Welcome to our second interview in our series on Compassionate Leadership. During the course of this series, we’ll be talking to leaders from a whole range of industries, exploring what Compassionate Leadership means to them, how it can be practised, and how running an organisation led by values and purpose impacts profit, people and planet.

This month, we talk to Karen Bath, CEO of Resilient Pilot – Karen co-founded Resilient Pilot shortly after the first lockdown with Stuart Beech – also known as the ‘singing pilot‘. They have since provided free mentoring to over 300 pilots whose roles, careers and training have been affected, and trained more than 70 mentors to support them (of whom I am proud do say I am one!)

We reflected on the past 12 months over virtual coffee..

Tell us a bit about what Resilient Pilot does and how you serve your customers.

Resilient Pilot is a not for profit, volunteer run organisation launched in May 2020 in direct response to COVID 19 to provide much needed support for the international pilot community.  Our mission is to keep pilots and cabin crew supported, current and connected until such time as they can re-start their airborne careers. Our foundations are built around maintaining wellbeing, retaining competency and embracing diversity. We are about supporting our current skilled workforce; working to normalise discussion around wellbeing and mental health; and protecting our future pipeline of next generation aviators.

Aviation – specifically the airline industry – has been hard hit by the impact of the pandemic and globally around 18,000 pilot jobs are under threat or permanently lost in Europe alone (ref: Eurocockpit Jan 2021)

We established Resilient Pilot to provide mentoring support for pilots. Theirs is not merely a job, but a lifestyle and cutting the connection overnight has had a significant impact on the wellbeing of many pilots. We believe that providing some opportunity for engagement – through free mentoring, coaching and the online events we host – goes a long way to helping improve mental health by helping individuals remain connected, maintain competency and re-build confidence to ensure resilience.

We started small in April 2020 with a few contacts joining us to mentor newly qualified pilots who were graduating with over £120K debts and no immediate career prospects. As we were establishing, the first airlines announced mass redundancies and it was apparent that support would be needed for the wider, international pilot community: pilots were being furloughed, made redundant, forced into part time contracts and early retirement. We now have a 70-strong team of volunteer mentors and coaches from around the world and an international audience of both pilots and cabin crew (having launched ‘Resilient Crew’ to extend our support to Cabin Crew in April 2021)

Through feedback from our mentors, we found that expats were being forced to leave their homes with minimal notice and re-establish their families in a new country, with little knowledge of how things worked locally to maintain licence and medical currency. We sought to find practical solutions for them and managed to secure approval as UK Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) Low Value Provision (LVP) suppliers which means that eligible pilots can access up to £10,000 funding to help maintain licences and upskill in preparation for a return to work. 

Industry experts predict a recovery to 2019 levels – which was the most buoyant year ever for our industry – by around 2024. During which time pilots and cabin crew will need to retrain for interim roles, as well as maintain and refresh competencies in readiness for a return to the skies. 

We are developing a “pick ‘n’ mix” portfolio of courses, webinars and workshops to help crew retain competency and upskill and hope to secure funding to enable this. Our goal is to be in a position to champion pilots and cabin crew as airline ready, resilient personnel to airline employers when the recovery comes, and recruitment recommences.  

We now host 2-4 online predominantly free events and workshops each week on a variety of topics, have a following of over 4,500 on LinkedIn and mentor pilots and cabin crew from around the globe. We are non-revenue generating seeking funding to help us sustain and reinvest in what we offer. 

What are your company values and how did you choose them?

INTEGRITY | EMPOWERMENT | COMMUNITY | RESPECTFUL | HUMAN | COLLABORATIVE

Whilst we instinctively knew what our values were, we actually spent some time ensuring the team supported them. We ran surveys and brainstorms with our volunteer mentors and our ‘core team’ were involved in finalising the decision.

Integrity: We effectively work for and with our colleagues across the aviation industry: being open, honest, transparent and credible is of huge importance to us.

Empowerment: Our mentoring is mentee led and we want to ensure those we support feel empowered to achieve their goals and objectives. Furthermore, our volunteer team are encouraged to put forward suggestions and run with them to bring them to fruition. 

Community: The aviation family has truly pulled together during the pandemic. The barriers of different uniforms, legacy vs low-cost operations etc have been removed and the silver lining has been the genuine care and sense of community that has emerged both across the industry and within our own team and members.

