Gabriella Somerville started out as cabin crew and later launched her own venture – private jet charter company ConnectJets – during the downturn. With over 25 years’ aviation experience, Gabriella Somerville outlines what true leadership is and why the sky feels like home
I was imbued in the world of aviation from an early age. My father was an architect who loved carpentry and my uncle was a squadron leader in the Red Arrows. My father assumed I was going to be a boy and in preparation he’d made me a little wooden aircraft, so from the age of two or three I was playing with planes and going to air shows.
My first job at British Island Airways felt like home. I didn’t get the job straight away. I went for 10 interviews and failed, and on the eleventh I got in. That was my first job in aviation and from there I never looked back. I had six months there and then I heard Virgin Atlantic was recruiting.
I was convinced I wouldn’t get the Virgin job. The gentleman at the interview said to me: “You’re not the lady who lives with the other stewardesses who had that wild party a few weeks ago?” I came out and called the other girls to tell them I hadn’t got the job. Then he called me back in and said: “Next time you have a party, don’t forget to invite us.” I got the job.
I was lucky to be part of the embryonic stage of Virgin. It was all so new and exciting. We had these dashing red uniforms and when we went through the terminals everyone stared. In those seven years I don’t ever remember having a bad trip, I just remember it always being fun.
Downturns create opportunity. People ask why I started a company in 2009, which had to be one of the worst times in aviation history. But there were opportunities – marketing budgets retracting, distressed customers selling aircraft – and I would go in and offer a solution. We were there to solve problems that had come about because of the downturn.
A great idea is not enough. You have to commercialise it. Always ask what the customer wants and whether you have the ultimate solution for them. If you haven’t, I’d question whether you’re going to survive after two years.
True leadership means you listen, empower and encourage. As an entrepreneur, a danger is you keep walking ahead and forget that people are walking behind you. One thing [Sir] Richard Branson is very good at is that as he walks ahead, he keeps looking behind to make sure people are following.
Running a business, you learn to be calm in a crisis. Draw yourself back, look at it collectively and take a couple of deep breaths. Create a roadmap or a strategy and involve the whole team in what you’re doing. You need their support and their belief that what you’re doing is right.
Leadership is difficult. We are under pressure, especially in small businesses where there isn’t a corporate support network. Sometimes we don’t manage things perfectly but the key thing is that you admit you did have a bit of a flip yesterday and you’ve been stressed and you’re sorry.
If you’re not resilient, you’ll be continually disappointed. You should learn to cut the emotion out of decision making. When I left school I was quite shy, quite determined and sensitive. But you have to become a certain type of person, otherwise you will just get walked over. You will inevitably have to make decisions that are going to be painful – either for yourself or for others.
Be wary of distraction. I ask my mentees to write a roadmap every year because otherwise it’s so easy to be taken off-course. Picture it as being something like an aircraft – thankfully it’s got autopilot and brings you back on track – but you can get distracted by lots of fluffy things and people with empty promises. You can spend a lot of time on things that never come to fruition.
Allow yourself to be naked. Be a little bit vulnerable. Sometimes we have to be too tough in this world and not expose our weaker side, but if you can sit with somebody and have a coffee and say, ‘Actually, I’m not doing very well at the moment,’ it helps to offload. To my detriment I’ve probably been a bit too independent.
Success means you can help change another person’s life. As entrepreneurs we have to make sure we don’t focus on ourselves. You look at all the big entrepreneurs now – Branson, Bill Gates – they create change in our world. The two go hand in hand – it’s not good to keep taking in and not giving out. It needs to be a continuous cycle.
Gabriella Somerville CV
Born Petts Wood, Kent
1988 British Island Airways, cabin crew
1989 Virgin Atlantic, cabin crew; later, part of promo team for inaugural flights and looking after VIPs
1996 BA, fleet and customer services manager
2005 Launches Cool Eventz, creating boutique events for jet agencies
2007 Bombardier Skyjet International, client relationship manager; then VistaJet as VP programme sales
2009 Founds ConnectJets
2014 Signs contract with Italian manufacturer Piaggio Aerospace as UK and Ireland sales agent for Avanti and Avanti Evo business turboprop planes
2014 Selected as mentor for Sir Richard Branson’s entrepreneurial programme Virgin Unite
2015 Wins honorary global exemplary award for entrepreneurship by the EU Women Inventors & Innovators Network
2016 Nominated as a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts
Watch Gabriella Somerville talk about business, Brexit and the male-dominated aviation industry
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