Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Arrives

For helping an airline adjust to market shifts 

Ada Osakwe is all for investing in loads of good ideas, but she’s also ready, willing and able to kill off any that aren’t delivering strategic value. Yes, even the ones that seem really cool.

“It’s really important to ask the sometimes-uncomfortable question: How does this project deliver on business strategy?” she says. “I personally wouldn’t work on a project if it’s in conflict with business strategy. There’s risk you might deliver a sensational product or service that does nothing to contribute to organizational goals.”

At Qantas, Osakwe is responsible for prioritizing capital expenditures. The gravity of that challenge escalated after the global pandemic. Amid grounded flights and weary travelers, airlines around the world are forced to rethink the future. 

Osakwe is helping Australia’s largest airline respond to such market shifts swiftly and strategically. She relies on standardized criteria to rank initiatives and then uses that score to inform discussions with senior executives and communicate project priorities downstream. Being able to objectively explain why one initiative scored higher than another gives transparency to the process—and helps build trust with stakeholders.

Over her nearly 10-year career at Qantas, she’s learned the value of earning that trust, especially with people hit with what seems like relentless disruption.  

“I cannot emphasize the need for empathy enough. We need to look after our people and let them know what’s going on,” she says. “Check in periodically on how they are coping with changes.”

Q&A: Ada Osakwe on passionate people, diversity of thought and collaboration

What is your philosophy for leading projects?

Work with passionate people. You will not always agree on the best way forward, but you’ll come up with a lot of interesting options which could yield great results.

What is the most influential project you've worked on?

Line maintenance transformation. It was a very multifaceted program with a high impact for people and change. I learned a lot about the role of trust in project teams on this project.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

My volunteer work with kids with disabilities. It is the longest job I have ever held—more than 15 years.

What’s one way managing projects will have changed by 2030?

We’ll have a lot more virtual teams from different corners of world working on common projects than what we do now and even more reliance on technology to facilitate collaboration across the globe. This would bring even greater diversity of thought and creativity to project delivery.

What famous or historic person would you want on your project team?

Andrew Denton. I loved his TV show Enough Rope. You can tell he has an incredible work ethic by the amount of preparation he does before his interviews, which yields the most fascinating insights about his interviewees. I think he surprises the people who come on his show with the depth of research about his subjects. He often asks the most poignant and pointed questions that bring out the most fascinating stories.