Respectful: Our industry has been hit hard; we have many highly skilled personnel who have been displaced from not just their careers, but their life set ups. Respecting their achievements and struggles is of paramount importance. Many who wish to continue flying will find they have to take step back down the career ladder when they join a new airline – promotion is often on seniority – but we as a community value and respect their achievements and resilience.

Human: we are not a company run by a corporate. Whilst we are professional in our approach, of more importance to us is a human touch and showing personality. We use language that you would normally use on a 1:1 colleague to colleague level and always remember that each of us is individual and affected differently by the current situation: We are not all in the same boat, but we are in the same storm.

Collaborative: we cannot be everything to everyone, but through collaborations we can offer a wider reaching network and support solution. We partner with like-minded organisations that support our values in order to expand our offering to meet our members’ variable needs.

What do your customers gain from your values?

Everything we offer is value-led. The essence of Resilient Pilot is providing support and connection. Our values are integral to that. If we don’t embrace our values, we don’t have an offering.

Like you, here at Team Up to perform, we’re really passionate about values led behaviour, along with a deep connection to a clearly defined mission or purpose. What would you define as Resilient Pilot’s mission or purpose?

We have a clear primary mission: Keeping Pilots and Cabin Crew: Supported. Current. Connected. Our goal is to champion our members as resilient, airline ready crew when recruitment opportunities return and help them navigate their return to the skies where they belong. They’ve invested a huge amount financially and emotionally in their career choice. 

We are also driven to work towards normalising discussion in our industry around mental health and wellbeing. Traditionally crew have been reticent about speaking up if they have concerns for fear of that having negative impact on their career progression. This year regulation has been introduced requiring all airlines to have robust Peer Support Programmes in place for their pilots (notably not mandated for their cabin crew), but it will be a long while before crew will feel entirely confident about speaking up within their own organisation. We hope that being independent we provide a confidential, discreet and safe environment for crew to open up, speak without fear of retribution and normalise such conversations.

We will also work hard to protect our future pipeline of aviators. Our industry’s employment reputation has been damaged by the pandemic; aspiring pilots and cabin crew have witnessed mass redundancies and if we don’t re-engage with our next generation of aviators, we will have a very different problem on our hands when the recovery comes. We were heading into a serious pilot shortage in 2019 and our industry faced very different problems (which literally disappeared overnight), but if we don’t inspire future aviators now, that skills shortage will have a far more significant impact than we feared in 2019.

While many organisations appreciate the importance of values and purpose, we know that for some, profit will always be the first factor in decision making and direction. What are your thoughts on the role of profit for an organisation that leads with values and purpose?

We are a not-for-profit organisation. To date we’ve generated very little income and what we have made has barely covered running costs, excluding any salaries as nobody is on salary! (Although we have been approved to employ young people on the UK Government’s kickstart scheme and we currently have 4 staff funded by the Government. We also contract in specialists to support in certain areas such as simulator instructing/examining and mentor training and support.)

We are 100% values- and purpose-led. We’ve discussed finding ways to generate revenue and pay our mentors for their time and our mentors have pushed back saying they don’t want paying; that is not why they are here. However, they recognise the need to generate an income to pay those who invest full time hours to run Resilient Pilot, cover other overheads and provide an opportunity to reinvest. We have agreed a three-way split of any income –

One third – to cover costs

One third – to reinvest

One third – to build a bursary fund 

You’re clearly driven by a sense of purpose and have embedded your values deeply into your organisation. How do your volunteers benefit?

With what little income we generate we try to reinvest in our mentors and at least part fund (50%) MHFA and EMCC accreditation programmes for those wishing to undertake them. For the pilots among us, we provide licence currency checks at cost.

But – corny as it sounds and more importantly – we’ve developed a very supportive ‘family’ feel within Resilient Pilot. Our volunteers have been hit in various ways themselves by the pandemic; even those still flying feel vulnerable and struggle with survivor’s guilt. We work extremely hard to support each other and have appointed a Mentor Support Manager to provide peer support within our team.

We also have fortnightly team zooms, daily ‘drop in for a coffee and a chat’ zooms and occasional online socials. 

We’ve talked quite a bit about values and purpose. What role do you think compassion or kindness has in today’s workplace?

