What made you decide on a career in the military? I come from an RAF family, so had an early interest in the Service and left school with the intention of joining. My father was convinced that I was only doing this because he was serving, but he failed to persuade me not to join. At the same time, I received an offer of a place at university, but because all I really wanted to do was fly, I turned down my place. I don’t regret it; it has been a wonderful career over the last 30 years, with all of the excitement and variety I had hoped for. I was selected to fly helicopters and arrived at the beginning of the introduction of Chinook, which was the most capable helicopter on our inventory. Within six months of arriving on my first squadron, in 1982, I went to war in the Falkland Islands. The conflict was a personal test because you never know how you will respond to the conditions of war. It was invaluable experience for the rest of my career. After the conflict, my squadron moved to Germany. As this was still the Cold War, it was a tremendous experience, flying over the terrain you were likely to be fighting over, and then the civil war in Beirut flared up and,before I knew it, I was flying operations from Cyprus into Beirut in support of the British peace keeping effort. So I had a very interesting start to my career, especially in terms of gaining operational flying experience.
I’ve heard that being a military pilot in active service is a short career. You must come down to earth, so to speak, at a relatively early age… what then? For some, me included, that is true, but for many an active service career can last for over 30 years. These people bring huge experience to the role and help ensure that our younger pilots learn from the combat experience of others. In my case, though, I had reached the pinnacle of my flying career by 30. By this stage I had been a flying instructor and then returned to the front line to instruct on the Chinook; I also became a display pilot on the Chinook, and felt I had arrived at the point where I had pretty much achieved everything I could. Rather than remain as a full-time professional aviator, I opted for a broader career, which brings different and more senior management and leadership challenges, both on the ground and in the air. The challenge with this type of career path is that you are no longer just an aviator, you become a staff officer and you have to learn new skills. I started to develop a professional interest in the HR business on my first ground job, at the rank of Squadron Leader, managing the careers of around 350 aircrew. Since then, as well as further command jobs, I was given opportunities to broaden my experience significantly, through roles such as; developing equipment strategy, Director of Public Relations for the MOD, Director of Defence Policy for Reserve Forces, and leading the implementation of a new career management system for the RAF. Whilst my command jobs, flying the Wessex, Puma and Merlin helicopters, were interspersed with jobs on the ground, flying opportunities after commanding a station, in my case RAF Benson in Oxfordshire from 2000 to 2002, sadly came to an end and, for the past nine years, I have been, as it is colloquially described, flying a mahogany bomber! That said, I have relished the opportunities to develop new skills and deal with the challenges that come with operating in new fields and at a more strategic level.
When did you start to look at HR strategy and how it could be applied to the military? In 1999, I was selected to deliver the outcome of a study into competency-based career management for the RAF. As part of this work, I had the opportunity to look at other companies outside the Services, such as BT, and the public sector, so that I could better understand how they managed their talent, and how we could apply a competency-based approach to the RAF. Over a period of 18 months, we delivered a new structure for the officer branches, a competency-based career management system that included assessing emotional intelligence and which utilised a new defence-wide appraisal system, introduced a new and radical career management strategy for officers. Simultaneously, we also developed a supporting IT system. Regrettably, because of the need for greater efficiency and financial savings across the Services, Defence introduced a Joint (RN, Army and RAF) Personnel Administration System in 2006, that meant that we could no longer deliver the new career management system, because the IT did not record and track the RAF competencies. Nonetheless, we are looking to build on the other opportunities that the system offers.
That must have been frustrating to get so far and then have the rug pulled? Although I had moved on to other responsibilities by then, it was very frustrating. However, we were still capable of delivering and managing the unique career requirements of the Service. But, on my return to the career management organisation in 2009, I undertook a further review of the way we manage and develop our people, using the principles of the work I undertook ten years earlier, to reinvigorate our career management systems once more. We are now implementing the outcomes of that review, which should ensure that we balance better the demands of the Service with the expectations of our people.
There must be as many differences as there are similarities between the military and civvy street. Aside from the technical and legal differences, one of the key differences between ourselves and commercial HR is that we recruit and develop our personnel from the bottom up. We don’t recruit horizontally because of the unique competencies we require, and the need for military experience; therefore, we have to grow our capability from grass roots. Retention of our people is critical, as well as economically sound, and this brings a different set of challenges and structures to ensure that we can always deliver the operational capability that is required of us. We rightly expend a great deal of effort managing our personnel to ensure that they have the correct levels of experience and competencies to undertake their roles and this can create significant levels of turbulence across the work force. The support provided by the families of our personnel is also very important to us and thus we invest heavily in family welfare and support, especially when our people are deployed on operations overseas in places like Afghanistan and over Libya. All of this means that generally we require a higher ratio of HR staff than organisations in the private sector, and we invest more heavily in internal training and development throughout an individual’s career.
