25 Oct 2021 20:45 IST

Profit should not be the only vision: Harpreet Singh

At MMA, the first woman to head an Indian carrier talked about finding resilience to face challenges.

Dr Harpreet A De Singh, Executive Director-Head Quarters, Air India, and former CEO of Alliance Air, said: “The open sky, the feeling of connecting with the almighty, and the freedom of being close to nature are the three things which attracted me when I wanted to be a pilot.” Delivering the eighth Dr KCG Verghese Endowment lecture on the theme, ‘Aerospace and Aeronautical Domain,’ in Madras Management Association recently, Dr Singh discussed the challenges and opportunities she faced in her career and the management lessons she picked up from each of them.

From pilot to trainer

“I started off as Air India’s first woman pilot in 1988. Then I had a medical issue, so I could not continue with active flying. I had taken a lot of loans to be a pilot. But I was sure that there had to be a higher purpose in the setback,” reckoned Dr Harpreet Singh.

Not one to feel like a defeatist, she went to the US, got her license revalidated, and started all over again in aviation, but in a slightly different direction. She became a trainer, the first woman to train pilots. “I made a re-entry into Air India as a trainer and in which role I had a long stint. I was also into navigation, meteorology, performance management, crew resource management, quality, auditing and safety and thus got a 360 degree experience. I have loved my journey as I could learn a lot,” said Dr Singh.

She has a golden rule for anyone aspiring to learn. “If you want to learn something, teach it. Catch your friends or others, teach them, and you will realise how much you don't know. You will read again and evolve gradually,” suggested Dr Singh.

IQ, EQ and PSQ

Explaining that management is about taking important decisions and using people’s skill sets in the correct way, she regretted that most people focus only on IQ. “They look if someone is from IIM, IIT or top branded institutions. I agree that students of such institutes are brilliant and have secured their seats through tough competition. But for leadership, what is essential is how you use that IQ and put it into action,” she said, and added that leaders must blend IQ with emotional quotient (EQ) and Pure Soul Quotient (PSQ) — a term which she has coined.

PSQ is about doing things with purity of heart and good intention, looking at everyone around you- not as man or woman, somebody high or low but just as your equal and, connecting with them as pure souls. Leaders combining IQ, EQ and PSQ will be able to derive maximum results, she said.

Blend CSR with business goals

Stressing the importance of merging CSR into business goals, she explained how, during her tenure as the CEO of Alliance Air which is a subsidiary of Air India, their flights could connect even remote villages and deliver Covid vaccines when people needed them the most. “It is like a mind-body-soul connection. Profit should not be our only vision. We have to look at the bigger picture. Alliance Air is Alliance of Hearts,” she narrated with pride.

During Covid first wave, Dr Singh was Chief of Flight Safety, Air India, writing the SOPs and trying to put safe procedures in place. “We did the Wuhan operation — the first flight that went into China in 2020. We had to be well prepared for any kind of exigency and risk management. We did that successfully and evacuated many Indians from China. Then we did hundreds of Vande Bharat flights and could rise to the occasion,” recalled Dr Singh.

Spiritual strength

In such complex and demanding operations, you will find some people who are willing and happy to be part of the team and there will be others who will find every reason not to be part of the team. How can you bring the second category on board?

“I was the CEO of Alliance Air at that time. With a raging pandemic, there was fear psychosis all around and people had lost their inner strength and ability to cope. I started a group called Universal Prayers Channel. We organised, purely on voluntary basis, a multi-faith meditation without any religious overtone but just as a spiritual exercise. We did these sessions every morning from 4.30 to 5. The results were amazing,” she said and acknowledged that it gave her a first-hand experience of how to combine spirituality with leadership functions; how to use one’s inner spiritual strength to achieve higher productive goals.

Opt for the no-go zone

Another lesson that Dr Singh offered: In organisations, when everyone says no to a task, see if you can jump in. “In aviation, we never had a quality department earlier. There were some new standards and international requirements and we had to have a quality system in place. No one was interested in this. I sensed an opportunity and dived in. It took me a lot of work to institute the quality management system. I am certified as a lead auditor. I audit airports and airlines on behalf of international agencies. Audit, like teaching, taught me immensely. If you are a true seeker, you will seek knowledge. That is what eventually made me a CEO,” explained Dr Singh.

Tests and more tests

While we see the glamorous side of the pilots walking to the cockpit and coming out, there is a lot that goes on behind the scene. “Aviation is the only industry where, every six months till retirement, the pilots have to repeat their ground exams refresher and qualify again. They have to repeat medical checks and simulator tests because of the safety requirements. Even a surgeon, once he gets his degree, is not going to be tested again. The pilots get used to the pressure of updating themselves, appearing for the exams, and always living on tenterhooks,” Dr Singh pointed out.

She also regretted that some people are so insecure about themselves that they are not willing to share their knowledge. “If you do not share knowledge and allow the team to come up and replace you, you cannot go to higher levels,” she cautioned. She emphasised the need for leaders to strategically engage with the middle management and also to be in touch with the frontline workers to get a pulse of what is happening on the ground.

Four days awake, and still fresh

Dr Singh was the emergency response director for almost 15 years. Narrating the unfortunate experience of handling an accident, she said, “In 30 minutes of knowing about the accident, I reached the emergency command centre. I was awake for four days and nights at a stretch and I was still very fresh at the end of the operations. This is the resilience that we are all blessed with. We had to help so many people who were in hospitals. That intention of helping others is what prevented me and my team from getting tired. If as a leader you can generate positive vibes, you can automatically spread those vibrations around you and build a vibrant team,” advised Dr Singh.

Earlier, CV Subba Rao, President, MMA and MD, Sanmar Shipping delivered the welcome address. Dr S N Sridhara, Vice Chancellor, Hindustan Institute of Technology and Science, recalled the immense contribution made by late Dr KCG Verghese to the field of education and technical education in particular.

“Dr KCG Verghese took up and succeeded in the privatisation of professional education in Tamil Nadu. His motto was to make everyone a success and no one a failure,” said Dr Sridhara in his opening remarks. Dr RW Alexandar Jesudasan, Pro Vice Chancellor delivered the closing remarks. Gp Captain Vijayakumar, ED, MMA proposed the vote of thanks.

(The author is a freelance writer based in Chennai, a corporate trainer, and a visiting faculty for various B-Schools.)