Gatwick Airport Concourse

[Interview] Developing Senior Leaders to Secure Future Success at Gatwick Airport London

Back in 2014, Gatwick Airport took the decision to invest in the development of its senior leaders. The organisation was in the midst of a period of rapid growth and recognised the need for a unified approach to leadership if they were to continue to adapt, innovate and maintain competitive advantage. Providing support to their talent pipeline was critical in order to develop capability to lead change initiatives.  

Through consultation and a truly collaborative partnership approach, we designed a bespoke leadership development experience that would shape participants’ approach to self-leadership, leading others, and leading the business.

Now in its 4th year, we spoke to Chris Woodroofe, Gatwick’s Chief Operating Officer about the impact the programme has had on him as a participant, as the sponsor of direct reports that have also attended, and on the business as a whole.

Read the case study: Developing Senior Leaders to Secure Future Success at Gatwick Airport.

Photo of Gatwick Airport Chief Operating Officer Chris Woodroofe
Chris Woodroofe, Chief Operating Officer at Gatwick Airport London

Chris Woodroofe, Chief Operating Officer, interviewed by Heidi Marshall and Emily Thornton

Thank you for your time, Chris. We’re particularly interested in your perspective as you were on the first version of the Gatwick Leadership Programme and then you have had your own direct reports go through the programme too.

That’s right. I was on the first cohort and I’ve had direct reports through cohorts 2 and 3. I have been, I think, to every cohort 3-day session, so if I haven’t done all 6, I’ll have been part of 5 out of the 6.

That’s great that it’s something you have completed a while ago yourself and then have been close to ever since. I wondered if we could have a quick overview of how you came to be Chief Operating Officer at Gatwick Airport – what brought you to Gatwick and what your journey through Gatwick looks like.

I’m a chemical engineer by trade so that was my degree through college. I joined Nestle’s graduate scheme and ended up in West London working in a factory in Operations. At the time BAA, who owned Gatwick Airport, were trying to professionalise their engineering team and bring some outside people in from manufacturing who had seen engineering done differently. I think there was a lot of expertise in Gatwick in terms of technical expertise, but what there hadn’t been so much of, was bringing outside people in to look at how other industries were moving the engineering field on. So I was one of the people recruited from manufacturing on purpose to come into engineering and I ran North Terminal’s Baggage Systems to start with.

Then about every two years I got a new role. So I became a Senior Engineering Manager looking after Utilities and Core Infrastructure. Then GIP [Global Infrastructure Partners] took over in 2009, and I got the opportunity to become Head of Engineering in 2010, and then in 2012 I was asked to be Head of Security. So I was looking after a team of around 1200 security officers and team leaders so about 1600 people in total. It’s during this period that Scott Stanley, the Chief Operating Officer at the time, said he’d like to invest in senior leadership at Gatwick. What was then referred to as the Live Show Leadership Programme was born.

A number of people from across the business, mostly in Operations, but a number of people from outside Operations as well, were selected to go on the first course. At that moment, I was doing a big roster review of the security team; affecting 1200 people. Shortly thereafter I moved to a new role looking after the Airline Moves programme. So I joined a programme team that was being run by someone who had left, and I was asked to take over that project team. Towards the end of that programme, I was asked to become Chief Operating Officer. So I have been Chief Operating Officer for almost 2 years and I’ve seen both years of the GLP [Gatwick Leadership Programme] run with people in my team participating. So I’ve been pretty close to it. At the end of the middle day, myself and the Chief Financial Officer (the sponsor of the programme) would come along and answer questions about our experiences and have a conversation in the context of what was being talked about in that session – whether it was about leading yourself, leading others or leading the business. We talked about examples from our experience.

That must have been great input for the participants. So if you cast your mind back to the beginning, when you were Head of Security, how did you feel about being invited to be part of the programme?

It wasn’t every senior leader that was selected as it was the Chief Operating Officer that decided who was going. However, the programme facilitated the building of relationships among the people who did attend. For example, it helped build a better relationship between the Finance, Operations and Commercial functions.

So was relationship building part of the reason for introducing the programme at that time?

