Amanda McMillan, AGS Airports: 'Boring boards will put women off'

The boss of Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton Airports - and one of the top women in the aviation industry - on bored boards, Brexit and why she treats every day like a recession.

by Kate Bassett
Last Updated: 25 Apr 2017

‘Board meetings can be an awful experience,’ says Amanda McMillan, the boss of AGS (Aberdeen, Glasgow and Southampton) Airports. ‘They’re formulaic and tedious – and I worry that they’ll put a whole generation of women off joining boards.’

McMillan, who took on her role in 2014, says she thought she’d have to ‘behave like a man’ to get ahead in her career. ‘At first, I tried to conform,’ she admits. ‘But I couldn’t do it; I couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a wee joke in a board meeting or compliment the chairman on his tie. And, eventually, I realised that everyone liked it. So now I try my hardest just to be me. ’

She’s also doing her best to shake up the stuffy board meeting. At Glasgow Airport, where McMillan is MD, she’s ring-fenced the first 1.5 hours of the monthly meeting for personal development. That might involve watching a TED talk or reviewing a business book (the latest title on their list: Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). ‘There’s always a slight backlash from people saying "we haven’t got time for that; let’s get on to passenger flows and budgets". But it’s important to mix things up. At the moment, we’re looking at how millennials would run a board meeting. Our next management away-day is at TRNSMT music festival in Glasgow.’

McMillan grew up in Linwood, Renfrewshire, where her father worked in the town’s former car factory and her mother juggled a full-time job as a wool buyer with running the family home. ‘My father was made redundant in 1981 when the factory closed down,’ she says. ‘My parents tried really hard not to make me feel scared but we didn’t have any money and that ate away at me.’

McMillan qualified as a chartered accountant with KPMG in Glasgow. ‘Coming from a working class background, that was a big deal,’ she says. ‘My mum and dad were so proud of me, they literally had the bunting out on the street.’

But accountancy wasn’t for McMillan, who quickly became frustrated with ‘sitting by myself, looking at figures’. She went on to work for meat casings firm Devro and drinks giant Diageo. In 2005, after having her daughter Sophie, she moved into a business support services role at what was then BAA. ‘Sheryl Sandberg talks about "leaning in". Well, I didn’t lean in when I first became a mother. I literally just wanted a job where I could work and puree carrots.’ But she couldn’t hide her talent. Within a few months, she was promoted to operations director. Then, in 2008, she took over the reins at Glasgow Airport, becoming its first female managing director – and one of only two women in Europe to hold that role.

Then came the worst downturn in aviation history. McMillan’s first job as MD was to impound an aircraft after the carrier went into liquidation. ‘That was the toughest time of my career – and it was the loneliest,’ she says. ‘Running an airport is like running a public service. You’re always in the spotlight and everyone questions your decisions. In all honesty, I wanted to run for the hills. I had a lot of self doubt. But I had to lock myself down and get things sorted. I learned commercial skills fast and furiously – and now I treat every day like a recession.’

Last year, McMillan was named as one of the 18 business, economic and political experts on the Scottish government’s Standing Council on Europe, following the UK's decision to leave the EU. She says she was ‘shocked’ when she found out the result of the vote: ‘I truly believe that everyone deserves a chance in life and I worried what message this would send out. There’s such a depressing undertone to it all. And Brexit certainly isn’t good news for the aviation industry. The real surge in cheap flights has come from being part of the EU.

‘I want to make sure that the virtues of European aviation are being reflected in the [Brexit] negotiations. That’s why I joined the committee. I want to have a voice. We have to accept that change is going to happen and look for the opportunities.’

Amanda McMillan was a guest speaker at MT's Inspiring Women conference in Edinburgh in March, alongside Hobbs CEO Meg Lustman and Direct Line's Jennifer Thomas. Check out our upcoming events here.

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