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Interview

Jill Brady
Director of HR
Virgin Atlantic Airways

We take it for granted, but having a duty of care for people…who in turn have a duty of care for people…eight miles above the planet, puts a certain edge on the importance of training, engagement and good HR practice. Jason Spiller interviews Jill Brady, Director of HR at Virgin Atlantic Airways.

Jill, Give us an idea of your early career and what it was about HR that really switched you on?

In the beginning, I didn’t embark on a career in HR. I started life as a city lawyer and did my articles at a city law firm. I was young and working with hundreds of lawyers and it really didn’t do it for me. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. So, I thought, maybe an in-house legal job or a smaller law firm? I went on the hunt, and ended up at Virgin Atlantic in 1994 as an in-house lawyer, and progressed to leading a team of lawyers. It was a very exciting time for the business, taking on new aircraft and growing rapidly. Everyone had to learn a lot very quickly. It was hectic but lots of fun. I stayed doing that for six years and then left Virgin Atlantic to do a stint in the dot com bubble. I worked at lastminute.com and then the online travel agent, Opodo, when this market was exploding. Then out of the blue, I got a call from Steve Ridgway, Chief Executive at Virgin Atlantic asking if I would think about coming back to the airline. I initially went back as head of the legal team. In 2006 I started up the sustainability team, and shortly thereafter was asked to lead the Government affairs team. Two years ago, I started heading up the HR department in addition to fulfilling the General Counsel role.

From the outside, commercial air travel has always seemed a strange fit for a company that began as a record publisher.

The airline is now 27 years old and I started 17 years ago. I think we’ve always thrived on the image of being a bit of an underdog, the David to BA’s Goliath and, in this sector at least, we’re still a relatively small airline and still a private company. I think Richard (Branson) always wanted to break the mould and a lot of that was about the type of people he employed and the experience they could deliver for the customer. So, the HR agenda has always been important. I believe we had the march on the practice of recruiting for attitude, and when Richard was putting together the leadership of the business and those who would face his customers, he was interested in people’s spirit and personality, and this has cascaded throughout the organisation.

Although there is a lot of law in HR, they are quite different disciplines. Yes, there are differences but also similarities. Fundamentally, a good in-house legal team has to be closely aligned and fully understand the business so that it can help manage the business risk, but also use the law to pursue business goals. It’s very similar for the HR team and I found that what I knew from managing the legal team could help me in leading the HR function. An airline is a complex, highly regulated and very commercially volatile organisation. The HR team has to understand the business and the challenges it will face, getting the right people in place and knowing what skills and capabilities those people will need in the short, medium and long term. I know there is a lot of debate in HR circles about HR’s seat on the board, and it baffles me that there has ever been need for such a debate. What could be more important in any organisation than its people? I already had my seat at the board, but when I took on HR, I knew I could use that seat to get the right conversations going about our people, and what we needed to do to make sure we could deliver a successful business through our people.

Commercial airline business is arguably the toughest sector of all, and in recent times, it has been rocked by so many challenges.

Life is never easy in the aviation industry but then again, it’s never dull! When I took responsibility for HR we were just coming out of a very tough time in 2008/9, it was probably only the second time we had had to downsize the business significantly, and many people and managers in the business had never been through that kind of thing in their careers. We had to get to grips with maintaining service standards and remaining competitive against a backdrop of downsizing. The HR team did a great job and found innovative ways to get through this period and to support the business and our people with the least amount of pain to the organisation. When I came to HR, in many ways it was like starting with a blank sheet of paper, because we had to rebuild and we’re still in that process today.

There’s something about air travel that, if there are slips in standards of service, you’re quickly found out.

