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Organisers Dr Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey report on some of the highlights of October’s Airport Leadership & Change Management Forum in London.

Where can you meet airport CEOs, HR directors and senior airport executives from around the world, along with top academics and professionals, and discuss in depth current issues relating to airport leadership and change?  The answer is at the annual ACI Airport Leadership & Change Management Forum, an event designed to address the key challenges facing airport leadership in times of change and transition.

This year’s ACI Europe organised event, held in London in October, attracted over 140 delegates from 40 different countries across Europe, the Far East, Middle East, Africa and North America.  The format was engaging and interactive, with delegates seated cabaret style to encourage discussion and sharing of experiences. A cartoonist captured ideas from the talks as they emerged.

Welcome address

Daniel Moylan, advisor on aviation policy to Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, opened the Forum, and talked about the importance of leadership and change.  In particular, he spoke about the urgent priority of building hub airport capacity for London and the strong leadership being shown by the mayor in keeping the topic high on the agenda.

In an entertaining speech, he highlighted the issues associated with insufficient airport capacity in the capital and sent out a warning that the current situation was not a “sustainable competitive position”.  He joked: “In order to encourage interest in London’s geography and topography, and boost tourism and travel, we invite you to spend 45 minutes flying around London before you land!”

Challenges facing the industry

The broader global context was set by Dr Yiannis Paraschis, chairman of ACI World and CEO of Athens Airport, who said that airports in mature markets often faced a very different set of leadership challenges to those in emerging markets.

Change and transition was very much the order of the day in mature markets, while leadership for growth was more of a priority for gateways in emerging markets, explained Paraschis. Common to both areas, he said, was the need to develop an “HR ethos of entrepreneurial urgency, striving for performance in a regulated market and attracting, developing and retaining talent”.

ACI Europe’s director general, Olivier Jankovec, described the challenges facing the continent’s airport, arguing that a great reset was underway, with significant changes in the way people work and live affecting every business.  He believed that over the last 15 years, airports had become businesses, but said a cause of concern was the fact that 48% of Europe’s airports were losing money.  Airport leaders had to focus on performance, social responsibility and redefining the airport experience for the passenger, concluded Jankovec.

The psychology of leadership

The keynote address on the psychology of leadership was given by Adrian Furnham, professor of psychology at University College London. He outlined his extensive research into leadership practices, the qualities that make for effective leadership and how leaders can go wrong.  Furnham noted that leadership is easier to talk about than do, as you have to balance three things at the same time: strategic thinking, getting on with people, and getting the job done. And, he said that leaders needed to be clear on expectations, provide support and give feedback.

Adrian also talked about the ‘dark side’ of leadership and gave examples of a number of very dysfunctional behaviours that he has come across in his research. “Unfortunately, the qualities that help leaders to succeed can, in excess, become a weakness,” claimed Furnham, who said that too much of a good thing such as confidence, for example, can become arrogance.  To avoid the pitfalls, he said, leaders needed to have insight into their own strengths and weaknesses. Organisations also needed to watch out for ‘the dark side’ and make sure that selection and development processes confronted these issues at an early stage.

Leadership in practice

A session on leadership in practice followed, during which three successful airport CEOs spoke about their own leadership practices and what they believed to be critical leadership competencies that lead to success in the airport sector.

Declan Collier, president of ACI Europe and CEO of London City Airport, spoke of the need to recruit for leadership potential as well as technical ability.  Leadership skills have to be developed and cannot be “bought off the shelf”, said Collier, who claimed that exchanging leaders between individual businesses in the airport sector was one important way of developing the leaders for the future.

Michael Eggenschwiler, CEO of Hamburg Airport, said it was important to develop a shared common way of working at all levels across an extended management team. To ensure this happened at his gateway, he revealed that Hamburg had developed a book of principles, which was “not a professor’s book, but a workbook that provided a very helpful framework”.

James Cherry, president and CEO of Aeroports de Montreal and former chairman of ACI World, believed that the ability to engage people was the cornerstone of leadership. “Without engagement you have no hope of ever achieving the objectives of the organisation,” he said.

Cherry claimed that a leader also carried the responsibility of keeping hope alive in the people around them. In subsequent discussions, the leader’s role in promoting resilience, responsibility and respect was discussed. All agreed that the personal example set by the leader was critical.

Change management case studies

How do you go about changing a bureaucratic culture to a high performance culture? This was the problem addressed by three airport organisations – Malaysia Airports Holdings Berhad (MAHB), Budapest and Gatwick – with each speaking about how they had managed the change from a traditional organisation to a more commercially oriented mindset and ethos. Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad Abdul Majid, president of ACI Asia-Pacific and managing director of MAHB, gave his personal insights into leading change over nine years in Malaysia.

His presentation was full of practical examples of behavioural and cultural change and was very well received. Amongst other things, he talked about how he had taken his time to assess the situation before acting; ensured that top people were suited to the roles they were asked to do; developed a performance culture with differentiated rewards; and encouraged a culture of openness where people were encouraged to speak out and say what they thought.

Hochtief Airport managing director, Gerhard Schroeder, then described the radical changes that had been made in restructuring Budapest Airport to change it from a state run organisation to a more modern organisation. Costs had been reduced dramatically, services outsourced and processes streamlined.

Finally, Louise Ash, Gatwick’s head of organisational development, talked about how the airport was being transformed through large investments in infrastructure and ambitions to become the airport of choice.  She noted that it had started “a big conversation” to engage staff with its vision for a new Gatwick. Attitudes and behaviours had shifted dramatically since the programme started, she enthused.

Other sessions at the Forum

A further highlight of the Forum was a session on ‘Mental Toughness’, ‘Health’ and ‘Wellbeing’, moderated by Dr Greg Dale, director of sport psychology and leadership at North Carolina’s Duke University.  In our opinion, this is an area of growing importance for organisations and leaders as they seek to ensure sustainable performance. The contributors at this session spoke about the importance of resilience, how to increase mental toughness and how to lead in such a way that you do not increase peoples’ work stress.

Other sessions looked at the importance of collaboration in leadership; building the leadership pipeline; and the implications and challenges for the HR function, who are making the journey from being administrators to change champions and strategic partners.

Next year’s Leadership and Change Management Forum will be held in Bologna, Italy, on October 23-25. Can you afford to miss it?


About the authors

Dr Richard Plenty and Terri Morrissey are Directors of leadership and organisation development practice, This Is. They can be contacted via email at or +353 1 617 7810.

Originally printed in AIRPORT WORLD, December 2012-January 2013

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