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EVENTS NEWS Last modified on January 3, 2014

Spotlight on leadership

Dr Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey reflect on the highlights and lessons learned from the third annual Airport Leadership and Change Management Forum in Bologna.

If you had happened to be in the Piazza Maggiore in Bologna one evening in late October 2013, you would have been treated to a tuneful rendition of the well–known song ‘Volare’, echoing in Italian around the ancient square and sung with energy and great spirit.

Was this a group of travelling professionals, or local musicians looking to entertain tourists to this beautiful city?

In fact, the singers were all participants at the third annual ACI Europe Leadership and Change Management Forum held in the Royal Carlton Hotel in Bologna from October 23-25.

They had been amongst a number of volunteers trained to sing this beautiful melody in its original language, and had already had the opportunity to sing it with the backing of a local band at the Forum Gala Dinner held in the magnificent Palazzo Re Enzo.

So inspired were they by the experience that one performance wasn’t enough, so they took the opportunity to show to the wider community how airport leaders can learn new skills and adapt to local culture.

Indeed, this was a year when leadership was experienced as well as debated! The energy, spirit, discipline and teamwork showed by the singers were all themes that resonated with the deliberations, analysis and ethos of the conference itself.

Conference theme

The theme of this year’s event was ‘leadership for sustainable growth’.

Airports have increasingly become fully fledged businesses and many airports, particularly in Europe, face difficult economic and social challenges.

Costs need to be managed and sustainable growth encouraged in order for airports to prosper. Austerity is not enough.

CEO master class on leadership

This year’s forum opened with a CEO Master Class on Leadership, featuring Declan Collier (CEO of London City Airport and newly elected vice chairman of ACI World) and James Cherry (CEO of Aéroports de Montréal and past chairman of ACI World).

They shared their experiences of leadership style and how this needed to be adapted to fit different circumstances. Leaders had to get results and needed to be flexible, pragmatic and realistic in their approach.

Collier compared his experiences of working as CEO of DAA, an Irish semi-state organisation which includes Dublin Airport and the international retail organisation ARI, with that of London City Airport, a small privately owned airport aimed primarily at ‘high end’ business travellers.

He distinguished between operational (task delivery) and conceptual (ideas into practice) leadership styles, noting that conceptual leadership was more difficult in practice but ultimately more pervasive and impactful, provided the right calibre of staff were available.

For his part, Cherry talked about how his personal leadership style had changed from being ‘directive’ to being more ‘empowering’ as his organisation had matured and circumstances had changed.

His preference was for delegation and engaging staff through providing them clarity, giving them influence, building their confidence and recognising their contribution. However, he emphasised, as had Collier, that sometimes a more directive style was necessary, particularly when the organisation was not fully mature.

Story telling about change

The major part of the first day was spent with people telling their stories of change from their personal perspectives. The medium of ‘story telling’ proved to be a powerful one as it enabled speakers to explain the context, what else was happening at the time and their personal experiences and learning.

Speakers included Dr Michael Kerkloh, CEO and president, Munich Airport, who spoke of the rebranding of the airport that was required to attract new staff for the expansion of the airport. He showed an inspiring music video about working there. All roads lead to Munich!

Heleen Kuitjen–Koenen, director of human resources for the Schiphol Group, talked of the impact of radical new working arrangements for office staff in Amsterdam, where fixed office hours are a thing of the past.

Apart from meetings, there is no requirement for staff to work in the physical location of the office. The programme has been a great success. Productivity is up, office costs reduced and employee engagement increased.

There was an interesting debate about whether this approach would work as well in other cultures and locations.

Sue Baer, Arup’s global aviation planning leader and former aviation director of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ), recounted her experiences running Newark Airport during 9/11, and how she had developed a collaborative approach with the new government institutions and departments that were put in place after the event.

It took years and was at times a painful and painstaking experience but well worthwhile in terms of improving the passenger experience and airport efficiency.

Keynote speakers

This year, the keynote speakers came from outside the industry and showcased Italian success stories of growth.

Corrado Lanzone, director of operations for Ferrari, gave some fascinating insights into the competitive world of Formula 1 racing and the ‘need for speed’ in making the continual adjustments and modifications necessary to ensure that racing cars stay competitive over the season.

“If you are totally in control, you’re going too slowly!” he joked. Lanzone gave illustrations of teamwork, communication and empowerment, and the need to trust the team to come up with solutions to complex apparently intractable problems.

Enrico Cappelleti, a director of Technogym, spoke about how this business had developed from a local garage to the world’s leading gym equipment brand, and emphasised the business gains that could be achieved through having a fit and healthy workforce.

Other speakers

Angela Gittens, director general of ACI World, led a discussion about the development of the next generation of airport leaders, which cannot be left to chance.

Olivier Jankovec, director general of ACI Europe, provided a fascinating overview of the social, political and economic environment of European airports and also launched the ACI Europe AirPeople Survey, which measures staff engagement and key aspects of high performance airport culture.

Aurelio Luglio, director of people and organisational development at Bologna, spoke about the airport’s award-winning fundraising initiative.

Other speakers covered topics including succession planning, health and wellbeing, organisational change, and the people implications of IT systems.

Lessons emerging from the forum

What did we learn from the workshop about leadership for sustainable growth?

  • Change and growth happen naturally given the right conditions and support. The key is to put into place a framework which encourages people to contribute, builds their skills and allows them the space to develop.

  • Keep an open mind. One size doesn’t fit all. Diversity and difference make for business success. Growing a business isn’t simple – there will always be dilemmas and paradoxes to resolve. Leadership styles need to be adapted to fit the situation.

  • Take care of your stakeholders! Make sure that you invest enough time and effort on bringing people with you. Engaged staff will put in more effort and will go the extra mile to find solutions. Building collaborative relationships with other stakeholders can be very hard work but is usually worth it.

  • Building trust doesn’t happen overnight but it is a key component of organisation effectiveness. Complete control is not possible and can slow things down. Virtual working, collaboration, partnership and intercultural understanding all depend on trust.
  • Sustainability is important. Don’t burn out yourself and others! The investment in measures to promote health, wellbeing and employee engagement – as well as develop future leaders – will pay off in the long-run.

  • Leadership for growth is about the heart as well as the head. It requires passion and commitment as well as intellect. Participating, engaging, having the courage to take a risk – and having fun – are all important. Something our ‘Volare’ singers learnt for themselves!

About the authors

Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey are directors of This Is…, the co-organisers of the Leadership and Change Forum with Aviation Business Media.
They can be contacted at

Next year’s event will be held in Munich in December 2014.

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