We have an iconic brand and a reputation for outstanding customer service with a real Virgin spirit. Our customers expect a lot from us and so do our people. When we are not delivering for our customers, our people are the first to shout. As we came out of the down-sizing, we wanted to use the brand to help people reconnect with the business and to acknowledge that, if we didn’t live the brand internally and really project the spirit of the brand in how we worked together, the brand wouldn’t shine externally. So we spent time to re-describe the brand in a way that would be relevant to all our people today and in the future and which could be owned and lived by everyone – not just the design or marketing teams. In the HR team we spent time really thinking about what we do and how we can really influence how our people experience the brand; how our work influences the culture of the organisation. We looked at the employee journey and all our touch-points, and are now setting about making sure our people really experience the same Virgin Atlantic spirit that we want our customers to experience. This isn’t easy and will be an on-going challenge. One example of how this is working is the way we have approached building our Learning and Development agenda. We have started with the development of our first-line managers and supervisors – the people who run the operation when we all go home, and have the most direct influence on customers and manage the vast majority of our people. We devised an innovative 16 week programme for them and used the brand to help shape not only how the course is delivered (new technologies and techniques), but also the skills and behaviours that we value at Virgin Atlantic.

There’s a lot of talk about culture in organisations, and it seems to me a bit ethereal.

It’s hard to describe, but a culture is very real. It’s about “the way we do things around here” and there really is a right or wrong Virgin Atlantic way to do things. But you can only maintain any culture through hard work. We recognise that having a meaningful dialogue with our people is vital to our culture and to the success of the organisation – but it is really very hard to do. It’s easy to think about how a manager can have a conversation with a team member and how that could lead to improved success for the individual or team. We can help our managers to develop the skills to have those conversations in an effective, authentic and Virgin Atlantic way.

But it’s also about having a dialogue within an organisation, between leaders, managers and people, about how to improve the business that will allow people to feel recognised, motivated and engaged and will allow a business to fulfil its potential. We have been investing in training for our staff committee representatives, both employee and management reps, to make sure they are confident to use their voice in committees to offer us ideas, help with business changes and help us make the right decisions for the business. We’re also re-focusing on how we can use the experience and knowledge of our customer-facing teams to deliver the best experience for our customers. One thing’s for sure, Virgin Atlantic people are not shy about telling us what we need to do to improve. The real challenge is to channel that positively, not get overwhelmed by the volume, and keep a dialogue going about what the priorities should be and how change should be executed.

It must be a huge challenge to plan for, and react to, all of the things that can affect the operation of an airline.

We have to react to short-term hard shocks, as well longer term structural changes that will affect our industry. The way our organisation is structured, the capabilities in our teams and our culture, all mean that we can cope with that – even thrive on it. We are good in a crisis, for example, when thousands of our customers were stranded when the Icelandic volcano eruption meant UK airspace was closed for days. We like solving problems and seeing the results in a short time period. Sometimes it’s harder for us to get to the long-term stuff where results may seem a long way off. So we have to learn from our crisis ways of working. We have to chunk down work and remember to celebrate successes along the way. If you look at the way we run the crisis management team, we bring someone in as a Commander from our senior management group to lead a cross-functional team. They are empowered to decide which areas they need represented around the table, when and how to run meetings, which decisions to make for themselves and which decisions they want to be made at a more senior level, when and how to brief the executive team and, indeed, which members of the executive team they want access to. I have seen a Commander throw a director out of their meeting because they didn’t need them there – and that’s entirely reasonable and acceptable at Virgin Atlantic. So we know that empowering managers with the tools, knowhow and skills to solve problems and get the best out of people pays dividends. But it’s not always easy when you haven’t got money to invest in development. I guess that has been the big challenge in the last few years and, we haven't got it all right, but we survived because we’ve been innovative and we stay ahead of the game, and you can’t lose sight of that. The challenge now is to build a learning and development programme which is self-sustaining and can continue whichever part of the economic cycle you are in.

The airline industry has changed in so many different ways, what do you think the future holds, and how will that impact on HR?

I think there will be more consolidation – there are so many regulations, but it is undeniably the ways things are going, for example the BA and Iberia merger. Our strategy is to forge alliances which are bi-lateral rather than global. I think in all of those alliances there are probably minimum standards, they're not to do with people or HR, but more to do with systems, processes, signage, technology, sales and those types of operational aspects. So Virgin Atlantic can still stand out from the crowd and our people will still be the biggest part of that.

You mention your big rival, BA, which has had some well-documented industrial disputes.