You mentioned that you are responsible for career management, how does the RAF go about career managing its personnel? The unique nature of our career management system allows us to identify talent at a relatively early stage of an individual’s career, so that we can ensure that the right training and development opportunities are provided at the appropriate times. We have an open reporting system and staff in the manning organisation frequently discuss with officers their progress and potential.A key part of this activity is managing an individual’s expectations, which is probably the most challenging aspect of being a career manager, especially when the Service is drawing down in size. We develop our personnel in three phases. Typically, during your first ten years in Service, you develop your professional skills; this involves being exposed to lots of new environments and challenges to develop a broad range of competencies that will become the foundation for the next stages of your career.
The second stage is the middle management tier of the Service, when your staff ability, leadership and management skills are honed and tested. The third, is at Air Rank, which is the top tier of the Service. Those who are going to compete for the top start to emerge in the second tier of development. From here, we start to talent manage the best; officers are streamed into the most challenging positions and onto development courses, where they are stretched physically and academically. Importantly, we invest in their education to open their minds so they can think outside the box. This allows them the freedom to think and, where appropriate, be controversial. My job as the Air Secretary is to talent manage all personnel, but I have a specific and very important responsibility towards those that will lead and manage the very top structure of the Service.
It sounds like square-bashing and being bellowed at are a thing of the past? Square-bashing, as you call it, has its place in the early development of standards, professionalism and teamwork, but there is significantly less than there was and it does perhaps counter the public perception of the military; indeed, I think people are surprised at how liberal we are sometimes, especially when the public only sees us on operations, putting our lives on the line,and perhaps do not see or appreciate the staff element that gets us there in the first place and enables operational success. A key part of delivering operational success is what we call the moral component; this is our willingness to fight and support the fight. The effectiveness of this component relies on strong leadership, commitment and a shared set of values. The core values of the RAF are respect, integrity, service and excellence and these are not delivered or developed by square bashing alone!
There is quite a leap from reading a glossy brochure in the careers office and landing a Chinook in a swirl of desert dust, how do you train for that? Achieving success on operations involves risk, and sometimes significant risk, particularly operating military aircraft in hostile and dangerous environments. This is mitigated through excellent training, understanding and managing risk through good planning and preparation and being part of an open learning culture where experiences, good or bad, are shared. The training you receive allows you to operate safely and with confidence and this starts after basic training and will be reinforced throughout your flying career. Initially, professional training for a pilot lasts two or three years depending on your role and aircraft type. The training is very realistic; for example, at RAF Benson, there is a helicopter simulator complex where you can practice operating in hostile environments with real situations, with multiple aircraft operating in the same environment, flown from simulators in the same building. Even to the point where you all arrive at the same landing site in very dusty and difficult conditions. But nothing can beat going to these places and doing it for real. What is hugely encouraging is that those who haven’t had the opportunity to experience operations before and who are put into these situations for the first time, quickly deliver, and never in my 30 years of Service have I seen anybody not able to cope in those circumstances.
How different is the style of leadership today, to what it was in World War II? That’s an interesting question, because I believe that the leadership shown in the Battle of Britain, both in the air and on the ground, for example, was no different then, than it is today. Effective leadership is essential throughout the Service, be it on the front line, in our training establishments, in the air or in the office. The qualities we need of good leaders such as courage, integrity, loyalty and fighting spirit remain timeless. That’s why we have a structured programme that develops leadership at all levels. But today, teamwork and followership perhaps receive more emphasis in our development programmes than they have done so previously. Clearly, we are operating in a different geo-political environment to our predecessors with significant fiscal pressures that demand strong leadership, combined with skilled management.
Give us an idea of resources in operation today and your responsibilities. There are 40,000 people in the RAF today of which we have around 3500-4000 deployed at any one time, away from the UK, on operations. Whilst undertaking operations abroad we also conduct operations from the UK such as; air defence of our airspace and mounting the air bridge to Afghanistan and the Falkland Islands. Other personnel in the Service are providing support to operations, preparing to go on operations or training. One third of RAF personnel work outside of the mainstream Service in areas such as; the Joint Helicopter Command, the Defence Equipment and support area or in the MOD in Whitehall. One of the complexities of my job is that 70 percent of my very senior management work outside the RAF organisation, so I have to reconcile RAF needs, with the needs of the other employer and the individual’s expectations. As the Chief of Staff Personnel and the Air Secretary, my remit is wide. I am responsible for the formulation of personnel and welfare policies, the management and delivery of personnel to support operations and standing commitments, and for the personnel management and career development of our servicemen and women. I am also responsible for orchestrating the overall approach to RAF communications, both internally and externally. My priorities are to recruit, develop, sustain and retain our personnel, and these activities are delivered through a mix of employment, remuneration and life care policies developed through our RAF Strategy for People and a tri-Service programme for personnel. My objective is to deliver full manning, that’s having the right people in the right place at the right time with the right competencies; I also want to increase the mental and physical robustness of our people and ensure that they feel valued, particularly during these challenging times for Defence and the Service.
