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Q&A with Catherine Dyer

Senior Vice President, Chief Information Officer, Air Canada


1. Your career path has traversed multiple industries from telecommunications & mobility to energy, aviation and people. In your new role as the Chief Information Officer at Air Canada- what strikes you the most about Aviation?

I have had the privilege to work with some great companies throughout my career and each of them are connected in my mind. When I think about telecom, Airline and Pipeline, they are all about “network effects” moving in the most efficient and safe way from “a” to “b”. The beauty of the Aviation and Travel business is that you have the high customer engagement throughout this process. As the CIO, my role is to lead the branch of the company that manages the technology and the data that the airline uses in making decisions to create the best experience for our customers. When our customers and our employees use our systems, we strive to have them experience the Air Canada brand. When you have a complex and vast network and Canadian weather along with many other factors, technology becomes key to efficiency and, as importantly, key to how our customers feel about their travel experience with Air Canada.

The opportunity to work across industries has also exposed me to differences in company cultures and operating models, which has added tools to my leadership toolkit. Each of these will be helpful to me in performing in this exciting new role. I believe that the cross-industry viewpoint I bring to the team is helping us think about some things a bit differently as an IT team to build on a company that is already great.

What has drawn me back to the aviation industry is best reflected in the arrivals hall of any airport. We connect people. Every time that I see anyone greeted, whether with tears or smiles, it reminds me of what all 30,000 of our team members are proud to do every day. Air Canada flies the flag of our country and is on a mission to be a global champion. I am pleased to be part of that mission as a proud Canadian and the opportunity to be back in a highly customer focused culture has really been a great change for me.

2. Traditionally, aviation is an industry where quite a few roles are held by men, but industry is becoming more diverse. In a recent survey by Accenture employees from travel industry ranked it as one of the most inclusive. How can we make the future workforce in Aviation more equal & inclusive?

I think, as you noted, the travel industry is very inclusive and Air Canada is a leader. It was recently named one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers for third consecutive year and we make tremendous efforts to be inclusive, particularly with respect to promoting women. Women make up nearly half our workforce, approximately 43 per cent of managers are women and along with my position, women occupy some of the most senior roles at the airline, including our Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, and Senior officers responsible for Human Resources and Communications, Inflight Service and Corporate Secretariat. In a further sign of our commitment to gender equality at all levels, Air Canada’s Board of Directors supported the Catalyst Accord. Under the Accord, Air Canada agreed to increase the number of women on its Board to 25 per cent by 2017. It met this goal in 2016.

We believe as a company, and I believe as an individual, that diversity makes good business sense and studies support that. We maintain three diversity committees across the country and managers are provided tools to help them recruit diverse talent and communicate with employees from different cultural backgrounds. It is striking that there are an estimated 80 languages spoken by Air Canada employees and 22 per cent of employees belong to visible minorities, up from 14 per cent a decade ago, and represented 31.6 per cent of all newly hired employees in 2016.

The stats in tech are not quite so impressive when I look across the companies I have been part of and, more as a general statement, women are under-represented in technology. I see addressing this as a significant part of my role, not only as a leader at Air Canada, but as a senior technology leader in Canada. These are well-paying roles that are both creative and scientific. The emerging fields of Digital and Artificial Intelligence create many new opportunities and requirements for more skills – everything from user experience roles to deeply technical roles. Turning young women and men onto this needs to happen in the lower grades. I loved that my daughter in grade seven learned coding and built her first video game. We need more of this, as this is a field where hiring is becoming more and more competitive – so kids – IT is COOL! As employers, we need to continue to evolve the workplace to attract and retain this next generation of talent.

3. More than $100 billion is migrating from established players to new entrants in aviation and travel and tourism in the next decade, according to the World Economic Forum. How can airlines unlock the potential of emerging technologies like AI and virtual reality to enhance customer experience and drive revenue growth?

Artificial Intelligence, Analytics more generally, and their applications yet to come, all rely on a few common things…high quality data and smart capacity/connectivity. Air Canada is in a cycle of technical changes to many of their systems, such as our Reservation System and implementing a set of systems to support our new Loyalty Program to name just two. In addition to these we are refreshing our underlying infrastructure to make our environment more streamlined. This will be a significant enabler of the ability of Air Canada to capture the advantages of emerging practices in IT and we believe there is great potential in this space.

Having said that, we don’t have the leisure to wait so we are actively investing in capabilities related to AI. Air Canada is pleased to be a part of the supply chain management Consortium SCALE.AI (Supply Chains and Logistics Excellence.AI) in Montreal that will be developing leading edge technology and positioning Canada and Air Canada as a global leader in the supply chain management. Along with 120 partners across Canada we will be investing in a five-year project along with the Canadian Government (Department of science innovation and economic development) to promote collaboration across different sectors of a wide range of industries.

It is exciting, because this will provide competitive advantage for not only our company but for the region and for Canada in this space. In addition, we are partnering with post-secondary institutions to grow the talent and provide a jobs pipeline as well as take advantage of all the skills students and faculty can bring to our business issues. I expect that over time, AI will impact the entire travel journey of our customers and change how our own team works with systems – providing more time to keep our operations running smoothly and engaging with our customers – not looking at a screen and keyboard!

4. There has been much talk over the last decade about work/life balance and we see that moving toward a “truly human”, in which people are encouraged to bring their “whole”, most authentic self to work. How can leaders help women bring their best self to work professionally and personally and have successful career?

I had an interesting conversation with an individual last evening who is a senior male leader on this topic – and it inspired me! We talked about the fact that this is viewed as a women’s leadership issue when in fact this is about getting the best out of all of our people – embracing our differences and diversity, and realizing that at different points in life (for women most notably) what individuals need will vary. Those with small kids – how do we carve out ways to have people home before bedtime and to coach a son or daughter. The elder care responsibilities that can occur, single parents, blended families, and so forth, all put pressures on people and we only get their best when we acknowledge that and create some fluidity to adapt to it. I work for a leader at Air Canada who understands this deeply and, in the short time I have been there, has demonstrated such understanding by his actions. This drives the Air Canada culture with respect to work/life balance issues and, though we have room to always grow, I think it is why people want to be part of this company.

The advice I give women who allow me the opportunity to support their career growth is simple. Know that everyone has “do-overs” – don’t be afraid to try and take on the tough assignment or ask a question you think is silly – they rarely are and they are part of your growing and stretching – Be Brave! On a personal note – I try to make sure I am aware of the decisions I am making and how they impact all the components of my life – Body, Mind and Soul - a work in progress with many “do-overs” along the way.

5. Moving to your own “whole” self, where is your favorite holiday spot to unwind?

I love to travel with my kids and friends - exploring and experiencing new things. Raising “global citizens” has been important to me…so too many places to name – it is why I love the travel business. BUT…if I was to pick one spot – it is home in Montreal, my new city that I have fallen in love with!