I think it was introduced because the COO had been in the business a few years and he now wanted to make an investment in the leaders he picked. A lot of the people he selected to lead departments were not the people leading those departments when he arrived. Many had been promoted and he’d done his coaching and guidance throughout that period but he wanted – and the L&D team encouraged him – to invest. And then having decided to do that with his direct Operations team, he sensed that why wouldn’t you take that opportunity to break down barriers with some of the other departments?

If I then think about me personally, I specifically remember doing my roster review and using one of the models that says you should expand your ideas, set some criteria for what you’re going to end up on and then conclude on a view of what you’re going to do. That was absolutely one of the models taught and I definitely used that in that roster review session. We built a number of alternatives, we agreed how we were going to select the one we wanted to pick, then we selected together. I think as I took over the Airline Moves programme I remember thinking very strongly about clarity, unity and agility when I took this team on who frankly at the time didn’t believe this was going to be a successful project. I joined the team a year before it was due to go live.

People were thinking, ‘how can I make sure when this goes wrong, it’s not my fault?’! And that turned around into ‘we believe’. We did believe and it was very successful. As I said, along the way, I was offered the Chief Operating Officer role and here I am. So even two years on, we’ve just launched our Operations vision. We’ve essentially used the Strategy Map approach and each of my department heads did their Strategy Maps on the Gatwick Leadership Programme (GLP) and then we brought them all together and created one Operations Strategy Map that we are in the process of face-to-face briefing as we speak.

That’s wonderful to hear.

So [using the models of] ‘expand/contract/decision’ and ‘clarity/unity/agility’ from an Airline Moves perspective; and Strategy Mapping to set up the Operations team vision for the next 5 years – all that wouldn’t have been possible if only I had done the programme. It took all my department heads to have done that too. You’re straight away speaking a common leadership language. Everyone has done a version of the Strategy Map on the course, they bring them along. We had two rounds of a two team days looking at each individual Strategy Maps and then we pulled them together and created the Operations strategy.

Those are obviously great models that have stuck with you and are being put into practice. In terms of the actual experience of the programme, is there anything that stands out in your memory?

The session where we had the actors come in was really quite interesting to watch – in terms of the interactions of people. We were in the middle of doing some negotiations with the Trade Union and the way this particular role play had been set up was that some people reportedly from the Trade Union had come to talk to us about our security change programme. There were a couple of individuals in the room that did not clock that this was role play, thought it was real and got very emotional about that. Experiencing that was interesting.

People tend to shy away from role plays – was it helpful to have actors there who will just do it and won’t have any embarrassment around it?

Yes, it added to the spice of the event. It’s not quite like some of the models we talked about earlier – it’s quite clear – we learned a model, we applied it in real life – that’s useful. With the role play, you learn quite a lot about the individuals actually through their responses to those situations.

So in terms of breaking down the barriers that you mentioned before, I guess that’s all part of the experience?

It’s a shared experience, absolutely. And as we know, shared experiences that are dull and boring tend not to create great relationships. Shared experiences in periods of adversity and drama generate those relationships.

They stick in the memory.

Yes, they do.

So you’ve talked about the models that you have then applied in key projects. Is there any way that the programme has influenced how you operate day-to-day?

I think ‘clarity, unity, agility’ has become part of the lexicon of Gatwick Airport in the senior team. One of the questions is ‘what next?’ I think part of the problem is that it is the lexicon of the senior leadership team not the leadership team. It’s equally applicable if you’re leading a team of 15 people at the front-line or leading a team of two and half thousand people as Gatwick’s Chief Operating Officer. The people who work for you want clarity, create a world where there is unity and in order to get all that you want to get done ‘done’, everyone needs to be agile. So my view about where would you go next isn’t that we should send every leader at Gatwick on a 9-day off-site course, but I do think there would be value in making sure that the clarity, unity, agility lesson carries on.

In terms of your own leadership behaviours towards the people that have not been through the programme, is your approach infiltrating through the language that you’re using?

