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Dec
21
2020

Executive Watch - Romain Trapp, Airbus Helicopters

Posted 29 days ago ago by Admin

The Airbus Helicopters Inc. president and head of the North America region for helicopters was once so shy he was afraid to phone anyone he didn’t know. Romain Trapp says, “I was really super shy. I had to write down in advance every word I planned to say in a call.” So, the college accounting and finance student got fed up with his handicap and devised a strategy to overcome it. “I came to the point where enough was enough and I began to force myself out of my shyness,” he says. “For example, I volunteered to organize a conference at my college; it forced me to interact with people. Eventually, I worked my way out of my shyness, so that I now have no problem speaking to an audience of 200 people.” That’s a good thing, because presiding over a global original equipment manufacturer (OEM) like Airbus Helicopters is not a cubicle-in-the-bowels-of-a-building position for the super shy. It requires someone who can get out into the rotorcraft world, see how it’s changing, and react. When pressed to talk about his personal strengths as a top corporate executive , the humble leader says, “My strength,  I think, is my ability to grasp the big picture and develop strategy from that view. Also, I develop a sense of belonging to the team as soon as I start a new job. You’ll notice that when I talk, I use the word ‘we’ and never ‘them’ nor ‘I.’ Finally, I have developed an ability to adapt to changing circumstances because I’ve had different responsibilities in different countries.”

‘Lucky’ Guy

That multinational perspective began in an unlikely place—a quaint, rural village of 500 people in northeast France. “We had farms all around us,” Trapp says. “My parents were both nurses, and I was the first in my family to go to college.” That academic journey took him from his home village to Wales, and to an economics master’s degree from the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He worked his way through his studies with internships and part-time jobs and served a year of military service in which he became familiar with aerospace defense contracts. After obtaining degrees in finance, accounting, and business management, a future in banking or business consulting seemed destined for Trapp. Then his young wife got her first teaching job in Toulouse, France, a city that just happened to house the headquarters of Airbus. So, Trapp with his recently earned degrees applied to work at Airbus in 1998. The initial job interview threw him a curveball when the interviewer interjected, “I don’t understand why you are applying to work here at Airbus. With your business degrees, I would expect you to work for a bank or famous consulting firm. Why Airbus?”  Trapp’s reply hit that curveball out of the park. He answered, “It is very important for me to work in a job where I can connect financial figures with a tangible product that I can see and touch, and with a product that allows me to connect with people. Airbus gives me the opportunity to work in an interesting industry that allows me to connect my financial training to a tangible product that connects people.” Good answer, but Trapp thinks that his career was partially obtained by luck. “If my wife had not taken a job in Toulouse, I might never have worked at Airbus. I consider myself somewhat lucky,” he says.

Maybe Trapp gives “luck” too much credit. Although he didn’t actively seek to move to Toulouse, once there, he did actively seek a financial job at Airbus that he had academically  prepared for and he proved his worth to Airbus by traveling throughout Europe in various financial roles. In 2008, he learned Airbus was considering him for chief financial officer (CFO) of Airbus Helicopters Inc. in the United States. Up to this point, Trapp had mainly worked on the fixed-wing side of the OEM and wondered if the promotion would be a good fit for him. The former president of Airbus Helicopters Inc. at the time persuaded Trapp by saying, “It is the perfect fit for you because it involves business, top responsibility, and customer focus.” That convinced Trapp to interview and take the promotion. The Trapps moved to the U.S. in August and as the new CFO was just learning his new responsibilities, the greatest global financial crisis since the Great Depression hit. “So, after one month as CFO, I moved into crisis management,” Trapp says. “One has to learn their job very quickly,” he chuckles.

The Road Less Traveled

That baptism by fire conditioned Trapp to take a risk in his next career move. Airbus was a very engineering-centric aerospace corporation. Few had ever been promoted to a top management position without an engineering pedigree. The comfortable choice was for Trapp to not aspire to a presidential or head managerial position, but to instead enjoy a lucrative, relatively safe career in the financial offices of Airbus. On that well-worn path, he would ride along comfortably at the global headquarters in his native land of France. “I chose the riskier road,” says Trapp, “and did it by becoming president in 2013 of the Airbus Helicopter business in Canada.”  (a role he academically prepared for a year earlier in the executive management program at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business) Trapp had decided to be a new-world man and struck out to stake his claim in North America. After three successful years at the Canadian helicopter helm, he returned to the States, not as a financial officer, but as chief operating officer (COO) of Airbus Helicopters Inc., while simultaneously heading up the Canadian business.

 In July 2019, Trapp reached the summit of his 20-year-long pioneering climb by being appointed president of Airbus Helicopters Inc. and head of the Airbus North America region. Not bad for a career that began with a “lucky” move to Toulouse.

