Jacqueline Sutton is now the Chief Customer Officer at Rolls-Royce Civil Aerospace. In an exclusive interview with AeroTime to mark our week focused on women in aviation, she remembers the time when she had to explain to shocked customers that she was the boss and struggled to make her voice heard. Today, Jacqui becomes the second recipient of AeroTime’s ‘Aviation Achievement Award’.

From Russian student in the Soviet Union to the aerospace boss

Jacqueline Sutton has been at Rolls-Royce since April 2008 and has served in many roles across the business, becoming the Chief Customer Officer for Civil Aerospace in 2019. A graduate of Durham University, she has also studied at INSEAD on the international executive programme.

She majored in Russian, spending part of her student years living in the 1980’s Soviet Union. Once graduated, she was focused on finding a job where she could use her Russian language skills. In the Birmingham Evening Mail, she saw a job advertisement for an export sales professional. The job happened to be with an aerospace manufacturing company that was making windscreens and cabin windows for aircraft. “That's how I accidentally landed in aerospace.”

While Jacqueline has clearly had a very successful career in the aerospace business, there was a time when she considered leaving not only the business she was working for at the time, but the whole industry.

“I had a stage in my early to mid-30s, when I was seriously considering leaving the industry and leaving the particular business that I was with at the time. It was to do with looking up at the leadership in the C-Suite and just finding it to be a very unattractive and uninspiring environment that I would not want to be part of.”

Now, from time to time she encounters people with similar experiences: the ones who are questioning the environment they see or fighting a battle they find exhausting and unwinnable.  “I have a lot of sympathy for that,” says Jacqueline.

The reason why she herself did not leave the industry was related to finding an external mentor who was a FTSE 100 Index company CEO at the time and had volunteered for a mentoring program to encourage more women to become senior leaders in ‘Footsie’ companies.

“I tell him to this day that he is the reason that I stayed in my career and in the sector because he really opened my eyes to ways that I could make a difference by staying, and also ways that I could make my own life better, and help get my voice heard better.”

The odd one in the room

One of four children in the family and having grown up with three brothers, Jacqueline Sutton was more than used to being the “odd one out”. “It perhaps also made me a slightly competitive person in terms of wanting to and making sure that I held my own in any given situation.”

She says it was the industrial environment – not gender imbalance – that struck her the most when she first started working in the aerospace industry. “But I just found it fascinating – the factory, how it worked, who the people were,” she says.

“It took me a while, I think to really realize that actually, I was the odd one out.” Jacqueline first noticed that something was off in one of many meetings where she found it difficult to make her voice heard. Initially, she thought it was because people in the room already knew each other. It was only after a while when reflecting she realized that, actually, she was pretty much the only person in the room who wasn’t a man. “I realized that yes, that was part of it.”

After spending about five years in the industry, Jacqueline received a postcard with a cartoon on it. The cartoon depicted 12 people sitting around a boardroom, 11 men and one woman, and the chairman saying: ‘that's a very good idea, Miss Scott. Now, all we need is for one of the men to propose it.’

“That really resonated with me when I read that,” Jacqueline says. “Because on more than one occasion, I could think of meetings where I would suggest something and nobody would really pay much attention to it until about 45 minutes later, one of the men would say the same thing. And everyone would agree that it was a great idea. I definitely found that in those early years as well.”

Making her voice heard was one of two sexism-caused challenges that struck Jacqueline the most during her career. Another example – the one she calls her favorite – is from her salesperson days in the early 90s.

Being a fully-fledged and qualified salesperson she was often sent out to work with customers. She says that on several occasions she saw the look of shock on male customers’ faces after showing up. Sometimes, the facial expressions were accompanied by a look over her shoulder and a phrase ‘Oh, the interpreter’s arrived. Where's your boss?’ “And I'd say, Well, actually, this is it. This is me.”

“I'm not the only woman who would have similar examples,” she notes.

Micro interventions

In 2020, Jacqueline took over as the co-chair for the UK’s Women in Aviation & Aerospace Charter.

“This was a fantastic initiative that was started off by two women, both ‘forces of nature’. It all happened at the Farnborough air show in 2018. We were having conversations, and they just came to a consensus that actually, we needed to do more to start making a difference within our industry. I know, there was some inspiration that came from the huge strides that women made, for example, in finance charters. And that just felt like a good blueprint that we could use in aerospace to really garner support and connect all of the different companies within the sector.”

This initiative became a vehicle for what Jacqueline calls “micro interventions”: subtle actions that inspire people to make small changes, and in the end, lead to great effects and even greater results.

“What really kept me in the industry was having a mentor who could coach me at that very pivotal part of my career. Micro interventions, in my experience, are the real power of things like mentoring or coaching. These are quite subtle things that inspire people to develop and change, but in the end, they have a really big effect,” Jacqueline explains.

The last work of the Charter was commissioning a Korn Ferry executive report analysing the gender balance, or rather, imbalance in the industry. According to her, reading its summary, if not the full report, is highly advised if only for the great practical advice contained there.

“The first advice is, know your passion. In other words, if you are going to make a difference, particularly as a senior leader in the industry, that needs to come from a place of authentic passion and commitment. The second is not to be a one-hit-wonder. There has to be a plan for the long term, not just one or two events here and there. And the third really is that you have to be alongside the champions of the industry – the people you want to empower, those who can really move the agenda forward.”

The report contains a lot more practical insights, she says. It is a part of the resource hub recently launched by the Charter - a way of connecting with the Charter’s more than 220 signatories and harnessing the power and the knowledge base of the initiative. “We really wanted to make a resource hub that would give people practical help as they develop their own careers or coach others, or want to attract new people into the industry. There is advice, links to research reports, connections to other organizations, all kinds of advice we were able to put together.”

All of this with an intention not to disrupt the situation, but to make small changes that would result in great achievements - micro interventions, things that really matter. Because this is how things are done, according to Jacqueline, and it is what - in her opinion - will have lasting results, reaching into the future.

“Because for me, the real change would be the way we tell our story, actually. In some respects, this is within our grasp. I think that there are so many opportunities available to people of all different backgrounds and women who have really strong skills that have a lot to offer. Women could be great negotiators, great leaders of large teams. We don’t advertise enough what all of these different paths are. So the change I would like to see is really that we work much better to tell our story, in terms of all of the different opportunities and exciting roles.”

At the end of our interview, AeroTime CEO, Richard Stephenson, was delighted to present Jacqueline with one of the very first ‘AeroTime Aviation Achievement Awards’ for her work in this area.  The citation read: In recognition of her leadership and energy in promoting diversity and inclusion across the aviation sector, including serving as the co-chair of the Women in Aviation & Aerospace Charter. The AeroTime Global Executive Committee recognises the positive influence of these efforts and the significance of the impact on the aviation industry and its people, both today and into the future.

Jacqueline said “Well, I feel very humbled and honored by that and I stand on the shoulders of many women who have done a spectacular job in our industry over many years as well as a lot of really capable and encouraging men who have been my bosses and encouraged me in the various roles I have had. I feel very honored by that thank you very much indeed.”