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MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS Last modified on January 1, 2013

Changing faces

Joe Bates discovers more about the leadership challenges facing airports as the industry moves forward, business models evolve and the current generation of bosses begin to retire.

Airport management teams and boardrooms are changing, with a significant number of key industry leaders retiring and others due to follow them in the next few years.

Thomas Kinton (Massport), Lloyd McCoomb (Toronto), Geoff Muirhead (Manchester), Russ Widmar (Fresno), Pierre Graff (Aéroports de Paris) and most recently Hardy Acree (Sacramento), are just a few of the big names to have retired since 2010.

They will be joined by Paul Benoit (Ottawa) and Larry Berg (Vancouver) early next year, while Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has revealed that it has begun the process of finding a replacement for president and CEO, Krys Bart, a year ahead of her retirement.

Also going in 2013 is Bill Sherry who has been the aviation director at Mineta San Jose International Airport since 2005.

The list of names reads like a Who’s Who of the airport industry and means that airports have has lost a wealth of talent, experience and know-how globally in the last couple of years.

And with many of their ‘baby boomer’ colleagues set to join them between now and 2015, formulating succession plans – and, just as importantly, finding and developing the leaders of tomorrow – are set to become key issues for airports wishing to continue or build upon their success.

The situation has not been lost on ACI, as events such as October’s Airport Leadership & Change Management Forum in London – hosted by ACI Europe – and the ‘Leadership and the Next Generation of Aviation Professionals’ session at the recent ACI-NA/ACI World Conference & Exhibition in Calgary, clearly show.

ACI Europe’s director general, Olivier Jankovec, opened the Leadership & Change Management Forum in London by declaring that the “issue of leadership and change management is becoming crucial for our members”.

He noted that the evolution of the continent’s airports over the last 15 to 20 years meant that managing an airport today was a very different job that required a very different skill-set to back in the late 1990s.

And he insisted that the CEOs of tomorrow will have to focus even more on the key areas of ‘performance’, ‘social responsibility’ and ‘quality’ as the airport business model continues to evolve and move forward.

Different role
“In the past, airports were simple infrastructure providers whose mission was to take care of national carriers, no matter what, invariably for public shareholders, which were not interested in returns on investments in financial terms,” said Jankovec. “Economics was not really in the remit.

“It is a totally different story today as Europe’s airports have evolved and are a completely different breed. Today they are fully fledged, diverse businesses that are concerned about and do their best to please all their customers.”

He said the change in airport business models had, in part, been driven by airline liberalisation, which he says has created new airline business models that are “much more flexible in terms of allocating their resources” and switching airports.

“We are moving into a different era where growth is no longer a given and airports increasingly have to compete against each other and create their own business opportunities,” said Jankovec.

“This will see business models pushed even further in terms of their evolution, focusing on the three elements of performance, social responsibility and quality. This will require strong leadership as airport operators will have to be geared towards making changes and possibly reinventing the business model because most of the old assumptions on which the industry was based are no longer relevant.”

He told Airport World that he felt that Europe’s airports were ahead of the game in both reinventing their business models, partly due to the prolonged economic crisis, and appointing leaders from outside of the aviation industry.

“Heathrow’s boss comes from a retail background, Schiphol’s from consulting and the new AENA boss from the media,” pointed out Jankovec.

He believes that the drive to look outside of the aviation industry for new leaders was being spearheaded by shareholders who wanted “new ideas, out of the box thinking and someone capable of looking at the business differently”.

And Jankovec said that he viewed the retirement of the baby boomer generation as both a challenge and an opportunity, which ultimately provided airports with the chance to change the mindset and attract new people that will support the evolution of the business model.

An example of just how the job has changed in Malaysia was provided by Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB) managing director, Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad Abdul Majid, who revealed that the company’s corporate culture before his arrival left little room for innovation and flexibility.

Speaking at the Leadership & Change Management Forum in London, Bashir said: “During my first few days at the company I went into the boardroom with the new chairman to meet around 20 senior heads of department and was astonished to find only one microphone. When I later asked why there was only one mic, I was told that in all the previous meetings, only the chairman spoke.

