A Passion for People: AIR FRANCE KLM’s Ihab Sorial

Airline General Managers on the cover of Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine’s 2nd issue. Photo by Richie Castro.

Upon conversing with Ihab Sorial, one is first struck by his openness, then by a series of of pleasant surprises. Sorial professes a fondness even for aspects of the Philippines that most may find unpleasant. It would shock the most jaded Manila natives to hear that he likes driving around the metropolis, “I love the organized chaos, all the complexities and challenges of the country.”

But then Manila traffic may not be much compared to being General Manager for the South China Sea region of AIR FRANCE KLM, the biggest airline group in Europe. Their figures are staggering. Turnover this year was 23 billion euros, an increase of 7 percent compared to the year before, while net income was 1.24 billion euros, a 32 percent increase. “It’s getting from good to better to great,” states Sorial. “Results are very positive despite rising fuel surcharges and costs.”

This upbeat trend extends to the airline’s operations in the Philippines. Flying state-of-the-art Boeing 777-200s with audio/video-on-demand in every seat, KLM is the only airline that flies nonstop between the Philippines and Europe, capturing the highest market share.

Ihab Sorial. Photo by Richie Castro.

“The Philippines should really strive to get more airlines to come in and maintain the ones already here,” advises Sorial. “It’s always healthier for the industry and the country to have competition.”

During the photo-shoot for the magazine cover, the airline men all cast aside their professional rivalries and got along like good friends. “Although we are competitors, we still do like each other. It’s nothing personal. That’s really top-notch professionalism,” Sorial states admiringly.

International air travel is definitely one industry where one has to be adept at dealing with people of different cultures. Since their operations span the globe, airlines need a truly global perspective and attitude to rise above the pack. The successful merger of AIR FRANCE and KLM proves how unity in diversity is not such an implausible concept. As one group, two airlines and three businesses, each airline has retained its individual identity, trade name and brand, and respective hub.

“AIR FRANCE is French and KLM is Dutch, but it’s a nice combination,” says Sorial. “I’m Egyptian-American. So we really don’t distinguish between cultures or nationalities. To be honest, we really value everyone the same way. We do know that expats travel a lot, and they’re a market segment we value. But the best thing to do is to cater to everybody’s needs with the same passion, wherever they come from. Others may use the word ‘customer-passionate’, but we try to we transcend that, to go the extra mile, to do what matters.”

It’s this passionate approach to his work that shows why Sorial was entrusted with such an important position at the airline. During his stint in Bangkok he oversaw the first integrated region in the entire world for AIR FRANCE KLM, while Manila is one of the first countries in the world where the two airline titans merged operations.

Having lived and worked in seven countries and been in charge of more than 15 territories over the past 13 years, Sorial is the consummate pro when it comes to intercultural relations. “In business, we may not always agree on the right ways of doing things. It’s not always easy to build a consensus. But we all share some of the same values, such as the value of common sense.”

Sorial believes in respect, transparency and clear communication as the ingredients for a successful organization, especially in a merger. He stresses how success depends on a company’s people and their convictions. As a manager, his greatest motivator to do well is the team of people he oversees.

“People inspire me. And I hope it works both ways,” Sorial reveals. “Sometimes you motivate people by saying if you work hard you get a bonus, but you won’t get one if you don’t. But genuine inspiration is based on the heart. So if you truly like your people and what you’re doing, you inspire them. As a leader you have to connect with them on a personal level.”

It’s this strong team connection that keeps the AIR FRANCE KLM regional office here running like a powerhouse. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Sorial however. “I’m proud to be an Egyptian,” he declares. “But it also plays a role in my position. AIR FRANCE KLM always had French or Dutch general managers before. It’s not easy. It takes time until people believe in you. Sometimes they may have this perception that you’re too good to be true. It takes a lot of sincerity and heart to really prove to them that you care for them.”

He explains that the way he plays tennis, is the same way he works, and vice versa. “When I feel down I say ‘never ever give up’. For instance, if I reach a dead end or I’m really drained, I just interrupt the pattern. So before I serve, instead of bouncing the ball three times, I bounce it seven times. I really apply my work values to my game.”

Attaining Sorial’s objectives for himself and his team is far from an effortless process as he describes: “You have to be perceptive, notice everything, and try to fill the gaps. You look, listen, and ask questions, then try to be fair, decisive and understanding.  My approach is to be very genuine, straightforward, and pragmatic. One cannot work alone. You have to know when to pull and when to push, and when to share leadership. It’s a balancing act, day in and day out.”

Out of the office, Sorial also does his best to maintain a sense of equilibrium. “I always strive to be consistent in my actions. I learned that from my children,” he relates. “My eldest son once told me: ‘Dad, I wish you would treat me like you treat your staff.’ This really hit me. He said: ‘Even when you come home, you’re always working.” So I try to be as fair and balanced as possible. And I think I manage. I try to be myself everywhere. My staff is shocked when they see me in shorts, because they always see me in a suit, or when I joke. So I say, ‘this is me, I’m a human being’”

But what does elevate Sorial’s humanity, although he may be too modest to draw much attention to it, is his gracious spirit. A strong sense of spirituality imbues his words and deeds. He openly shared his love for this particular quote by Mahatma Gandhi: “My life is my message.”

“Everyone’s life can be his message,” expounds Sorial. “You can do great, even if you start small. I’ve been touched by many people and I hope that many people have also been touched by me. I just hope my message reaches across the world, through every country I’ve been.”

When asked where he’d want to go from here, Sorial shrugs off any ambitions for a loftier, less hands-on job. “I like being close to people, coaching them, making them happy. I don’t think there’s anything better than what I am doing.” There is little doubt though that he will continue to move on and find more people to inspire, and more places to spread his message.

-text by Jude Defensor, some rights reserved. first published in Expat Travel & Lifestyle magazine, 2007

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