Javier Echave, CFO, Heathrow: Why Wellbeing Means the World – to You, to Your Company and to the Planet

Javier Echave PHOTO (1)

Javier Echave, Heathrow Airport’s CFO, captured imaginations at our recent The Watercooler Event with his contagious energy, passion and unwavering belief in the importance of cultivating wellbeing at work.

We collared him after his session – which was entitled ‘What if your job was good for you?’ in which he chatted with Lloyds Banking Group’s commercial banking group director, David Oldfield, Bupa Health Clinics’ commercial director, Alaana Woods and wellbeing campaign director at Business in the Community, Louise Aston – to ask him more.

He gave us this inspiring, honest interview, which explains why his interest is professional as well as highly personal, due to his own mental health experiences. It was hugely refreshing to hear a CFO talk about the clear commercial case for wellbeing, as well as the fact that ‘your job must be good for you’.

As he said, we are facing a pandemic, a war, a cost of living crisis, growing social inequality and many other concerns, so being able to face all these challenges and also see the potential opportunities comes down to creating the right environment. This makes wellbeing professionals a key part of, not only creating a thriving company, but a thriving planet.

Over to Javier…

You talked about the need for society to redefine success. Can you tell me a bit more about that and specifically how it relates to the wellbeing world?

Traditionally, we’ve had a definition of success that is very short-termist, focusing on the economic benefit of very few people, mainly shareholders. So companies have got away with activities like polluting rivers or destroying biodiversity. But science is demonstrating the impact of these activities on people and the planet. So the model doesn’t work anymore.

Growth and money are not a bad thing in my view. But growth and money at the expense of destroying your stakeholders or the environment can be ‘bad’.

I am a capitalist. I cannot deny that. But we need to find a way of creating businesses that allow us to grow sustainably over time and generate value for all our stakeholders. Not just your investors but also your employees and your local communities in the country that you’re operating.

You see people and wellbeing as key to this transformation because, in order to see new solutions and have the confidence to transform the system, your people have got to be in a good place mentally. Is that right?

Yes. You have to be. And I believe we have all experienced that. The days I am at my best, I feel unstoppable, energised and worthwhile. I feel listened to. I feel that I can challenge constructively the status quo. And our status quo is the biggest enemy we shall fight against because, as science keeps reminding us, it’s not sustainable.

When you look at the research about how to drive an innovative culture, it all starts with people feeling supported and psychologically safe, parking their fear of failure and just being themselves. Although many corporates focus exclusively on recruiting the best people, I believe it’s more effective to focus on getting your people being at their very best.

The opposite is also true. When we feel less worthwhile, or fearful or inadequate, that stops us being courageous. And that’s when we stop looking at events as an opportunity rather than a challenge.

The question for employers is: how can we give our colleagues the courage to find a different perspective? So they feel they can influence outcomes? How can you proactively be part of the change rather than feeling powerless or falling into victimisation?

You’ve done this yourself, because you have a different perspective on Heathrow – you’ve said you see Heathrow as, not an airport, but a service company through infrastructure. Can you tell me more about that?

Yes. I believe Heathrow is a force for good. Aviation connects people and enables 13 out of 17 United Nations sustainable development goals. But at the same time, we cannot hide that our productivity model uses fossil-based currency.

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I strongly believe that the enemy is not aviation. The enemy is carbon. So, how can you power people with the confidence and competence to look at the same situation differently and have the courage to drive change?

At Heathrow, we are decarbonising aviation. We have become the largest consumer of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) in the world in 2022. The technology to decarbonise flights does exist. It’s called SAFs and it produces 80% less carbon dioxide without the need to change aircraft engines nor airport pipelines. To decarbonise our sector more rapidly we are working on scaling up global production of SAFs; and this is where we need help from the Government to implement the right policies to scale up our decarbonisation efforts. But the first step starts with us – embracing the uncomfortable truth of our emissions, and feeling a strong sense of responsibility and confidence that we can do something about it.

You seem to be very passionate about mental health. What makes you so passionate? Why do you think it’s so important?

Well, it comes from the need of to transform myself. I had a massive anxiety episode six years ago. I experienced the dark sides of mental health. And this happened when I was at my most successful externally – new job promotion, new child and new house. While those successes were happening, life was also in the way – sleep deprivation, impostor syndrome and my father’s sickness, all of which caused an emotional relationship with my mobile, nutrition and alcohol, and low levels of energy that made me struggle. I felt very disconnected with myself.

Now I feel much more connected with myself because I faced and solved these challenges. I am at my best, and still think that the best version of me is still to come. I have become more aware that there are many events I cannot control; but I can always choose how I react, and it is that reaction that’s the one that drives different outcomes.

Today I looked with appreciation at those past difficult experiences because they helped me become who I am. Without those learnings I wouldn’t have been able to lead successfully the financial response to the catastrophic consequences of the pandemic to Heathrow. Although I didn’t feel positive at the time, experiencing the darkest side of mental health has triggered one of the fastest phases of personal growth I’ve ever experienced. So for those who unfortunately are in the midst of a difficult experience, please don’t lose hope.

Did you get help from your employer at this time to face these challenges?

I needed help because, at that particular moment in time, I didn’t have the energy  and the confidence to come out of it alone. But I felt embarrassed and didn’t seek help from my employer but a third party. Mental distress unfortunately still has a huge social stigma.

I needed to work hard on creating better habits and destroying bad habits. A book that inspired me a lot was Atomic Habits [by James Clear] which is about personal transformation, which is at the core of business transformation.

Rather than focusing on outcomes, it’s about how you set the identity you want to become. And you become that by doing small things over and over.

This can happen at a personal level but also at corporate level. If you want to become the best possible employer, you need to define the attributes of a good employer and ask what small activities you can do, and repeat. The role of an organisation is to create a place where people can become the best they want to become.

Obviously there won’t always be alignment between a company and an employee’s values, purpose and activities. And that’s OK, but we need to accept it and wish each other well as we go on to do different things. People need to find their place, their personal compass.

If an employee is doing things that are unhelpful to their wellbeing, like drinking or smoking a lot to manage stress, to what extent do you think does an employer have a duty of care to step in? Because you’ve also talked about the importance of having an adult-to-adult relationship with an employee, rather than the traditional model of adult-to-child.

I think it’s both. That tension is needed. I have a duty of care to my team to create the right environment for them to feel supported, to feel that difficulties in life are ok, so they can bounce back as quickly as possible.

I believe that each of us are, ultimately, responsible of our own emotional status and the individual has the ultimate choice. But as team leader I can make an individual’s job much harder, or much easier. And that’s the bit I can commit to my team – to create the environment for everyone who tries to bounce back and do that as best as possible. That’s in my view the constructive deal amongst adults that corporates should seek.

You might also be interested in:

The free to attend webinar which BITC is running from 10.00am – 11.00am on 9th June 2022 to launch its “Your job can be good for you” report. Find out more and register here.

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