Career Advice Working Women

Winged woman

Air Hong Kong COO Anna Thompson is riding high in her air-cargo career

Being a female boss in the distinctly male world of aviation cargo may seem a formidable challenge. Anna Thompson, chief operating officer of Air Hong Kong, however, says the qualities, attributes and leadership skills required for the sector can be possessed by either gender.

“The first piece of advice I would give aspiring female managers who may be interested in aviation – and particularly the air cargo industry – is to be the best leader and manager you can be,” she says. “This is the same whether you’re female or male. It’s about being a good communicator, a great team leader, being able to develop and try out new ideas, manage change, adhere to sound financial acumen, and take difficult decisions.”

She also feels, however, that there are several areas female bosses in general need to work on to increase their chances of success. “I think that as female managers and leaders we probably need to work on our resilience and our capabilities at building relationships and networks, as in my experience, women tend to be less proactive in these areas,” she says.

“You also need to constantly ask for feedback, so you are constantly able to improve yourself as a manager. Don’t stay stationary and ask to take on those difficult jobs – I think that is most important for being a successful leader.”

In terms of women in leadership positions, the air-cargo industry is playing catch-up, in Thompson’s view. “We are still quite a rare breed. But that is the case for many airlines and industries overall. However, I don’t think we’re necessarily lagging behind. Indeed, I’m pleased to say that at Air Hong Kong we have a female CFO and a female head of engineering, so actually we’re doing quite well within our part of the industry,” she says.

“Sometimes people are a bit surprised when they’re introduced to me, but it’s usually been a genuinely pleasant surprise. If you go into the cargo warehouse, you’ll rarely see a female manager or – even less so – a female employee packing the boxes and so forth. But this does not mean it’s because the company doesn’t want to recruit women, it’s just that women in this diverse labour market are not so interested in those roles.”

Thompson’s role is demanding and encompasses many operational areas. “Air Hong Kong is an all-cargo joint-venture between Cathay Pacific and DHL, and as COO, I’m responsible for all the operations, ensuring on-time performance and, above all, ensuring a safe airline,” she says.

Akin to all C-suite roles, Thompson’s job requires formidable organisational skills. “In this era of global sourcing, just-in-time manufacturing and people expecting everything quickly – often yesterday – the air-cargo industry has never been more crucial for consumers. It’s really exciting, it’s fast-paced, and – all in all – it’s a great industry to be in,” she says.

Air Hong Kong is part of one of Hong Kong’s most venerable trading companies, Swire. Thompson has been with the organisation since 1990 when, after graduating from Oxford University, she started her training in Hong Kong.

“Swire is an excellent company to work for,” she says. “They have provided me with a great amount of variety in my work and career, while at the same time delivering the continuity that has enabled me to do my best work.”

She also has another crucial role – she’s the mother of a 17-month-old daughter, Georgia. Juggling single parenthood with a high-flying career is something she has become adept at, and gives credit to her helper, Rose, who provides peace of mind and much more.

“In terms of work-life balance, I’m very fortunate that I have great help, and that is my key to my getting the right balance,” she says. “Somebody said to me when I was pregnant: ‘You need to work out what your priorities are.’ And my priorities are my daughter and my work. To be honest, the other things have had to be pushed aside. So I strongly believe that understanding what your priorities are is really important.”

As a Swire employee, Thompson has served across the globe since joining the company 23 years ago. Her first overseas stint came in 1992 when she was posted to Singapore. Since then she has worked in Cebu in the Philippines, Rome, Frankfurt, and most recently Singapore again, before returning to Hong Kong two years ago.

“I’m often asked whether I prefer Hong Kong or Singapore,” she says. “In fact, as wonderful as Singapore is, Hong Kong is really much more home to me. It’s also proving to be a wonderful place to raise my daughter – in a small village on the loveliest stretch of the south Lantau coast. My two black Labradors, Molly and Max, love it here too.”

Thompson has another home – a villa that she owns in Umbria, Italy. “My time working in Italy was an especially happy one. Like so many people who visit the country, I fell in love with the place,” she says.

“Today, one of my passions, and a means of relaxation, is cooking Italian food. I learned in Italy that the path to the best meals was walking to the local market, buying the freshest produce and then preparing a home-made feast, with the additional ingredient of good company. I do that here in Hong Kong too, with limitations. Hong Kong doesn’t have the same food markets as Umbria, but it has so much going for it in every other respect. That said, I try to spend a few weeks of every year in Italy. Time back in Umbria provides another form of balance in my life.”


Anna Thompson’s favourite destinations
ITALY  “Or, more specifically, Umbria [pictured]. I have a house near the beautiful medieval hill town of Montone, and nothing beats sitting on the terrace with friends, watching the sunset and enjoying the amazing local food and wine.”
AUSTRALIA  “Sydney, in particular – wonderful food and a great outdoors lifestyle.”
PHILIPPINES  “I lived in Cebu for 18 months early on in my career and I love the country and the people. Cebu is a perfect and easy getaway from Hong Kong.”
NEW YORK  “You can’t beat the shopping and in many ways, New York reminds me of Hong Kong – it never sleeps and never stops moving.”
THAILAND  “I love Thai hospitality and the range of activities you can enjoy while on holiday – beautiful beaches, great diving and trekking, and a simply delightful place to relax.”