Family Matters

In those two decades since moving to Toulouse, Trapp not only built a successful executive career in aerospace, but grew a family with his wife, Francoise, in America. There is a tinge of regret in how he fulfilled his family role, “When you work as much as me, you feel like you don’t spend as much time with family as you should. When my oldest son graduated from high school and left for college; it was a surprise. He was little not so long ago—and then he was grown and gone.” That son is now a research biologist. With a lesson learned, Trapp continues, “I realized I missed some of his growing up, and I’m really trying to do a better job as a father and husband and be more involved with our 16-year-old son and spend as much time as possible with my wife—and our dog, Leia (named after the Star Wars princess). She’s the real queen of the house,” he laughs.

Trapp’s rededication to being a present father has meant early morning starts for the rededicated dad. “I have been spending much of any time away from work watching my son play hockey for the past few years; he is a goalie. It makes for very early mornings with practice starting at 6:00 and some games at 7:00,” but he also shares time with his wife, “I enjoy spending time with her. We’ve been together since we were 18. When you work as much as me, you feel like you don’t spend as much time with family as you should.” He hopes he and his wife will spend time together golfing as they age, “I play a little golf, but I don’t like how much time it can take. I’d like for my wife to take up the game so that we could play together.” Perhaps golfing with his spouse would make Trapp an even better executive. “I always had great bosses throughout my career, but I would have to say my biggest mentor has been my wife. When I get all wrapped up in business decisions and am in danger of losing perspective, she brings me back to reality and puts things in perspective for me.” With that comment, I wonder if Trapp might claim consulting expense tax deductions for golfing with his wife, but he’s probably too knowledgeable in accounting rules to consider such folly.

Reading is Fundamental

A non-deductible, productive pastime for Trapp is reading books that give insight into business management and leadership. “One of the very few benefits of COVID is that I didn’t spend as much time traveling and got to read more. I just finished Call Sign Chaos: Learning to Lead by former defense secretary Jim Mattis. It’s a very good book on leadership and I really liked it. Mattis is a really impressive guy,” he says. “Another book I’m finishing is called No Rules Rules: Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention. It’s very interesting because the culture at Netflix is different from any large business culture I know of. I initially thought that their company culture can work at Netflix, but could never work at Airbus or any large corporation, but then I began to rethink my initial opinion by asking: Why could it not work? So, it’s a book that pushed me and expanded my preconceived ideas about management and company culture.”

Another book that has become a sort of go-to bible for Trapp’s team is The Ideal Team Player: Hungry, Humble, and Smart. “I think that title sums up what I want in my team members and that book gets circulated among my people,” says Trapp. “Hungry means people who are always working to do a better job. Humble means keeping your personal ego in check, and smart not only means being clever, but also having the emotional intelligence that allows someone to cooperate and work with others as a team to achieve great things. If you don’t have emotional intelligence and can’t cooperate with others, you are going to be a single wolf in a large company. That is not a recipe for success.”

What Trapp sees as a successful recipe is synergy. “I think the success of a company is based on how efficiently people in a company work together. Maybe everybody can do a good job on their own, individually. But it’s when we all work together that just a good job can become great,” he says. “I’m a very strong believer in empowering employees to manage themselves and coupling that empowerment with accountability. This means I am the opposite of a micromanager. When a manager starts to micromanage his team, that’s an indication that something is wrong: either the leader is not doing his job or there are issues with the team.

Industry Challenge

Trapp is hoping this synergistic efficiency will allow Airbus to meet the greatest challenge to the rotorcraft industry he foresees: “The insurance rate for operators across the board is increasing 25%-50%,” he says with concern.  “This is forcing operators to rethink their business models and, I fear, many could go out of business. This will impact the entire rotorcraft industry. If you cannot afford insurance, you cannot fly anymore. Insurance is a necessity to stay in business.” Perhaps the greater productive efficiency Trapp seeks at Airbus will allow the OEM to realize savings it may pass on to its cash-strapped customers?

One thing that is not a question is Trapp’s commitment and loyalty to his organization.
“My personality is that I treat corporate business decisions as if the corporation were my own company. When you do that, you tend to take everything personally. In the past, when a decision was made above me for the good of the overall corporation that could affect my team or division in a negative way, I took it personally as some sort of slight to me and my team.”

However, Trapp has since matured. “The best piece of advice I got during one of those decisions was when someone told me, “Romain, it’s not always about you. Don’t take things too personally.”  In fact, Trapp says that’s the best wisdom he received in his rising career. “It’s funny, but I now pass on to other people that advice,” he says. “I still manage my responsibilities as if I were managing my own business, but I have learned to step back at times.” 

Still, when Trapp strategically steps back, as he did when he stepped back from returning to a traditional, financially focused career path in France and stayed in North America to hone his leadership skills in relatively quiet Canada, Trapp doesn’t step back without preparing to advance. His corporate career path to president was furthered by the humble self-admission that he was not yet ready to take a top, prestigious position, but needed to further prepare himself until he was plentifully equipped with education, resources, and experience to lead. Now that's a leadership principle we can all learn from!