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Disrupt rather than be disrupted: What Malaysia Airlines needs from its new CEO

Malaysia Airlines (MAS) has appointed its new leader, Captain Izham Ismail on 20 October, just a few days after news of its CEO Peter Bellew’s departure broke on Deepavali eve. Ismail, who is the current chief operation officer (COO) of the airline, is set to assume the role of group CEO on 1 December 2017 upon the exit of Bellew who is currently on administrative leave.

In a statement, MAS said, Ismail’s appointment is in line with the succession plan that MAS has put in place as part of the 12-point MAS Recovery Plan (MRP), which provides for the development and succession of Malaysian leadership talent. MAS’ spokesperson added, Ismail has been integral to the airline’s ongoing turnaround effort. “As COO, he was responsible for the operations division, which includes flight and airport operations as well as engineering. He led the restructuring of the engineering division for more efficient and leaner operations, and was also responsible for the airline’s fuel savings initiative,” it said.

To ensure a smooth transition, a board executive committee will be in place for up to six months, led by MAS chairman Tan Sri Md Nor Yusof.

“The MRP launched by Khazanah Nasional Berhad on 29 August 2014 provides for plans for a local successor, and the succession plan has now been accelerated. We are now in the third year of the five year MRP and it is timely for us to appoint a Malaysian to see it through to the finish line,” the chairman added.

Ismail has 38 years of experience in the aviation industry, having started his career with MAS as a pilot in 1979. He broke the world aviation records when he flew MAS’ first B777-200 eastward from Seattle to Kuala Lumpur and back. The flight set new world records for longest flight and fastest round-the-world flight by a commercial airliner, with a total flight time of 41 hours 59 minutes over a distance of 23,310 miles.

His appointment to a management position came 10 years upon joining MAS, after climbing through the ranks over the years, including as senior instructor pilot, fleet manager, and director of operations. Prior to becoming COO in 2016, he served as CEO of MASwings, MAS’ sister company in Sabah and Sarawak.

On his appointment, Ismail said that helming the national airline is a big responsibility, but expressed that he is ready for the challenge. “We are on track towards a full and complete transformation as outlined in the MRP, and I am looking forward to working with my MH colleagues to make this airline the pride of the nation again.”

Ismail will continue to be supported by a strong senior management team including chief commercial officer, Arved von zur Muehlen; chief financial officer, Omar Siddiq and chief information officer, Tan Kok Meng.

A previous interview done by A+M with several PR and branding players highlighted their concerns with MAS’ revolving door of CEOs, given that Bellew was the second foreign CEO hired after a global search by Khazanah, and the third CEO to leave the airline within three years.

Nick Foley, APAC president of Landor who had earlier said that the departure of yet another CEO does nothing to build the airline’s credibility, said that it is difficult to say if this move would ensure consumer trust is not shaken.

“MAS has moved swiftly to replace the CEO. It will take some time to determine what the greater impact on the brand will be,” he added.

Meanwhile, Graham Hitchmough, CEO of Asia Pacific at Brand Union Singapore said, he would concur with the prevailing industry view that this is a decisive and necessary step for the airline and the group as a whole. He added, that the recent experiments with foreign leadership have not bedded in, and an appointment from within seems a logical step from a cultural and consistency point of view.

Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director of PRecious Communications said from a branding perspective, it is a good move as it shows confidence – that the board had a plan in place to ensure continuity.” He also said,

The sooner the public discussion about the CEO departure and appointment is over, the better for the brand, as those conversations are distracting all stakeholders.

What is needed from the new MAS CEO

Former managing director of Edelman Malaysia Robert Kay, who left agency since mid-October this year said the new appointment of Ismail is actually good for the airline’s stability and the continuity of turning-around the company. “Now, he needs to build out his bench and there’s a wealth of Malaysian talent that might give the continued turnaround a very good crack,” Kay added.

He said a clearer and more aspirational vision is needed from the new CEO at MAS.

“It’s great that they’ve ensured continuity on the turnaround through this appointment, but maybe now is also the time to look  outside the traditional airline industry to build the senior bench to support him.

“Greater innovation may be needed to disrupt rather than always be the one disrupted,” he said.

To be a brand of the future, MAS could potentially look to external industries to build up its talent and compete on a world stage. The brand, its reputation and marketing, needs to be very different from how it was 10 years ago. He said:

That means looking outside to learn from others who know how to sell across new platforms and build reputation that’s social by design.

Kay said: “Greater innovation and disruption is needed to thrive not just survive. This may come from a range of people experienced in different industries especially marketing and branding.”

Foley agreed with Kay, adding that given Ismail has a successful history with the airline, it would be reasonable to expect that he is familiar with the airline. As such, he “should be capable in sustaining the recent uptick in MAS’ performance.”

Hitchmough added that some of the airlines’ most successful periods as an operator and as an employer brand, have been under Malaysian leadership. While there is a great deal to be done and many challenges to be faced, consolidating the next phase of regeneration under someone who knows the business intimately should provide some much needed stability, he added.



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