Girma Wake: Using Conflict as a Tool for Growth, and Choosing Trust over Fear

Girma Wake is an airline industry executive from Ethiopia and was CEO of Ethiopian Airlines from 2004 to 2011 where he is largely credited with building the airline to where it is today. His career includes more than 45 years in the airline industry, 35 of which were spent climbing the corporate ladder at Ethiopian Airlines, where he served as CEO of the airline for the last seven years of his career. At the peak of his leadership, Ethiopian Airlines registered the most significant growth since its founding in 1946 and he famously led the airline during its most successful years when it first topped the continent as the most profitable airliner. Girma first joined the airline in 1965 as a 22 year old second year university student at the Addis Ababa university. After retiring from Ethiopian Airlines, Girma served as the Chairman of the Rwandair board from 2012 to 2017. 

As part of a CEO Night with The Africa List community in Ethiopia, Girma answered questions from the members about the leadership practices he has cultivated as a CEO and Chair. This was part of a series of ‘CEO Nights’ where a range of senior CEOs and Chairs from across Africa spend time with the community of 'next-in-line CEOs' that make up The Africa List community. They unpack what the jump from C-suite to CEO really looks like and how best to prepare for it. We only run 'CEO Nights' once a year so to make the interactions with the CEOs in attendance as structured and useful as possible, a small group of CEOs hosted breakout sessions, answering questions posed by the members on their 'CEO Life Hacks' that covered a range of topics including productivity, leadership and management strategies and their personal reflections. 

If you think you are the master of it all, I think you are begging for a failure. You have to listen to others.
I think having people in an organisation with different ideas is a strength, not a weakness. Clash is not necessarily a recipe for failure. How you handle that clash is the thing that will determine whether you fail or succeed.

To find out more about The Africa List community in Ethiopia, please visit the Ethiopia country page here. 

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Here are some of our favourite pieces of advice that Girma shared at the event:

What have you learned as a CEO that you wish you’d known before?

I came to a CEO position after almost 40 years of work. Twelve of my years with Ethiopian Airlines were spent outside of Ethiopia, so I had the opportunity to go and work in other regions which gave me exposure to other ways of doing things.

I think often in Ethiopian companies you tend to compare yourself with yourself and not with the best in the industry, but when you are exposed to other industries you find out exactly what you are lacking but also what your strengths are. When I was working in the Gulf I was inspired by how visionary they were. They are not afraid to push, they are not afraid to go forward. So when I came back to Ethiopian Airlines as a CEO, I’d seen how how other countries and organisations work and that gave me an opportunity to look at things differently.

As a leader, what do you spend most of your time thinking about on a daily basis?

First of all, as a leader you have to make sure that you have your strategy in place. That strategy should define your end game and your goals so that whenever you sit in the office, most of the things that you’re spending your time are contributing to that end result. Anything that doesn’t contribute to that goal should take second place, or if necessary, delegate it to somebody else. 

What practical things do you do to try and encourage leadership in your team?

Listening to people is the biggest thing that you can do for your team. If you listen to them and you give them candid comments, they will take it. If you think what they are saying is wrong, explain it to them in a language that they understand. So whatever you do, you should be able to do it in a very respectable way. If you respect the people and you listen to them and share your views, you will achieve more as a leader.

How do you encourage idea sharing and creative thinking in your team?

Take suspicion out of everything. Allow people to say what they want. Let them argue with you. It is very constructive when people say what they want to do, so allow them the freedom. Over control is no good - over control is as bad as no control at all.

What is the hardest part about leading a company?

The hardest part about leading a company is ourselves. 80% of a failure of a company is not from the staff, it is from the leader. So if you can discipline yourself and do what you say you’re going to do, and what you expect others to do, then you will be able to achieve a very good result. But if you tell people to do something but you are doing something different, then it doesn’t work.

What is one behaviour that you’ve seen derail many leader’s careers?

A “know it all” mindset. If you think you are the master of it all, I think you are begging for a failure. You have to listen to others. Another way to fail is not to trust people. If you don’t trust the people you work with, you are on a landmine. Don’t try to rule by fear. You will be misled if people are afraid of you.

Why should anyone be led by you?

People will choose to be led by me if they think that I will contribute to their success. If they think that we have a common goal and objective, and they think I can lead them to that, then they will follow me. I don’t want people to follow me out of fear.

How do you address conflict management when people have different visions?

I think having people in an organisation with different ideas is a strength, not a weakness. Clash is not necessarily a recipe for failure. But how you handle that clash is the thing that will determine whether you fail or succeed. If you handle it well and sort out the problems, you can sort out a good team. The best way to resolve it is to sit and discuss it openly. At a certain point they will convince you, or you will convince them. It’s good in fact to have conflict in organisations because it helps the organisation to grow. If everybody thinks the same way, the organisation will not grow.

What has contributed the most to your success?

I think my trust for people. I trust the people I work with and I trust their ideas.

Who has had the biggest impact on your career?

In my first job I had a supervisor who did everything wrong which became a big lesson for me. It inspired me to do it differently.

What strategies do you use to build relationships with people?

When you meet new people, your objective shouldn’t be to take advantage of them. Meet with people with a genuine desire to know them better. If you think that it is not the kind of relationship that you want, you can drop it at any time, but start with trust and ‘win-win’ in mind.

What is still on your career bucket list?

I am turning 75 soon, so for me what I want to see is more African airline carriers grow and that is what I am helping with now in different countries.

How do you know when you are leading well?

One - when the results that I expect are being achieved. Two – when I know every employee gets what he deserves and feels he is part of the organisation. Three – when the organisation is growing.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I walk around and talk to people. I don’t only sit and wait in my office for information to come to me, I go after the information I seek. It gives me an understanding of what is happening in the background so when my top people tell me what’s going on, I have more context.

What does success mean to you?

If you have a strategy, you have a goal, and that goal is broken down by year or by quarter. If you achieve those targets, then you have succeeded. The other is if you are contributing to the welfare of all interested parties, customers, the staff, and the community. If you are doing this, you should be happy.