Executives Unpacked Episode 28: Embracing Relativity with Samer Halawi

This post was written by: John Clifton

The insights that our executive guests share on Executives Unpacked are always a great listen. Episode 28’s guest was no exception. We were joined by Samer Halawi, the CEO of AALTO HAPS, an Airbus subsidiary that’s developing high altitude technology at a stratospheric level. Simon is a seasoned telecom executive with over 30 years’ of success in building and transforming global companies. Here’s a round-up of his insights and advice:

What would you say is the biggest lesson that you’ve learned during your career?

It’s all about the team. If you want to achieve anything big in the corporate world, you have to have the right team. It’s critical to assemble an A+ performance team very quickly, whether it’s a transformation job, a startup or an ongoing concern. Despite that, there are a number of traps that people fall into when they’re building their team. One is not having enough diversity on the team. Every kind of diversity is incredibly important, whether you’re thinking of gender orientation, culture, background, etc. Having a good mix brings a lot of energy and capability and complementarity of skills. The other trap is taking too long to make some changes. If you want to achieve big things, you really need to be decisive and ensure that you have people who are well incentivized to do big things, and do it quickly.

What do you wish you’d been told earlier in your career?

As you mature professionally and you gain more experience, you become more and more aware that perception is just as important as facts. When you’re younger, you’re more by the book and black and white, and you focus so much on the facts, and you forget the perception. I wish I had been better alerted to the fact that perception is just as important as facts sooner. 

What is the best bit of career advice you have ever been given?

One of my bosses told me that there’s no right or wrong, there’s only my version of right or wrong. It’s all relative. When you’re insisting that something is wrong, you have to open up your mind a little bit and understand that different people have different perspectives. You get things done by understanding that and navigating situations with that awareness rather than trying to force your perspectives on everyone else. 

What keeps you awake at night?

We’re a new industry, and because we’re working with something that elaborate, we’re working not just on technology or regulations. We’re working on certification, the commercial aspects, financial aspects, shareholding aspects, board aspects… This isn’t a one track project – there are 17 different tracks, each of which is significant. I’m ensuring that they all fit together, that we can deliver the service that we’re promising. 

Making sure that our people are engaged and aligned keeps me up too. We need to give them a promising future. People in environmental startups work hard, they work with passion and they believe in what they’re doing. I want to make sure that they come out of this feeling proud of what they’ve achieved, with an incredible CV and the economical benefits of being here and doing this. 

Is there a single thread that’s run through your career that’s led to your success?

Something that resonates with me is the belief that if you’re willing to put in the work, anything is possible. I don’t believe in free lunch or entitlement – I believe that you have to earn everything and lead by example. That means a lot of focus, a lot of hard work, and a lot of perseverance. Earning my place is the common thread that I can recognise in my own career for sure. 

What would be the one piece of advice that you would give to someone entering the industry?

My advice is mainly to investors who are looking to come into the industry; do your due diligence. Don’t just focus on perception, go for the facts on this one. Drill deeper, because you want to put your investment in projects that make sense and have a strong foundation. There are big new tech companies who’ve decided ‘We want to do a service like this and launch an aircraft or a balloon’, but it’s not easy to build an aircraft. It takes years of really strong engineering and certification work, and not everyone can do that. One thing that I would be careful of is proper technical due diligence, and ensuring that there’s an alignment between the economics and the technology. Some projects have really good technology that works, but then the price doesn’t work for that market that they’re trying to serve. I see quite a bit of this misalignment. 

To learn more about Samer as an executive, tune into Executives Unpacked here

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