It’s definitely at the back of my mind. Because equally those words are used in our day-to-day conversations in a way they weren’t before. And because there are around 30 people that have been on the programmes and are still in the organisation  – across the executive team and senior leadership team  – that’s enough for it to be known about.

So more broadly, is there any impact the senior leadership team going through the programme has had on the business?

That gets difficult to draw a direct link. I’m not sure how much of Airline Moves being a success was about what we did as a team that we would have done anyway; and how much of Airline Moves being a success was about me behaving differently because of what I’d learnt on the programme. We’ll really never know. But I absolutely know that it was in my thoughts at the time in terms of providing clarity and generating unity within our team. It gave a structure to my joining that team. And it was ultimately successful so indirectly there has to be a link. But whether it exists directly, it’s subjective.

It’s great that you’re still so close to the programme. Is there anything additional you would like to see it cover?

There isn’t really. I mean I think there was a decent amount of time for self-reflection, a decent amount of time for building those peer-to-peer relationships and I think there was a decent amount of content what resonated. The challenge of something like that is to find a way of – a lot of the people going on those courses, it will not have been the first course they have been on. I’ve done an MBA before I went on this training course.

What was that like? You learn so much on an MBA, did you wonder ‘what am I going to learn?’, ‘what more can I learn?’

I guess I tend to approach anything like that with a view that says I’m bound to pick something up. For it to be valuable you don’t have to pick up huge amounts. ‘Clarity, unity, agility’ – arguably I could have read the one-page document but life isn’t like that. You don’t use it if you just read about it once. That model with the ‘expand and contract’ probably took us an hour of one afternoon to tell us about but it was really useful and the strategy map piece was probably an afternoon which again – they were all new things I hadn’t seen before; and they resonated.

But the value of them is that everyone has done the same thing as much as the particular technique. Lots of techniques. People that do this for a living will be able to argue about the benefits of each techniques and I’m sure you’ll have your own view on what works for which scenario. But the real value comes with everyone being on the same page. Everyone having the same templates. Everyone being taught the same process because it saves a lot of time. You burn less time in the debate because everyone has approached it with the same thought process and rationale. You could spend more time talking about models than your business challenges. The vast majority of the SLT in the business today has been through the programme with the exception of a few recent joiners. For those that haven’t attended, there are enough people around to help them adopt the approach.

It’s a critical mass. I think once you have a certain number of people that are actually applying it, it becomes self-sustaining hopefully. Gets built into the culture. So what would you say are the main leadership challenges at Gatwick, and are they changing?

We talked about how things have now moved on and matured. The sense of cost and productivity is greater now. Perhaps not in operations actually as we’ve always felt the pressure of cost/productivity but I think more business-wide that sense is prevalent. After a number of years of very significant growth – in those scenarios you don’t have to worry so much about cost (outside of operations at least). As growth slows a little, everyone has to focus on it.

If some of those barriers have been removed and where you’re working on major cross-functional projects, you’re calling on different leadership skills and behaviours?

Yes, absolutely. But I think the people challenges are still broadly the same. It’s a very strongly trade unionized environment and so change is sometime challenging to get things done. Embedding change isn’t easy and teaching people about tools and techniques to help them would be as valuable tomorrow as it is today and as it was in the past.

With technology, Gatwick must be experiencing digital transformation at every stage of the customer journey where you have new technologies that leaders have to adopt?

As it has for probably the last 5 years. I think technology will transform passengers’ experience but nobody at Gatwick would be surprised to be implementing technology. The technology changes but the process doesn’t. It’s embedding it that’s the challenge and that’s a perennial issue through the decades. It doesn’t matter whether you’re replacing a pick axe with a hammer drill or if you’re automating a process with machine learning and AI, it’s still ultimately changing the role of a person in a business and doing that is always going to be difficult. And those skills for embedding change and making it sustain are the same whichever those two scenarios are that you’re playing out.

Well thank you so much your time, Chris, it’s been great to get your perspective and hear how the Gatwick Leadership Programme is making a very real impact.

Further reading

Read the case study: Developing Senior Leaders to Secure Future Success at Gatwick Airport.

Interested in finding out more?

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