A look at the role of an Airport HR executive

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By Nancy Zimini
As the Human Resources Committee conference raps up its meeting in Pittsburgh it is clear that we had another exceptional industry specific meeting! Highlights of a few sessions are described below. Full conference presentations were made on the topics of  Strategic Workforce Planning, Wellness Program, Labor Relations – Interest vs. Position Based Negotiations, Performance Management, Creating and Maintaining a Culture of Excellence.  Updates and interesting stats on the latest Airport Compensation and Benefits Survey and ACI World’s Global Training in North America were also presented.

Saturday’s session on HR’s Strategic Role as a Collaborator with Airport Executives; How the HR Function supports the overall business strategy? was quite an exciting panel discussion.  The invited speakers, Genelle Allen (Detroit), Larry Cox (Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority), and Marily Mora (Reno-Tahoe), discussed and shared their view points regarding this question.

How important is HR’s role in the overall business strategy and reporting structure?

According to Memphis-Shelby’s Cox, “To be a great leader/manager you really need to be in touch with the human side of the business, and is why the HR role is so important to the strategic plan of an organization”.  In the case of Memphis-Shelby, the HR staff reports directly to him. Senior staff, including the VP of HR, meet weekly in order to ensure that they are all updated on essential events and potential issues and/or concerns in order to effectively run the organization.

According to Detroit’s Allen, she commented that; “The CEO/HR Relationship is extremely important; CEOs’ need to know what’s happening with their staff.  This gives us the ability to make decisions at all staff levels.  Culture is #1 and HR is the champion of making that happen; HR represents the employees’ perspective; they are the voice at the table to discuss how decisions that may be made may impact employees, and those HR professionals need to also have the values to be good role models, not only in representing the employees directly to management but also directly to the employees themselves.”  Allen also stated that “It is critical that the CEO be philosophically aligned with their HR executive.” The bottom line is that is essential that CEO’s be directly in sync and linked with their HR executive.

Reno-Tahoe’s Mora stated; “There has been a shift towards including HR in the strategic planning process”.  In her case the HR staff member organizationally reports directly to the COO with a dotted line to the CEO.  HR needs a standing relationship with the CEO because they are “the voice of the employees,” updating the CEO so that they know what’s going on within the organization.  In the strategic business plan, HR’s role and involvement is key.

How have they dealt with Economy?

According to Cox, communication with the entire workface is key because “People are our most important asset to the success of our business.”  In his message he stated that keeping staff updated with changes and why changes may be needed is how you retain loyal employees.  He mentioned that this had a direct impact of why they we able to be sustainable during this economic downturn without having to initiate any employee layoffs.  He gave the example where he communicated with all employees that if they didn’t need to spend, then they shouldn’t, and they listened.

Gerri Allen stated, “Communication, Communication, Communication”, echoing Cox’s remarks. “Keeping your employees aware, informed, and making them understand why decisions are being made as Larry stated is essential, in addition to getting employee feedback as well.”

Marily Mora also agreed that communication is key, not only to the governing bodies but within the community and that it was the number one priority for Reno-Tahoe is with their employees. “Unleash the talent,” she stated, “Determine where opportunities are in order to cross train. This creates opportunities where employees can shift within the organization.”

What attributes should an HR executive possess?

Memphis’ Cox commented that the HR executive needs to have the respect and trust of everyone throughout the organization, i.e., management as well as the employees.  CEOs’ are paying more and more attention to the HR role within organizations. We know that we need to take care of our people in this environment to succeed; providing programs that will take care of them regardless at work or at home.  This will allow the airports to meet their goals in this economic climate.

Detroit’s Allen opined by saying that the HR role needs to have a standard of excellent, have flexibility in their role, and adjust to change.  They must always have an open mind and look for new challenges for the organization, as well as its employees because that is essential to making it in this economic environment.  Part of being an HR exec is to live those values, and believing in them.  She continued by saying that being the #1 in customer satisfaction is always an honor to receive; however, being #1 with our employees is not as good, thus it has become one of Detroit’s core values to achieve.

Diversity is one of our airport’s core values.  We need to embrace it, value differences, value others’ opinions, and each one of us should feel that we are equally valued – though you may have different responsibilities, all should still be valued the same.

Marily Mora said that HR needs to be organized and plan meetings with their CEO; need to know what’s happening with their employees and the organization; the goal is to create an effective and talented management team. Front line managers create a great company of employees.

On one Reno-Tahoe’s core values is diversification: bringing the difference of opinions will attract employees that represent a cross section.  Explain why positions are not being filled and why staff may have to take on additional roles.  Reno created a “mentor/mentee” program to create these opportunities within their airport.

In conclusion, all agreed that there would be no value with out looking at all facets of HR.

  • Future skills needed for HR executives:
  • learn the business side of the organization
  • analytical skill
  • more numbers oriented
  • knowledge and experience
  • creativity
  • excellent communications skills
  • If this does not exist, creating a role where it does. CEO’s need to be challenged.
  • Trust of the Board, CEO, and staff; self confidence, serves as the coach to the CEO and to staff.