It’s not something we are smug about but we have certainly gained some extra custom as a result of their disputes. And our brand and size means we are a sought-after company to work for. We have grown quickly and organically so that roles tend to be broader than in bigger organisations and we let people grow here and promote from within. But because we are smaller, it’s sometimes hard for people to see the next steps in their career. There are lots of examples of people starting in one department, moving to another and then ending up running a team – I’m a pretty good example of that, from in-house lawyer to HR Director. Our COO was an engineer in our organisation! We need to make sure we tell these stories and help our people navigate their own careers at Virgin Atlantic.

The Virgin brand comes across as being very cocky, anti-establishment, does that permeate the workforce?

It might surprise you that we’re quite an under-confident organisation and that comes out of having an amazing external brand and of our people having very high expectations of what we should be delivering. We compare ourselves to big organisations with much deeper pockets and resources. We have very high standards for ourselves and we constantly feel that we’re not quite good enough. In reality, that drives innovation and improvement, but if we don’t acknowledge and remember just how good we are then this sentiment can be disheartening and demotivating. So part of my mission is to give the organisation confidence in what we do and help them to celebrate and reward our achievements.

And there’s nothing like customer feedback, and especially air travel, people seem even more animated and willing to tell you where you fall short.

As I have said, our customer facing teams are our window to the customer. Clearly we take customer feedback very seriously, but we have over 5000 customer-facing staff who watch our customers experience our product every day. Believe me, you don’t need a lot of expensive research to let you know whether you are doing well or not. If we have to wait for a complaint letter, tweet or e-mail then the dialogue with our call centre, airport, Club House or cabin crew isn’t working. We need to find ways to get useful feedback from our people in real-time, to inform decisions we make, systems we implement and processes we devise. And they need to feel involved and empowered. They can help us simplify so that we can deliver what the customer will value. And we have been studying our best service role models so we really understand what good looks like and we’re starting to use that in how we attract, recruit, assess and develop our customer-facing people… it’s very exciting!

Going forward, what are the big HR challenges and how do you think the function changing?

That is a big question that could fill your magazine for ever. HR has a broad range of responsibilities, both in the big picture and the fine detail, providing the tools, reacting to the every-day challenges, and having the long-term strategy that will allow a company to be successful through its people. HR is a problem solver, as most functions need to be and HR departments have to have multi-talented business leaders, with broad shoulders, who are prepared to make the right decisions for people and to develop people plans that can deliver business results. I’m also a believer that, how you describe what you do, can be critical to your success. I have an employee relations team which has a good track record for winning at employment tribunals. But the real success is that they are guiding and supporting managers to get things right when things are at their most difficult, and are ensuring that our people are treated fairly. The impact of that in the organisation is much greater than winning a tribunal!

Some people believe that equality law is actually a threat to business.

I think some employers are concerned that there are lots of vexatious claims in relation to discrimination because of the availability of unlimited damages awards. To be honest, that’s the wrong end of the lens to be looking through. If you have the right values and you treat people fairly you shouldn’t fear a claim. Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of unforeseen consequences with badly drafted or poorly thought through legislation. For example, I understand why it was thought that a three month period for redundancy consultation was in the best interests of employers and employees. But having seen it in action, and seeing the pain that an organisation and the people involved can go through, I am far from sure that it is in anybody’s interests. In our downsizing, we decided to offer enhanced voluntary severance packages so that people could take the opportunity to do something different, but exit the business quite quickly. It was well received and left a healthier organisation behind. Lots of people went off to start their own businesses -the Richard Branson, entrepreneurial spirit lives.

And where are you with the pilot dispute?

Our pilots have now voted to accept our pay offer which is extremely good news. I think, historically, we've had a very good relationship with our pilots but have also been through some difficult times. There have been a couple of years where people haven’t had pay rises and our pilots’ union wanted to be sure we were offering the best deal we could. And we were. So I hope we can now move forward together to make sure we deliver the right changes to support our pilot workforce. They are a bunch of hard-working professionals who do a tough and important job.

Are you at all surprised that you’re in HR?

I can’t believe my luck! They're letting a lawyer play with people! It’s the most fascinating part of this business – HR can make a real difference to how our people experience working at Virgin Atlantic and, in turn, how those people deliver for our customers. I have a great team who are hugely capable and passionate about doing the right things for our people. I’d highly recommend a move to HR to other non-HR people who understand their business and know that the road to success is through people.

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