Affordability has to play a part, and my key aim over the next two years is to establish a cost-effective balance between the Service’s need to have people who can follow the flag, with the desire amongst our people, for greater stability, especially for their families. We are now embarking on a wide?ranging programme of personnel change, with plans to improve our career management, remuneration and terms of conditions arrangements. At the same time, we are exploring opportunities to adjust the workforce mix by changing the relationships among regular service manpower, reserves, contractors and civilians.
There is a lot of press about cutbacks, your budget setting for resources must be under constant threat. The defence budget is approximately £33 billion per annum, and the people resources budget in defence is one-third of the annual defence budget; so we must understand the personnel cost drivers and, in today’s economic climate, growth they must be controlled. Consequently, we work closely with MoD to ensure that our manpower planning meets the resources available and that we have mechanisms in place to reduce the size of the Service to match the reductions in overall resource over the next four years. We are achieving this through a three year redundancy programme whilst exercising other manning levers including reducing the offers of further service and promotion.
Succession planning must be a massive concern, do you worry about what the RAF will be like in the future? Succession planning in any business is challenging, especially when it is downsizing and you need to retain your best people who will ultimately lead the Service in the future. Thus, we put a lot of thought into how we manage this. We are focussing on ensuring that we end up with a balanced force by 2015 that is capable of taking the Service forward to deliver the outcomes of the Strategic Defence and Security Review for the country in 2020. We have placed a great deal of emphasis on developing career management and personal development and ensuring that we are in a position to influence new policy and strategy as it is developed in the heart of defence, to get the best for our personnel. Fundamental to ensuring we retain the best people to deliver optimum succession planning is to ensure that they continue to be valued by the Service and recognised and rewarded for their contribution to delivering the outputs of the Service. That said, I have always been, and remain enormously impressed with the young people who join the RAF and can feel confident that we have the talent in depth to remain a world class force into the future.
HR is also about the individual, their needs and aspirations. Mitigating this against cutbacks must be tough. I agree, although where we differ from civilian HR in that we also have to consider the needs of the family, as well as those of the individual. To mitigate against some of the effects on our people, as we draw down, we have undertaken extensive work on refining our Personnel Strategy and on our People Campaign Plan which demonstrates to our personnel what we have delivered for them recently as well as what we intend to deliver over the next five years, and importantly, who is accountable for delivering the outputs. In addition, we have stepped up our communication with all personnel, especially for those who work outside of the RAF command chain. We have also raised the number of visits to units from very senior officers and commanders to update them on the key areas of potential change and to seek feedback. Cutbacks set against what seems to be an increasing demand on defence, must have a knock-on effect on forward planning? The outcome of the Strategic Defence and Security Review has directed that we downsize to deliver a balanced air force structure by 2020, when fewer and more capable platforms will produce the operational outputs that we have been asked to deliver. We are now starting to implement the programmed drawdown of platforms and personnel to deliver an interim force by 2015; the key will be arriving at that point with the right people in the right place with the right skill sets to take us forward to deliver the Final Force 2020.
Set against a bleak backdrop what does the future resourcing plan look like? The plan is challenging but manageable. We will drawdown by roughly 8500 personnel over the next ten years, in a controlled manner, and we continue to recruit and train to ensure that as we lose people at the top or middle parts of the Service, we can replace the skill sets from below. This approach will ensure that we do not have the capability gaps that have arisen during previous drawdown programmes, and preserves opportunities for those who wish to make a career in the RAF.
It is a paradox that the politicians that make the case for war, are the same ones demanding cutbacks? At the end of the day, we are a public asset and it is important that we can demonstrate that we are good value for money, in providing security and defence for the country. In terms of reducing capability, if the Government decides that parts of the military are no longer affordable or need to adapt to meet changing policy requirements then our job is to ensure that it understands the impact of those changes and the risks that may result from them. That is why the MoD is both a Department of State and a military/Civil Service Headquarters which ensures that the requirement and the resource are carefully balanced to deliver the effects that the Government wishes to achieve with its Armed Forces.
Despite your father’s misgivings, are you glad you chose a career in the RAF? When you join the Royal Air Force to fly, all you want to do is fly – you have no ambition other than being a pilot and you spend roughly the first ten years honing your professional aviation skills before being given the opportunity to broaden into areas that otherwise would not have been open to me. I have been extremely fortunate to have flown on operations in the Falkland Islands Conflict, commanded in Northern Ireland and at RAF Benson, and operated four different types of helicopter. On the ground, I have undertaken policy, HR and PR roles before arriving in my current appointment where I can support those delivering today’s operational capability, generate the people of tomorrow, whilst delivering the best service that we can to our personnel and their families. Am I glad that I chose a career in the RAF… absolutely.