“Nobody else was allowed or encouraged to speak. He gave them directions and they carried them out. That was the culture of the company then. It was a very rigid, strict and governmental regime.”

Today’s MAHB couldn’t be more different to the organisation Bashir inherited nine years ago. Indeed, strategies such as positively encouraging staff initiative and the introduction of fast-track promotions – to increase the company’s appeal to new recruits – and pay rises linked to an individual’s performance, has led to MAHB becoming a highly successful and diverse global company.

For the record, Bashir’s determination to keep the lines of communication open with his management teams, means that he holds regular ‘town hall’ meetings with them every three months, which often last for three or four hours.

What makes a good CEO?

Aéroports de Montréal (ADM) CEO, James Cherry, said the most important aspect of good leadership was the ability to engage and motivate employees and stakeholders, which he called the “key to good management”.

He said the Dwight Eisenhower quote, “leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done, because he wants to do it,” best summed up the role.

And Cherry, speaking to Airport World at the London event, revealed that he believed that the basic skill-set required to be a good leader will still be the same in 20 years time as it is today.

He commented: “The basic skill-set transcends time, to a large extent. The best leaders are people that are able to communicate. The best leaders can empathise, understand and know what motivates the people around them. The best leaders have a sense of vision and can stand above what is happening around them and see a clear path.

“I believe that the elements that leaders require are timeless, and I honestly believe that they are intrinsically human. Some of these things are very hard to teach and I personally believe that leaders are born and not made.”

Although he admitted he doesn’t tweet, Cherry believes that good communication is another key asset required by airport leaders. For his part, he said he meets with the bulk of ADM’s staff at least three or four times a year, holds a regular ‘President’s breakfast’ with smaller groups of employees, and is a “walker”, often walking around the airport talking to staff.

Athens International Airport’s CEO, Dr Yiannis Paraschis, was also quick to point out the importance of having good communication skills.

“Good communication skills cannot be underestimated,” said Paraschis. “Many leaders tend to enter the airport world as a technocrat and exit as a politician.”

Preparing for the future
Speaking in Calgary, San Diego president and CEO, Thella Bowens, admitted that “futuring”, in terms of developing the airport’s management team of tomorrow, was very much part of her plans as 30% of her workforce and 50% of her leadership team are eligible to retire by 2015.

Bowens said: “Anybody that knows me knows that I consider the workforce to be the most important part of the airport, and it does me good to see ACI focusing on what is really important to their future viability and sustainability.

“What worries me at night is that we’ve worked a long time at San Diego on creating a culture where we have been nominated and voted the city’s employer of choice, but do we have the right building blocks in place to sustain this when the current leadership teams are gone?

“What impact will changes to board and the political system have on the airport? Do we have the right people in the right places and a succession plan that works for the organisation today and in the long-term and is flexible enough to change when things change unexpectedly.”

Bowens said unlike other airports looking 15 to 20 years into the future, San Diego’s ‘futuring’ focused on 2015 due to the opening of new facilities and major changes to the board and executive team.

New recruits
The need for new leaders has led many airports to look outside of the industry for their CEOs – and, indeed, their leaders of tomorrow – for almost the first time.

And some airports, particularly in Europe and Asia have enjoyed notable successes, although many in the industry also feel that more needs to be done to raise the profile of airports to make them more attractive to up and coming young talent.

Do university graduates, for example, really know much about the airport business or the career opportunities it presents? To be blunt, are airports ‘sexy’ enough to appeal to the next generation of high-flyers?

ACI Europe’s Jankovec and Athens’ Paraschis certainly feel that today’s more commercially dynamic airports have what it takes to attract top talent, but believe that the industry has not done a good job to date of communicating this potential.

And the stark reality is that if airports don’t get better at promoting themselves as vibrant and diverse commercial businesses to a wider audience, many potential leaders of tomorrow will continue to slip through their fingers.

