A job at consulting from Bain & Company in the early 2000s was Claudia Sender’s entry into the aviation industry. She is now among a handful of women around the world holding the position of CEO at an airline.
When Sender was still attending the University of São Paulo in 1998, she started her career as a trainee at Bain. She remained there for seven years during which time she consulted for several airlines, including Brazilian operator TAM.
Thereafter, Sender worked for Whirlpool Latin America as part of its strategic planning team and was eventually promoted to vice president of marketing. She spent seven years at Whirlpool “and was given a 360-degree view of a great company”, she says. “An important lesson I learned [there] was to use the consumer’s voice to define how a company develops and delivers its products and services.”
At the end of 2011, she joined TAM “to participate in its association with [Chile’s] LAN and the construction of LATAM Airlines Group”. Then in May 2013, she was tapped to lead the company in Brazil, now known as LATAM Airlines Brasil. Sender was chosen for the job for a combination of reasons. “But in particular, it was because of my experience and track record of consistent results,” she says. The skills learned at Whirlpool proved beneficial, with Sender citing the ability to work “with a wide range of different people in complex environments and a focus on employee engagement” as being key.
Her educational background also provided a solid foundation. Although Sender has a degree in engineering, she felt it was important to pursue her MBA at Harvard University. “As an engineering graduate, I reached the stage where I felt I needed a greater theoretical knowledge of business. I also wanted to gain multicultural experience, interacting with professionals from diverse places and backgrounds, and Harvard was a natural choice,” she explains. “Harvard gave me a solid foundation in business and combined with the cultural experience, the MBA prepared me to deal with diverse business environments.”
That MBA has served Sender well as she tackles the most challenging project of her career: helping with the continued consolidation of LATAM. “It is the largest airline group in Latin America, with six domestic markets in the region. We are leading this mission in Brazil, which is a country full of idiosyncrasies and challenges of its own,” she says. “Our goal is to achieve all the synergies necessary to deliver the customer a new company identity and experience that meets the changing needs of today’s consumer, who values connectivity, technology and efficiency.”
Sender says she’s read a lot about female leadership, noting it’s an important topic in her life. “Companies that have women in senior management positions or on the board tend to perform much better than peer companies that don’t. Diversity adds value, and if companies don’t recognize the need to have different points of view, they will begin to lose consumers and space in the marketplace,” she concludes.
When it comes to gender, there is still bias in the evaluation and choice of leadership, says Sender. “As more men generally evaluate future leaders, unconscious biases can sometimes be formed, which create obstacles for increasing women’s participation in top positions. To improve this, it is important to work to transform the patriarchal nature of society as a whole. It is an evolving process and there is still a long way to go, not only to incorporate more female leaders, but also to harness a culture of diversity.”
Leadership is about preparation, perseverance, competence and hard work, not gender, Sender emphasizes. “Therefore, if business is defined by efficiency and results, diversity – not just gender – can develop in a much more powerful way.”
Sender admires Carolyn McCall, the CEO of EasyJet. “In addition to being one of the first women to lead a large airline, she has done a great job in driving the sustainable growth of her business,” she says.
Her advice for women who want to climb the career ladder in aviation?
“Persevere and learn to work with many different people. Knowing how to listen is also essential. Aviation is an engaging and challenging business and I have passionate ties to this industry,” she says. “But beyond passion, what makes one strong is humility and being able to learn every day, as well as deal with a whole universe of challenges.”