Back in UCD, Shairon got the results she needed. She loved her year in Cambridge, doing her M Phil in politics and international relations. Time spent travelling the world and doing some exciting internships on Capitol Hill and in barristers’ chambers was followed by legal training in London with Clyde and Co.
Ultimately though, Shairon felt the pull to return home to Dublin, and took a job at a leading corporate law firm. There, she experienced a long-hours culture, with weekend and overnight work an accepted part of the package.
But through a client, Shairon also got her first taste of the exciting world of aircraft finance. She already knew she wanted a job in one of Ireland’s premier sectors. Pharma or tech didn’t appeal greatly, but aviation leasing seemed glamorous and attractive.
In 2011, she jumped at the chance to join the in-house legal team at GECAS, working as an associate counsel. She was willing to relocate from her home in Dublin to Shannon to get a foot on the ladder, as well as accepting a temporary step backward in title in order to move forward. She saw the move as a necessary one, once she had identified her dream job.
The role primarily involved working on deal teams, doing everything from drafting and negotiating small amendments to aircraft or engine leases, to leases with new customers, to aircraft or engine-sale agreements, and the innovations of lease agreements.
A naturally confident person, she set her cap at a commercial role while working in the legal department at GECAS, and began putting out feelers.
“As soon as I joined GECAS as a lawyer, even though I was getting great experience in legal there, I saw that commercial was where I wanted to be. I didn’t fall into this, by any means. Nothing falls in your lap; you have to seek out those opportunities.
“What I liked about commercial was that it seemed to be the most suited to my personality and interests, as it’s a far broader and more customer-facing role. Even when I was in a law firm, I liked the client interaction. I liked being out and about.”
Shairon points out that, back in the ’70s and ’80s, before the advent of emails and conference calls, some leasing companies had historically only allowed trained lawyers to go into commercial roles, given the enormity of the deals they were making. Her legal background was a distinct advantage. However, that didn’t mean the job was hers.
In September 2015, a role in commercial came up. She made the transition from legal to commercial, joining the Europe and Canada team. Once again, she moved back to Shannon from her home in Dublin, taking a strategic step back from a vice-president role to associate vice-president.
It was a relocation and a step backwards in title but, again, Shairon saw the big picture.
“It was definitely worth it, and the job was exactly what I expected. It’s been great, I’ve learnt a lot, signed many deals, and secured a handful of new customers.”
However, she laments that she receives far fewer requests for mentoring and advice from younger women on how to get into commercial roles than she does from their male counterparts.
“In general, I would say always seek out opportunities – you cannot expect people to tap you on the shoulder for your next role or promotion. Also, if you are considering a switch in careers, don’t be afraid to take a step back in title or to relocate.”
Light up the sky
Initially, Shairon shadowed others who were longer on the job. A year later, she got her own airline accounts, including SAS, Finnair and Icelandair, dealing with fleet managers at bigger airlines and CEOs at smaller ones.
The job involves constant communication about evolving aircraft needs, matching supply and demand. The travel also involves sacrificing family time, but Shairon, then in her early 30s, was willing to embrace the challenge.
“A lot of people said to me, ‘don’t do it, because you won’t be able to travel when you have kids’. But I was determined, and knew I would make it work.”
Now based in Dublin, Shairon is responsible for managing customer relationships for GECAS’s commercial aircraft lease business. She manages customer accounts in Denmark, Estonia, the Faroes, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway, Poland, Sweden and Britain.
There is no specific graduate training programme, as such, for her commercial role, but she says that her lawyer’s training is a massive help. That initial legal department job included reviewing ‘letters of intent’, working on approvals, drafting aircraft-lease documents, and reviewing customers’ comments on those.
Best of both worlds
Weekly or fortnightly travel is something she takes in her stride, even as the mother of an 18-month-old baby boy. The working week starts with Monday regional calls and then a lunchtime global call, with updates on all current deals.
Typically, on Tuesdays (before COVID), she flies out of Dublin to meet her customers in a variety of European countries. She generally stays city-centre and enjoys a walk or a run. Otherwise, it’s working on her laptop and availing of room service after customer meetings.
“Some customers don’t want to go for dinner or lunch and prefer office-based meetings, but sometimes they do, especially if we are celebrating a deal. Generally, I’d say my trips are not as exciting or glamorous as people might think. I spend my time dealing with hotel wi-fi and trying to catch up on work, because your day is gone when you’re travelling.”
Because she covers Europe, there are no long-haul flights involved, and most trips are limited to two nights, either weekly or fortnightly.
“If I was still in a law firm, working all-nighters and weekends, I would probably see my son less than I do now. The aircraft-leasing industry culture is that you generally don’t work weekends, unless there’s an emergency.”
Her strong message to other women aspiring to a commercial role in aviation is that it can be done: “Of course, there are challenges juggling travelling with a family – but it’s doable.”
Even on her six-month maternity leave, she found herself itching to get back to work.
Face to face
Shairon believes that business travel will still have an important role to play in the future, because customers want to retain that close relationship.
“Face-to-face meetings will still be key. If I had only taken on this role at the start of COVID, I would probably be finding it much tougher without those customer relationships that I have built up over the years. When customers know that you know what you’re doing, it means so much – and it takes a while to build up that trust.”
The Dubliner learned a thing or two from watching her father, Paul Sexton (now retired), build up his substantial garden centre and property business. It’s important to cultivate relationships, and not simply ring or meet people when you’re trying to sell them something, she believes.
“My father told me that face-to-face contact is always better – and don’t always be looking to get or sell something. Relationships are key. And even if things get difficult and a customer relationship is challenged, it has to be ‘water off a duck’s back’.”
Shairon believes she has jet fuel in her blood – her maternal grandfather Denis Herlihy was on the board of Aer Lingus as a senior civil servant. And, as a lawyer, she believes she brings a certain way of thinking to her job.
“You are more attuned to risk and causation. Lawyers are strong at structuring a deal, thinking two steps ahead, and seeing the risk in a lease and what might go wrong.”
Business travel hasn’t yet lost its appeal, and Shairon says she has missed it during the COVID restrictions: “I haven’t travelled abroad since January, and working from home has certainly been a challenge because I’m in a small apartment and work and play is all rolling into one.
“I much prefer being in the office, talking to people, and having that work/home separation. It helps with finding the necessary balance between the two.”
She is in no doubt that the aviation industry will get through this difficult time. “In light of the drop in commercial air travel in 2020, airlines have conserved cash, often deferring orders or not flying their current fleets, and it’s difficult to predict when air travel will resume fully,” she says.
“While navigating this disruption, GECAS has been working, customer-by-customer, leaning into our areas of expertise to get the best outcome for them and for GECAS.
The aviation industry will get through this, and I do believe there are always opportunities that arise from difficult situations,” she concludes.