CEO Interview – Gretchen Haskins, HeliOffshore

In the latest of my series of interviews with business leaders, I’m exploring what motivates senior executives and how they navigate our complex business world.

Gretchen Haskins is the CEO of HeliOffshore Ltd, a company dedicated to global offshore helicopter safety. She is an aviation industry leader in safety performance improvement and an internationally-recognised expert in human factors.

She has served on the board of the UK Civil Aviation Authority as Group Director of Safety, overseeing aviation safety in the UK (including airlines, aerodromes, air traffic, airworthiness and personnel). Prior to that, Gretchen was Group Director of Safety at the UK air traffic company NATS where she championed activities to support frontline operational safety.

Gretchen previously worked in nuclear certification and safety of intercontinental ballistic missiles, joint airworthiness trials for military aircraft, defence system design – and as an expert advisor to NATO on human performance and safety critical systems. She has a strong aviation background, and has flown jet and piston aircraft in the U.S. Air Force.

Q:   The range of sectors you have worked in is enormous. Which did you enjoy the most?  

All of them in different ways, and what I’ve really enjoyed the most has been the variety of opportunities I’ve been fortunate to have had in my career. When I first started out in the US Air Force, one of the things they told me was that they would move me around every couple of years to help broaden my experience. They cited the need for leaders to be able to see things from many different perspectives.  That really sticks with me, because I have enjoyed each opportunity I have been given.  I have been able to work with such interesting people in aviation, military, civil, nuclear, air traffic, etc.

Now, I often ask myself the question, will it all add up?  To give an example, when I was at the UK CAA and we were preparing for the London 2012 Olympic Games, we looked at potential safety threats, and then the work of all the stakeholders in the aviation system to ensure our joint efforts would mitigate any potential risks.  It was wonderful to see all of the civil and military people, on the ground and in the air, playing their part to get everyone to and from the Olympics safely.

Q:   I know that you have a passion for safety – did this come from your initial experiences in the U.S. Air Force, or develop later? 

I have always been interested in human performance and designing systems to support people in achieving their full potential.  When I was working in Air Traffic Control, I had a wonderful boss who encouraged me to apply this to safety.  I caught the bug and never looked back.

My mother died in a car accident, so I definitely relate to the objective that no one should lose their loved one to a preventable accident.  I have been so fortunate to work with people who have worked tirelessly for years to implement safeguards in our aviation systems that will truly save lives.

Q: You are internationally recognised as an expert in “human factors”. Could you tell us more about this? 

It is basically a combination of engineering and psychology, with the overall purpose of designing a system that supports people in achieving their work.  Back in the days before touchscreen computers and glass cockpits, human factors engineers were envisaging direct manipulation, intuitive user interface designs to help people operate safely and efficiently.

It was so interesting to work on the design of some of the first touchscreen systems and doing user-in-the-loop testing to ensure designs would be fit for purpose. I participated in these tests on systems ranging from in-flight entertainments systems, to air traffic systems, to battlefield equipment and nuclear control centres.  It made such a difference to be able to test out any design with the people who will be using it, as early in the design process as possible!

I could go on and on, but I should at least mention that human factors also draws on psychology and how you motivate people to do things like wear seat belts, stay off their phones whilst driving, work in a team, etc.

Q: You now run a membership organisation. Is this very different to a more conventional commercial enterprise? 

I love working at HeliOffshore.  We are a global group of organisations, many of whom are competitors, who have pooled their efforts to further enhance safety in our industry.  More than ever, I feel I spend my time focused on delivering results for safety in the frontline operations.

It is wonderful to have access to all parts of the system, including Helicopter Operators, Manufacturers, Energy Companies, Regulators, etc., in order to focus our industry’s efforts on those things with the greatest safety benefit.

Q: Your current role is truly international. How do you deal with the rigours of extensive travel and dealing with your members across many time zones? 

Thank goodness for video conferencing!  Whilst it doesn’t replace face to face meetings, it sure does help.  The team and I do a lot of travelling, but it is always worth it.  I get to meet up with people from around the world working on similar priorities.  The more we work together, the more we know each other, and the easier it is to get things done.

One thing that we have implemented, which I could recommend to others, is an online collaborative portal that helps people from across the globe talk and work together 24 hours a day.  We can converse, comment on documents, share video, data, etc., and all with complete confidentiality.  Our HeliOffshore Space has made our world seem a little more connected.

Q: Do you have any outstanding challenges? Bucket list?

Travelling into space. I would love to see the view from there!

Otherwise, I am a big fan of acting on the list, so the list of what I have done comes to mind faster than the list of what is missing.  Following that principle, which was proposed by my parents, has been a real gift.

Q: What are the lessons you have learned that you would really like to pass on? 

I spent a lot of wasted time being afraid to fail (and yet with good reason as I was working in safety).  However, I found that actions driven by fear were never quite as effective as actions driven by goals and dreams.

So I spend a lot less time focusing on problems and a lot more time envisaging what good would look like and what it would take to get there.  I love the quote by George Bernard Shaw and made famous by the Kennedys:  “Some see things as they are and ask why? I dream things that never were and ask why not?”

Many thanks Gretchen for sharing your thoughts so honestly


The next in my series of Senior Leader Interviews will follow shortly…