In the Spotlight: Katie Bhreatnach, Airways New Zealand

In the Spotlight: Katie Bhreatnach, Airways New Zealand

Katie Bhreatnach, Group Head of Customer Management, Legal and Policy and Standards at Airways New Zealand describes her multi-faceted role helping to keep the skies safe today and tomorrow

Tēna koutou katoa

Ko tainui e ngati awa te iwi

Kei kaeo toku kainga ināianei

Ko roia pai no airways tāku mahi

Ko katie bhreatnach tōku ingoa 

Ngā mihi nui ki a koutou

What does your role as Group Head of Customer Management, Legal and Policy and Standards involve and what does a standard day look like for you?                                                                 

In my current role I lead a talented and diverse group of functional leaders in Customer Management, Legal, Regulatory and Policy. Our team manages our stakeholder relationships with our regulator, industry associations, customers and the third parties we partner with. Each of my leaders have their own teams and in total we make up a team of 25 talented people. 

The aviation sector is fascinating and the work we do at Airways has a powerful purpose – we keep the skies safe today and tomorrow, and our vision is to create the aviation environment of the future.  It’s an exciting time to work here - our organisation is going through generational change. Our airspace is changing with new entrants such as drones and autonomous flying vehicles bringing enormous opportunities for New Zealand, along with additional complexity for Airways in managing the airspace. And we’re at the forefront internationally in the digital technology solutions that will respond to these challenges. There is no shortage of stimulating and varied work, and I have a great group of peers and an amazing team who are fun to work with.

I find any given day can be hugely varied.  Today I started the working day with a coffee with my EA, then met my leadership team for our weekly meeting, went to a meeting with fellow execs on our capital plan, met a stakeholder for coffee, reviewed KPI reports, had a 1:1 with a colleague, met with an external lawyer, met an underwriter, met with comms to align on messaging to stakeholders and checked in with a team member on a key project.  I then collected my eldest daughter from ballet, and headed home with her to see my other two daughters and my husband, and to walk the dog.

Your role is a hybrid executive leadership and general counsel role. What additional value does that deliver to the organisation and what are the challenges of holding combined portfolios?

The role of the General Counsel has evolved a lot over the years I have been in legal practice. I’ve been attracted to roles where the General Counsel (and legal function more broadly) is or can be shaped to be proactive rather than reactive and to be a trusted advisor and business partner. 

Reporting in to a CEO gives you direct access to driving strategy and to directly demonstrate and advocate for the value a legal function can deliver. To my mind, lawyers are well placed for executive roles particularly in highly regulated sectors and complex stakeholder settings. And when you operate at the executive level and have demonstrable commercial acumen and are good at solving problems, it follows that new portfolios open up to you.

I’ve also been lucky enough to be a Director of Te Wānanga o Aotearoa – New Zealand’s second-largest University for more than four years which has been an asset in exec leadership, as being on a Board provides a unique insight in to advising Boards as an executive leader. 

What you love about your role and what it is teaching you about yourself?

I love that I work with great people in a great team, and that the work we do is worthwhile, challenging and varied. I love that our team has co-built our team culture of being curious, supported, confident, connected and light hearted. The light hearted bit is my favourite – someone wiser than me once said that he who has learnt to laugh at himself shall never cease to be entertained.

I am constantly learning. I throw myself in to things and when I fail find it easy to pick myself up, take the learning and pivot. As my youngest daughter once announced with glee, ”Mum I had a great day - I made a mistake so my brain grew”. Can’t put it better myself.

What is your biggest challenge and how are you tackling it?

I like big challenges. So when I’ve tackled one I tend to start looking for the next one. I’m a high energy person and have learnt that people do not always appreciate my cheerful morning enthusiasm. This is a constant challenge, but I’m usually safe from around 10am…

I’m currently working on how to incorporate basic te reo Maori in to daily work life. There is an element of culture to this, not just language. The team has embraced sharing pepeha, and we are planning to have our next offsite at a Marae which will be a new experience for many of the team. Airways more broadly is embracing this too, which is exciting.

I’m big on systems and processes, so a fan of the legal ops movement. Metrics are a great way of demonstrating the value a legal function brings, particularly in a context where General Counsels (and their non-legal peers) are under increasing pressure to do more with less. We are currently in the process of launching LawVu at Airways which is a great enabler to this way of working and is a nice challenge.

How do you unwind outside of your work day?

My three daughters, husband and dog offer a totally different kind of joy and challenge outside of work. I’m an enthusiastic supporter of my children’s various sporting, community and artistic endeavours. There’s a revolving door of family and friends at our house throughout the year, which is how I like it. To switch off I enjoy tramping and camping (preferably with no hot water, electricity or cell phone coverage), live music, travelling, comedy and the arts. I also love rugby and am a loyal Blues fan (you read that right). Whenever I get the chance I head up to the far north where my parents live and everything is warmer and simpler.