The inspirational women of Virgin Atlantic – Kate Leigh
‘Surviving & Thriving’ – championing the women across Virgin Atlantic; sharing individual stories of how they’ve survived and thrived over the last 12 months.
Tell us a bit about your role at Virgin Atlantic…
I am in charge of Alliances & Partnerships, which involves identifying beneficial airline partners, negotiating financial agreements, concluding legally binding contracts and optimising Partner-Enabled Revenue with our 70 airline partners, enabling our passengers to connect to destinations beyond the Virgin Atlantic network.
I have worked for Virgin Atlantic for 22 years, having started my career in Finance before undertaking several roles within Revenue Management and further roles within Network & Alliances.
What were your ambitions growing up, and did you see any barriers to getting where you wanted to be?
I saw my original career ambition as serving in the front line of The Royal Navy. To that end, I was an officer in the University Royal Naval Unit for my duration of university life. At the time, women had only been allowed to join the Royal Navy four years before my application, so it was still a very male-dominated career choice. Unfortunately, front line roles 24 years ago were very stringent with health requirements and the need for me to wear glasses, all-be-it to correct minor short-sightedness, meant that I could not pursue that career.
I wanted to be in an industry that enabled me to see the world and experience different cultures; Virgin Atlantic had always appealed to me as a potential employer ever since passing my 11+ and being rewarded with a holiday to Disney by my parents.
What gives you the most job satisfaction?
Developing a strong relationship with a partner airline, can take 2-3 years. Watching that development work translate into revenue for Virgin Atlantic and seeing that revenue incrementally grow year-on-year gives me huge satisfaction.
What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
Having worked in several different managerial roles across the Commercial Department, being promoted to Head of Alliances in 2019 was the proudest moment in my career so far; a role that I had been coveting for a number of years.
What has been your experience of living through the pandemic?
It has been an extremely emotional year for everyone. I have been fortunate to live in the countryside with my husband and we have plenty of open space around us. Having swapped from working in The VHQ to working from home, I do not miss the commute, but I do miss the socialisation of working in an office environment. In the past year, my work in maintaining and adapting our partnership strategy to meet the rapid evolution of this terrible disease globally has kept me and my team very busy. This has been made especially so due to the understandable need of our leaders to maximise the opportunities presented by furlough. This has led to most of my team being furloughed for much of the past year and I have been required to take occasional short periods of furlough as well. For approximately seven months of the last year, I have effectively run the department single-handed.
My Dad passed away the day before the pandemic struck this country last year. My Father-In-Law passed away in June. Whilst I was able to be at my Dad’s bedside when he passed, my husband and I were unable to visit my Father-In-Law in the four months prior to his death due to him being in a care home. This, combined with my inability to support my Mum over the past year due to the lockdowns, and seeing her but a handful of times in this period has been the hardest aspect of the last year.
Like so many people at Virgin Atlantic, I have wanted to help those less fortunate than myself in my spare time. I am a Local Support Volunteer within my village, being on hand for those who are vulnerable; I am a volunteer for The Freedom Project, helping women flee from domestic abuse and I have now completed all my training for St Johns Ambulance to work in the mass vaccination centres.
Which women have inspired you growing up?
This is really hard to narrow down to just one or two! I was a child in the Thatcher era and her dominance of the political landscape was an elemental part of my life. I was also hugely inspired by the charitable work of Princess Diana through my adolescent years.
Through my love of sailing, Dame Ellen MacArthur has been an inspiration. One week older than me, I have followed her career and record-breaking achievements of being a successful solo long-distance yachtswoman. Similarly, watching Greta Thunberg capture the attention of world leaders through her actions against climate change at such a young age was remarkable.
And most appropriately considering this past year, I wouldn’t have been a First Aider at Work for 15 years nor volunteered for St John’s Ambulance during this pandemic, had it not been for Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing.
How do you think gender equality in the workplace has evolved over the years?
The awareness of gender equality has improved over the years at Virgin. It will, however, take a generation for material change to occur. We have always had one or two female Leadership Team members, almost always in HR and/or Marketing. I have had a balanced number of male to female line managers, and most of those female managers have chosen a career before a family. At grassroots level, girls need to be encouraged as much as boys to take up careers that have traditionally been considered “men-only” (such as, in our industry, pilots & engineers).
As a leader yourself, what leadership qualities do you feel are most important?
The quality of a good leader is having the ability to be one step ahead of your team, good planning, the ability to influence, motivate, gain respect and team’s trust. Inclusivity is important to me and bringing a team on a journey together at pace, recognising any development required to maximise that pace.
The hardest challenge has been maintaining the morale of my team during a 12-month period when they have been on furlough for over three-quarters of the year and not knowing from one month to the next whether they are on furlough or not. Maintaining a positive mental attitude to a team that I have not been able to see and talk with physically has been testing.
We know you’ve taken up a number of volunteering experiences during your time at Virgin Atlantic. Can you tell us a bit more about these?
I think it’s really important to highlight the benefits of volunteering experiences that Virgin Atlantic provides, especially from a leadership point of view and for my own personal experience.
I have been on several adventures with Virgin Atlantic charities which were incredible; including Climb Mount Fuji, Trek the Great Wall China, Sail the Caribbean and Hike the South Downs. One of our Training Captains, Chris Hall, does so much in this space and is certainly an inspiration to us all at Virgin Atlantic.
I’ve also volunteered at WE Day on several occasions, from being a car park attendant to showing VIP guests to their seats. The children, speakers and performers at this annual event all deserve the recognition they get. Finally, I’d also like to mention the benefit of the experiences that I and other leaders have done, spending time with our customer-facing teams at LGW & LHR; meeting and greeting passengers or on the phones in the Contact Centre answering questions and rearranging bookings during dreaded snow days or ash cloud eruptions.
Describe what it’s like to work for Virgin Atlantic in three words…
Enlivening, captivating & challenging.
Find out more about the inspirational women of Virgin Atlantic on our International Women’s Day page