Mastercard vice-chair Ann Cairns on how to handle a crisis

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer

Mastercard vice-chair Ann Cairns began her esteemed career at sea, becoming the first woman qualified to work on UK offshore oil rigs when she worked for British Gas as a research engineer in the late ‘70s and ‘80s

So it’s somewhat appropriate that she had a nautical analogy to hand when asked how she manages to keep a cool head in a crisis.

“You choose who you want to be in the lifeboat with, and I discovered that very early on as an engineer,” said Cairns on Yahoo Finance UK’s Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded show.

“You naturally start to develop a very good sense of who will be supportive, who won’t panic, who will get on with what they need to do, and you try and assemble the strongest team as fast as you possibly can.”

Watch the full Ann Cairns Global Change Agents interview here

Cairns has ample experience as a fixer. She helped to wind down Lehman Brothers International’s European operations during its bankruptcy process amid the financial crisis. Cairns joined Mastercard in 2011 and became its vice-chairman last year.

Communication is key when handling a crisis, she said, even though you may not always be able to confidently say what the final outcome might be.

“It’s a little like a tunnel in that you don’t actually see the exit of that tunnel, but you know that it’s there in the future and you know that if you just continue forward you’re not going to hit a brick wall — there is an exit,” Cairns said.

“I think if you have that in your mind, then you actually just move forward and you have the confidence to do that and it’s really just trying to get as much done every single day until at some point you start looking back and you realise you’re coming through, you’re start to see the light,” she added.

Cairns, who studied Pure Mathematics for her first degree at university and a masters in Medical Statistics, says this strategy somewhat harks back to her training

“You just have to feel that you’re OK in the dark for a while —and you can make decisions with 60% information [or] 40% information and feel comfortable with that,” Cairns said. “You never have the whole picture, just what are the variables telling you about what the likely outcome is here and just go in that direction.”

Global Change Agents with Lianna Brinded explores the stories of some of the most inspirational women across business, tech, and academia. Catch up on all the latest episodes here.