Advice from a Chief Strategy Officer: Turn Chaos into Clarity
Business leaders in 2024 face a complex course filled with economic, geopolitical, and technological uncertainty. As organizations look to chart direction through clouded horizons, they need the right skills to guide strategy to clarity under immense pressure.
Outthinker Strategy Network member, Michael Swiatek, Chief Strategy Officer of Abra Group airlines, is no stranger to chaos. An accomplished leader in the airline industry, he has built a career of turning crisis into opportunity by navigating multiple high stakes transformations.
A surprising fact: Swiatek is blind, but his visual impairment has become an advantage to realizing new perspectives others don’t see. In an interview with Outthinker Networks president, Claudio Garcia, he shared invaluable lessons for leaders on how to quickly pivot strategically from crisis to clarity, harness the power of effective communication, and leverage diverse ideas for innovation.
Unveiling Strategic Opportunities During Crisis
Swiatek’s journey began in when he joined United Airlines in 1992, just after the First Gulf War. The airline industry was reeling from substantial losses. As a junior analyst, he started to learn about leveraging key pillars of strategy–cost, network, and product–to stabilize an airline in crisis.
After United, Swiatek transitioned to Continental Airlines. The company was struggling with low on-time performance and customer satisfaction. The experience laid the foundation for his ability to remain calm and spot opportunities amid chaos.
Swiatek’s career of transformations would continue, from reorganizing Alitalia (now ITA Airways) to assisting in a merger between Air New Zealand and Ansett (that ultimately faded), and experiencing the positive side of chaos driven by incredibly fast growth at Qatar Airways and IndiGo. In 2019, he joined Avianca and led the organization through Covid-19 paralysis, a Chapter 11 bankruptcy, a business model turnaround, and the formation of the holding company Abra Group for Avianca and Brazilian GOL Linhas Aéreas.
Swiatek thrives in environments that require fast decision-making and rapid course corrections. “I’ve completed about ten airline transitions. Five or six were wins, two or three losses, and two or three ties.” Despite setbacks, he realized confident leadership and effective communication are necessary to drive alignment and achieve strategic certainty.
“I really enjoyed being in very fast-moving, chaotic environments where many things were not clear, but I was learning how to use strategy tools to go from poor performance to good performance."
The Role of Communication in Crisis Management
During times of extreme turmoil, leaders don’t have the luxury of spending a lot of time on strategy. They need to align quickly and crystallize strategy into simple, memorable pillars that provide clarity and direction to the company. At Continental, the strategic plan boiled down to four tenets Swiatek still remembers 25 years later. By focusing on a few key pillars, he witnessed firsthand how organizations could transform and regain stability.
Communication should take precedence over analysis. It’s better to have a bad decision that unites people than a correct decision that divides them. “I will take a bad decision that people are aligned on over a decision that may be a hundred percent correct, but only 1 out of 5 people believes that’s the right thing to do,” he explained.
For analysts who spend their days interpreting data, he advises spending as much time telling people about what you’re analyzing. Learning how to communicate with others will generate faster cycles of turning ideas into action.
"I will take a bad decision that people are aligned on over a decision that may be a hundred percent correct, but only 1 out of 5 people believes that's the right thing to do."
Leading through Emotional Turmoil
The role of a leader has three major components, Swiatek says: motivation, empowerment, and coaching. It’s an emotional paradox, but leaders must remain calm in times of crisis and impatient in times of stability.
Swiatek’s life journey as a person with a visual impairment afforded him a unique perspective on overcoming adversity and allowed him to maintain composure even when professional stakes were high. “Fighting the battle with blindness is much more difficult than fighting the battle of getting an airline to become financially successful,” he shared.
Diversity and Listening as Catalysts for Innovation
Swiatek’s visual impairment gives him a unique lens through which he understands the value of listening and gathering diverse ideas. He emphasized the need for leaders to avoid the “smartest person in the room” trap and instead embrace a culture of open dialogue.
Some of the best concepts evolve from what seems like a crazy idea. At Air New Zealand, a junior employee asked, “Why can’t an economy passenger lie flat on a long flight?” It led to a new pricing model where customers could pay more to lie across an entire row.
In meetings, Swiatek listens intently, relying on auditory cues rather than visual information. Companies miss out on invaluable insights when leaders are not truly present and engaged.
“Fighting the battle with blindness is much more difficult than fighting the battle of getting an airline to become financially successful."
While chaos brings risk, it also presents opportunities for leaders who can remain calm during crisis. Companies able to rapidly realign around priorities during uncertainty can reinvent themselves and gain new advantages on the other side.
Swiatek’s journey through turbulent environments and his ability to transform challenges into strategic opportunities highlight the importance of effective communication, emotional resilience, and the power of listening to diverse ideas. His lessons serve as a guide for business leaders seeking to navigate uncertainty and lead with confidence when crisis strikes.
The Outthinker Strategy Network is a global peer group of heads of strategy at $1B+ companies who are determined to move their organizations to the next level. Members engage in curated learning, practical conversations, and networking opportunities to be more successful in performing their roles, solving their top challenges, and keeping their organizations ahead of the pace of disruption.