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The L&D profile – Gatwick Airport

Nick Martindale

London Gatwick

London Gatwick is ‘the world’s most efficient single runway airport’ - and with plans on the table to potentially build a second runway, Nick Martindale catches up with Valerie Round to see how they’re planning to keep it that way

Regardless of the outcome of the long-awaited decision over where the UK’s next runway will be built, Gatwick Airport is already in a period of rapid expansion. Passenger numbers have increased by more than six million since 2009, and the amount of people using the airport each year is expected to hit 40 million by 2016.

Against this backdrop, however, it was essential the business had a senior leadership team that was equipped to cope with the challenges that lay ahead, and this became a key focus for Valerie Round when she joined the business as an in-house HR consultant in 2013.

Initially she spent 18 months assessing and managing performance levels of employees, including those in senior roles, and realised there were issues around helping senior people – typically heads of departments – achieve their full potential and progress up to the next level. There was particular concern around the broader strategic vision that would be required to deliver change rather than focusing on day-to-day operational issues.

Improving leadership capability

The organisation embarked on a two-pronged attack to improve the capabilities of its leaders. “Initially we recruited some really high-calibre people, but at the same time we realised we needed to grow our own talent too,” says Round. “We wanted to grow them for the next level, so they could either move up to a more senior role or make them more effective in their current one.”

Those earmarked for development fed into the process, she adds, highlighting areas they felt needed work. “Because we were starting from scratch, I was lucky enough to work with all the heads of departments and started to really understand what they were looking for from me,” adds Round. “They were excited to be invested in, and the key thing they were looking for was to progress.” 

Knowing it would need support in both developing and running such a programme, the business put out a tender and eventually opted to work with leadership development organisation Forum. In all, some 15 people were put through the process – roughly two-thirds of whom were from operational roles and one-third from support positions – which consisted of three three-day modules, running from October 2014 to May 2015.

The content was delivered by both Forum and Gatwick’s own leadership team, and revolved around the three areas of leading the business, leading people and teams, and developing their own personal leadership style. “It was a mixture of some theory, some discussion debate and then putting people in an environment where there is a situation they have to deal with and debating the outcome of that,” says Round.

Getting executive buy in

One essential element for the success of the whole programme was the support of executives, including the chief operating officer, who helped to ensure the knowledge gained during the sessions filtered through into people’s day jobs. “He very much kept aware of what was happening and the learning outcomes we were trying to deliver,” says Round.

“After a few weeks he revisited these areas with his team, and stretched them in all those areas. It was amazing to hear how the leaders had adapted their thinking, and how all of a sudden their jobs were becoming easier. There is a danger if you don’t have executive sponsorship that you create something fantastic and delegates really buy into it, but they may not be stretched on the back of it.”

Her own attempts to manage the performance of leaders have also demonstrated an improvement, she adds, while around one in three of those who attended have now taken on bigger and more challenging positions. “There are some qualitative but also quantitative measures to show the programme wasn’t just a nice thing to do, but also had a return on investment attached to it,” adds Round.

There were a number of lessons learned along the way, she says, including the need to make more of the existing leadership team rather than relying too much on outside help. “Initially, we had got some external speakers lined up, but in fact our people wanted to see their own,” she says. “It creates immediate recognition from the delegates, and actually we had some really knowledgeable people who quite liked sharing their own learnings.”

The business is now looking to run more programmes, as well as working on improving its succession planning throughout the organisation, and has already started a process of identifying potential future leaders and putting them through a series of assessments. “It means their profiles are now known in the organisation,” says Round. “It’s quite a natural evolution; we’ve got a good cycle coming together now.”


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