I knew he would challenge me and so that gave me an opportunity to learn and grow in a different way and it taught me how to make money.

“It taught me how hard it is to put strategy in action. It taught me how important it is to be really conscious of all the people every day because that’s what it takes to deliver great outcomes. You have to have a really active and engaged team who are prepared to tackle the opportunities and the challenges and that’s not the same as coming up with good ideas.”

Ignoring the noise

Jayne Hrdlicka

After experiencing a rocky few years, the seasoned executive stepped back to her familiar aviation grounds – and it hasn’t been without controversy.

Often peppered with criticism – most recently over her comments about reopening international borders – it takes a leader with thick skin to stay focused on the end goal.

“Throughout my career I’ve focused on moving from the next thing to the next thing, just making sure everything that I do, every opportunity I tackle, that I am trying to do a fantastic job and make everything a bit better than it was the day before,” Hrdlicka explains to The CEO Magazine. “You can’t worry about [criticism].

“When you’re in a position where there’s quite a lot of attention put on your business, or on what you do, you have to stay focused on the main game, which is making sure your company is a big success.”

Whether it was her passion for tennis (she is the Chair and President of Tennis Australia) to growing up surrounded by her family – her father, a lawyer from Czechoslovakia, and her mother from old Kansas ranching stock – Hrdlicka’s upbringing undoubtedly paved the way for fearless determination and unwavering success.

“I feel quite privileged because I grew up in an environment where education was really important and I was encouraged to be the very best that I could be in everything that I did, and that stuck with me,” Hrdlicka tells The CEO Magazine. “Working hard every day to get better and learn and challenge yourself – that started in my early days of growing up and that’s continued with me.

“It’s really important for me to create an environment where everyone can be the best of themselves every day, and we’re all trying to learn and grow and be better than we were the day before.”

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