IT was mid-September 2019 when the famous co-founder of AirAsia, Tan Sri Tony Fernandes announced that he will be stepping down from all official board positions, except AirAsia Group and AirAsia X.
While this might come as a shock for some people, the decision was made to pave the way for new leaders to move up the company’s ranks.
“Most leaders overstay. A good leader knows when to go. When he goes and the company gets better, then he is a good leader.
"If he goes and the company falls down, then we have failed as a leader.
“So, succession planning and continuing on what we have built is really important and making sure that the next leader makes it better.
"This is what I’m trying to achieve,” Tony said during a panel session titled ‘Entrepreneurship: Working with Purpose’ during the Leaders: Asia-Pacific program, organised by the Obama Foundation here in Kuala Lumpur.
“I think the values that I built in the company will carry on long after I’ve gone.
"I think that’s a really important point for the leaders here,” he said in front of the 200 young leaders from 33 countries and territories who were selected to be part of the program.
As a leader for 29,000 staff, he believes that the core values and culture that AirAsia have in place are factors that led to the company’s success.
“I think being humble is a great value. It’s very important that they don’t lose that core value of being nice, humble and approachable. It cascades down.
"Transparency is also very important. We don’t have a union and they are fairly happy,” he added.
Tony, who was once an accountant and then went into the music business industry for 12 years before he bought over an airline for RM1 with his business partner Kamaruddin Meranun, had a vision to build an organisation that allows other people to live their dreams.
“There’s a very small line between brilliance and stupidity. It’s very narrow. But I thought, if I don’t try, I don’t know,” Tony recalls when he made the decision to start a low-cost airline in South East Asia in 2011.
Throughout the years, the airline grew from two (2) planes and 250 employees to a group of companies with 273 planes and 29,000 staff, today.
Although he has always described his journey as ‘great’, he does not deny there were tough and challenging times.
He recalls the crash of Flight 8501 in 2014 as: “That is the hardest part of my life and it continuously be the hardest part of my life.”
“I have never gone to crisis management. I never thought about something like that. When it happened, the whole world collapsed for me.
“In many jobs, you don’t have people’s lives in your hands but suddenly you realise that you do. And so, when I went into the crisis centre and people said, ‘You don’t have to go, let the Indonesian team handle it. And I was like: ‘Are you crazy?'
“We can’t just take the good. I’m the leader of the company. I have to be there for the families. They have to know that the most senior person in the company is there, and I have to be there for the staff. So, you know, it was against the advice of all the professionals.
“I just went out to Surabaya and I personally met every single family. I gave them my mobile phone number, and as soon as I arrive I could hear everyone was like “Tony is here! Tony is here”. I said, I want to go and see the families first.
“You can’t put into words how you can do that. But you just got to do what’s right, and what was right was for me to be there, and not hide behind lawyers.
"That values - transparency and honesty - are very important to me. You can’t just take the praise, so it was my decision to go out there. I did it,” Tony said.
Today at 56 years old, Tony now believes companies can empower people through three things -- financial health, physical health, and mental health.
“There are a lot of issues with debt and the pressure to own and buy. We need to let people manage their money better. It’s also important to have an environment that people can take care of their health.
“The final one, which I think is a little bit of a taboo is mental health. The pressures of the world is far greater. My father was a doctor, he used to come home at lunch time and sleep and go to work. So work pressure have changed quite dramatically and the pressure to succeed, puts a lot of pressure on young people.
“In Asia, we make mental health a bad thing. But it’s just another disease, so we want to encourage it and publicize it, and allow our staff to have access for help and care,” he said.
Tony’s advice for young people is to have a dream and not let people put the dream off.
He says: “Don’t waste opportunity. The power of success is knowing people and getting the best out of people. Don’t hang around with what you’re comfortable with.”