ACI Europe’s Jankovec said: “We still think inside the aviation box too much, and with a few notable exceptions, haven’t yet built a strong enough brand equity as individual airports to be perceived as attractive to young people.

“People are saying that they want go and work for Apple, Gucci or British Airways, but they are not yet talking about airports in that way. This will change in time, however, as airports are fascinating and complex multi-site businesses which offer career opportunities that few other industries can match.”

Athens’ Paraschis, said: “Airlines have historically been considered more glamorous because they are more visible to the public, although the reality is that airports are much more successful businesses. We have to do a better job of communicating this potential.

“In the past, airports were perceived to be a very slow moving, non-sexy industry, but times are changing and I think competition between airports, airport branding, commercialisation and positive results have made them much more attractive places for young, highly skilled individuals.” He did, however, admit that airports that were still government owned and heavily regulated when it comes to innovation were not so attractive to up and coming talent.

Raised expectation levels

Airports taking on new recruits would also have to deal with the “raised expectation levels of today’s youth”, according to San Diego’s Bowens, who said she felt that there was a considerable difference in the way ‘baby boomers’ and young people work and interact.

“They [young people] tend to work more individually than we are used to and have totally different expectations,” she said, recounting her experience working with a group of interns last summer.

“They seemed to have an awful lot of assumptions, one being that their generation would lead organisations such as the San Diego Airport Authority at a much earlier age than we did.

“When I started work, I knew I had to work my way up the ladder, step by step by step over many years to get to where I wanted to be, but they see things a little differently. They don’t expect to have to do that. Maybe they expect to start at the top and work their way down!”

Out of the box thinking
When it comes to motivating and training existing management teams, it appears as if airports are becoming increasingly innovative, recruiting the services of specialists such as Duke University’s director of sports psychology and leadership programmes, Dr Greg Dale.

Dale has provided team building and leadership training at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and a couple of Florida gateways in the US, and believes that there are parallels to be drawn between managing an airport and a successful sports team. “There are a lot of parallels because there is a lot of pressure to managing an airport. They [airport leaders] have to build and perform to a high level and are accountable, and it’s very much like that in the athletics world. “Can you make someone a team player? It’s very difficult, especially if  they are highly talented and successful, as you have to get them to put aside their agendas and what’s best for them for the betterment of the team. I would argue that the art of being a great leader is getting people to do that.”

He does, however, believe that you can be taught to become a good leader. “I definitely believe that there are certain qualities a leader must have, and that everyone has the potential to be a leader, but not everyone has the courage to do it or wants to be a great leader. However, you can develop skills that can help you grow into a great leader.

“You don’t have to be like William Wallace on your white horse leading the charge and being this great motivational speaker all the time. You can be very quiet and reserved and be a fantastic leader, you just have to surround yourself with people that can take on some of those roles that you’re not so comfortable with and complement you.”

Final word
Perhaps the final word on the subject should go to Birmingham Airport CEO, Paul Kehoe, who likens the role of airport leader to that of a “plate spinner”, in reference to the number of different roles they are expected to perform daily.

“You need a very different skill set to be an airport leader than the ones that were required when I started out in this industry 25 years ago,” claimed Kehoe, noting that in the days before privatisation, UK airports were effectively bureaucratic organisations that made around 85% their revenue from aeronautical charges.

“Today’s managers have to do a very different set of tasks, and perhaps the best place to train them for the role would be Circus School, where they could learn a new talent, and that talent would be plate spinning,” Kehoe told delegates at the Leadership & Change Management Forum.

“You have to learn to spin and keep an eye on plates because you have a consumer plate, a customer plate in the case of an airline, the stakeholder plate in the case of your partners and staff, a shareholder plate which often wobbles the most, the environmental plate, a regulator plate, a government plate and a future scoping planning plate.

“And, each of these plates is spinning in an environment where the consumer, who has the ultimate choice, is demanding more for less.”

To make his point, Kehoe said he was a car park operator, property developer and retailer, as today, his airport makes 55% of its revenue from non-aeronautical activity.

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