Kate Staples is the General Counsel at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, who led the legal team responsible for “Operation Matterhorn” ‒ the country’s biggest repatriation effort in peacetime. While the effort helped to gain a wide recognition of her leadership skills, those who know Kate in person, stress her kindness and dedication to duty and people as the true virtues of her leadership style. Today, Kate becomes the third person to be presented with an “AeroTime Aviation Achievement Award” for her work and her commitment to supporting others.
In an exclusive interview with AeroTime, Kate Staples shares the story of how she accidentally landed in the aviation field, what makes a good leader and why she doesn’t allow her teammates to apologize for the lives they lead.
“Accidental” career in aviation
Working in a very male dominated industry, Kate says she has never felt that career progression could be hindered for being a woman ‒ which is something that she attributes to the climate and the culture prevailing in the civil service. She felt what mattered was her aptitude, interest, curiosity, and energy rather than her gender or background.
“I was able to work alongside colleagues, both on the policy side and on the legal side, who were expert, vastly experienced in a range of subjects. There was very much a collegiate approach to getting the job done and focusing on achieving things in the public interest.”
Never apologize for having the life that you have, and having the responsibilities you have, and wanting to perform well, in both the personal and the professional domain.
It was that focus on something bigger than oneself that helped set the tone for her career and enabled her to focus on doing a good job at any given moment, Kate believes. “Because I was doing a good job, I was able to demonstrate value and achieve things that were of value to the team, to the department, and to the UK generally. So, there was an alignment, but I think it was enabled by the climate and the culture that certainly was evident in the civil service at the time.”
Now praised for her own leadership skills and approach, Kate shares some good practice examples of what marks good leaders for her, stressing approachability, humanity and dedication to duty.
When she walked into the Department of Transport and chose aviation, on day one she was given a pile of files about a foot high, Kate remembers. Tasked to draft some secondary security legislation, which she had never done before, she found out that besides giving it a good go herself, she was also able to speak to seasoned colleagues and ask for help.
“What marked out the leaders and the people from whom I’ve learned most was their helpfulness, their focus on what needed to be achieved, rather than their particular role in life or their role in the hierarchy, the importance of going about things in the right way, and making sure that contributions were solicited from all the relevant people at the right time. And that they were solicited in a way that was encouraging. That enabled everyone, regardless of seniority, or relatively junior status in the hierarchy, to share what they thought in order to develop a better outcome.”
In a field that can be quite abstruse and technical, such as aviation law, Kate experienced leadership that was focused on enabling rather than over complicating things. This was achieved by being very clear on what they were trying to achieve, who needed to play a role in achieving that, and then getting everyone who were involved together. “So, leadership wasn’t hierarchical, it was evident in contributions of value to getting the job done.”
No apologies for the life that you have
As a leader, Kate is always trying to create circumstances where colleagues feel able to work in a way that is sensible and suits their particular set of circumstances. She remembers an example when she had a female colleague who had caring responsibilities and was ‘very apologetic’ about having a non-standard working week.
“We had a conversation about it, I said, never apologize for having the life that you have, and having the responsibilities you have, and wanting to perform well, in both the personal and the professional domain. That’s an approach I’ve carried through.”
By the time COVID hit in March 2020 and the world was forced to learn the nuance of remote working, her team was already well beyond the standard office-based five days a week. However, flexibility and respect for one’s personal life do not mean that business needs are forgotten.
“We’re working in ways that meet the needs of the business at the time. We’re also helping colleagues to live full lives outside the office. So, it’s about thinking about what’s needed to get things done for the CAA and what flexibilities can be built in. And recognizing that there’s got to be give-and-take, sometimes it will not be possible to give everybody the flexibility they want, because the business needs are so great.”
Perhaps the best recent example to test Kate’s style and approach was the failure of Thomas Cook on September 23, 2019, which left more than 150,000 holidaymakers without return flights home. The collapse of the tour operator left the UK CAA with the major task of organising the largest ever peacetime repatriation, known as “Operation Matterhorn”.
“If you think of the Thomas Cook scenario, essentially, lives were put on hold, in some cases for weeks, months on end. But it was necessary to make sure that consumers and those who we were bringing back from overseas were looked after properly.”
Kate’s aviation career might have begun by almost an accident, but the rest was far from accidental. Joining the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) in 2010, Kate Staples is currently the regulator’s General Counsel, where she serves as the official secretary to the Board and sits on the Executive Committee.
It is here that Kate led the legal team behind the UK’s biggest peacetime repatriation effort following the collapse of Thomas Cook in 2019. Kate was recognised as the Lawyer Magazine’s General Counsel of the Year for 2020. And in 2021, Kate Staples became one of the very first recipients of AeroTime’s ‘Aviation Achievement Award’.
“During her lengthy service to aviation, Kate has shown nothing but the best qualities: leading by example, promoting and encouraging equal opportunities for everyone, commitment, and dedication to her duty,” said AeroTime CEO Richard Stephenson when presenting her with the award.