Q&A with Sodexo CEO of Airline Lounges, Charlotte Jensen

Paul Stefunek, Vice President, Practice Leader

M: (440) 781-1794 | pstefunek@gattihr.com

Charlotte Jensen, CEO, Airline Lounges at Sodexo, is responsible for the P&L and the strategic relationships with Sodexo’s aviation clients, ensuring world class hospitality, F&B and facilities management for millions of travelers across the US.  Charlotte and her team partner with the largest domestic and global airlines as well as international third party lounges to deliver innovation and an enhanced guest experience every day.  Sodexo’s award winning D&I initiatives were a key driver for Charlotte joining the team in 2017 as she is passionate about gender balance and D&I in the workplace and encourages her team to actively participate in the EBRG’s and the community.  Prior to joining Sodexo, Charlotte held the position of Senior Vice President, Sports & Entertainment with ABM Industries, Inc. Her experience at ABM ranged from operations, finance, executive sales management and execution, and Charlotte was ultimately responsible for the overall growth and operations of ABM’s global Sports and Entertainment vertical.

What did you do as the leader to handle the situation?

First and foremost, I took a deep breath and prepared for a marathon.  As the situation continued to unfold, we saw the writing on the wall.  I always say “find your people” when I speak to teams about my career and what has helped make me successful in business – it’s never me alone, it’s my extended team and my network of mentors.  The weeks leading into the pandemic and after, I was surrounded by brilliant, caring, thoughtful and strategic team members – we navigated these uncharted territories together, side by side.  No single person has all the answers, but a team of diverse leaders, with very different skillsets and backgrounds – we as a team, created the answers.

How often and how open did you have to communicate with your organization?

Even when you don’t have the answers, you must communicate.  Your teams deserve it, they need to feel heard and be able to have open dialogue knowing and trusting that their leaders are actively working on solutions.  I have always been an open book, call it like it is – and even though we have had some very challenging and painful conversations that resulted in difficult decisions, I rely on the larger corporation to guide us and I owe it to my team to be clear, direct and available.

Is there an opportunity to pivot your business?  If so, how long will the pivot take to implement?

Absolutely, we are planning and seeing opening schedules as I type.  Our partners in the aviation industry were hit very hard due to COVID-19, and Sodexo has pivoted quickly and often in support.  As we look at the landscape globally, different regions of the world are in various stages of “re-opening” depending on many drivers such as federal mandates, culture, border access, government support and labor market indicators.

As a segment, we have clear insight into macro trends that affect our business and we align at least weekly with our partners to ensure our viewpoints match.  Various reports indicate that “pre-COVID” travel levels will not recover until 2023 – as we compare these reports to actuals, we are seeing large spikes of guest counts in certain hubs which hopefully are signposts that may revise the 2023 estimate.

Did you change your leadership style in any way during the impact of the business?

No

What messaging or value proposition did you change to approach the pivot?

Internally and externally we worked hard to be flexible and transparent.  Our team was impacted early with deep cuts which meant that the rest of us had to roll up our sleeves and step in.  Flexibility in thought leadership during a time with such large unknowns in uncharted territory helps everyone, especially our clients.  We need to continue to be seen as trusted partners and for me the best way to do that is having open and transparent conversations internally and externally.

What advice do you have for existing or future leaders?

When you are in the midst of a battle which no one could have expected, the impact on so many lives and businesses across the world will get to you and it will be morally, mentally and physically challenging.  As continued obstacles hit us in some shape or form, the responsibility of a leader and the team that remains behind is to charge forward and work 10 times harder.  It is a heavy responsibility, one that should not be taken lightly, that the future of our teammates who have been furloughed or laid off rests with our commitment to forge the path forward.