Showcasing the Best of Welsh Business


Leading for Success


Debra Bowen Rees shares her leadership journey as she begins her role as Chair of the Institute of Directors in South West Wales.

From Air Traffic Control Officer to Air Traffic Management Force Commander responsible for all of the RAF’s Air Traffic operations in the UK and abroad, it was the 28 years of my career with the RAF that undoubtedly shaped my firm belief that better leaders make for a better world. After all, you don’t complete a tour of duty in Basrah Iraq or spend time in Helmand Province without learning a thing or two about leadership.

Having left the RAF in 2012, I went on to enjoy eight years with Cardiff Airport. I started as Operations Director before being appointed as Managing Director then Chief Executive. Like many CEOs, once I had settled into the role, I was keen to start to develop non-executive experience to run alongside my executive work.

In 2017, I became an independent Trustee of the Hijinx Theatre Group, an inspirational  Theatre Company that works with neuro-divergent actors to make strikingly different theatre and really challenges the way that we think about people with learning disability. I then joined the Board of Dwr Cymru/Welsh Water in January 2020 and the Board of the Port of Milford Haven  in September 2020.

Having now left Cardiff Airport and moved firmly in to the next phase of my career, I am passionate about the importance of good leadership and keen to support business leaders in Wales in my new role as Chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD) in South West Wales. Working with Richard Selby as National Chair of the IoD and Robert Lloyd Griffiths as National Director, I’ll be helping to connect, develop and influence as the economy begins to open up. Importantly, I share the IoD’s commitment to encouraging entrepreneurial activity and promoting responsible business practice.

Throughout my career,  I have really enjoyed building teams, watching them grow together and achieving personal and collective success.  I’ve championed the importance of understanding the benefit of diversity and the need to utilise individuals’ unique backgrounds and to develop their skills and attributes to their fullest potential.

Indeed, from my very first training in leadership in 1984 at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, the basic principles of leadership remain steadfast – understand your mission, use your experts to plan the execution of the mission, brief the plan to your team, check their understanding and then motivate them to get the job done.

Leadership is about solving problems and overcoming challenges. You’ve got to have a good understanding  of purpose; developing strategy, planning tactics and motivating the team to deliver the outcome that we needed.  It’s also fundamentally about leading people, looking after their well-being and inspiring them to achieve the best that they can.

My career has taught me that as the leader you’re not going to be an expert in everything that you are responsible for – your role is to set the strategic direction for the business, to make sure everybody understands the direction that you are collectively taking and then to empower your experts to develop and drive forward their own areas of the business.

You also need to surround yourself by good people. During my time as a Director of Cardiff Airport Board, I saw first-hand how non-executive directors can provide support to the executive team and can impact on the success of a company. I’m hoping that this experience will help me to become a better Non-Executive Director and ‘critical friend’ of the companies that I now work with.

My own leadership journey has been one of continual learning and development. I’ve worked with some great people and am now fortunate to be able to share my experience with others. I’m hoping that by working together, we can help generate prosperity and  do our bit to make the world a better place. That’s what good leadership is all about.