We always remember that our team are all volunteers and have developed a collaborative ‘contract’ that we all agree to work to which respects their volunteer status. That contract alongside our values forms the bedrock of our operation.

Our ethos is based upon compassion and kindness. That is why we established Resilient Pilot and Resilient Crew: We recognised those pilots and cabin crew who have been impacted by the pandemic would be (and continue to) dealing with a range of emotions and challenges; and not all career related. We are all about showing compassion and we come from a position of empathy; many of our mentors and coaches have been similarly affected. 

Personally, I place huge value on both compassion and kindness, when dealing with both staff and customers. I truly believe in the golden rule ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. If you look after your staff, they’ll look after your customers and the cycle continues.

While we should all make a conscious effort not to allow our stresses and strains to affect the way we communicate with others, we can all make mistakes on occasions – in most cases unintentionally. When that happens, it is about how you resolve the issue and what measures you put in place to prevent causing upset again. 

Do you think there are any misconceptions about what it means to be a compassionate leader?

Kindness and compassion aren’t always about simply being amenable. Thoughtful actions will go a long way to establishing a compassionate working environment and of course the leader’s approach will set the standard for the team. 

Being kind and compassionate often involves taking a firm hand. Again, it is how that is done that counts. If you’ve built a level of respect with your team and a safe culture whereby all feel able to ask questions and speak up, then the communication of a tougher message, whilst still difficult, will be more comfortable.

We should never sit on our laurels and believe we’ve got it nailed! The beauty of humans is our individuality – nuance plays a huge role. Just because we try to be kind and compassionate, doesn’t mean we succeed and certainly doesn’t mean it hits the mark for every individual. Being open to feedback and actively and constantly evolving our approach are vital to achieving a kind and compassionate working environment.

Have you come across any particular challenges in your journey to leading an organisation that prioritises compassion and values-led behaviour?

The main one is that I find it hard to take the plunge when it comes to taking money from others! I’d love for us to be able to do everything for free and not have to charge! But that is simply not sustainable.

But we are committed to securing sponsorship and funding in order to be able to continue to provide the required support over the long term, rather than asking for unrealistic fees from those who’ve been hardest hit. We’ve heard people saying that businesses are commercialising their misfortune. We refuse to do that. If we can’t fund it or offer it at a fair price, we won’t do it.

It sounds like there is so much to be proud about in the way you’ve built and continue to run Resilient Pilot. Is there one single thing you’re particularly proud of?

Thank you. We are very proud of what has been achieved by our fab team of volunteers and it is they who I am most proud of. There is a core team of around 20 who have put their heart and soul into Resilient Pilot and, behind the scenes, they are developing some incredible projects that we are hoping will go live very soon. They’ve proven to me the true significance of strong values, compassion and kindness. We’ve discussed various ways to raise funds to sustain Resilient Pilot and we’ve muted the idea of finding ways to pay them for their time. But they have pushed back. They are happy for us to seek to secure funding, but want any money raised to be reinvested to help the pilot and cabin crew communities and reduce any cost for them: they don’t want to “commercialise others’ misfortune”. We’ve ended up creating a small and very close community within Resilient Pilot that is constantly growing, and that has been extremely rewarding. 

I’m also very proud of the fact that significant bodies such as the UK Civil Aviation Authority and National Air Traffic Services are supporting what we do so publicly. Through the network we’ve built, we’ve provided them with an outlet to communicate on a more personal level directly with pilots and cabin crew and that can only serve positively for improved air safety going forwards. 

Finally, what advice would you give to leaders who want to bring more compassion, purpose and collaboration into their organisation?

You need to genuinely feel it yourself. If you aren’t inclined towards compassion, purpose and collaboration yourself, it won’t happen. I’ve worked for companies who’ve embraced all three and organisations who’ve got all three so wrong. In each case the steer came from the leaders and their own personal style. They were either compassionate, honourable individuals who empowered their teams which, in turn, led to a great customer experience and, therefore, reward for the company; or not. You can’t fake it. So many great leaders follow the principal – ‘look after your staff and they’ll look after your customers’.

Karen summed things up perfectly as our interview came to a close – My favourite quote is from Sir Richard Branson:

“Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don’t want to.”

More about the incredible work that Resilient Pilot do here.

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