If only airport succession planning were that easy, by Carroll McCormick.
When the Executive Director of the Fort Wayne International Airport in Indiana left in 2003, his Number 2, the Director of Administration and Finance, became the temporary Executive Director. Unfortunately, says Mike Gouloff, president of the Board of Fort Wayne Allen County Airport Authority: “We had no-one trained and ready to place permanently in the position.”
Such a vacuum can interrupt the business flow of an airport. “Without a good plan and good people in place, the airport tends to ‘wander’ during the replacement process, whether done internally or with an outside search firm,” says Doug Kuelpman, President of ADK Consulting and Executive Search, in Atlantic Beach, Florida. “What we have seen, especially at the CEO level, is a halt in the creative development. No-one is going out of their way to do anything more than what is required. They don’t have the mandate from the board to do more. There is no long-term planning and capital planning gets curtailed.”
Installing temporary executives may have worked fine in the days when airports were not regarded as businesses. Today, however, having people in senior positions that may have neither the training or authority, nor an understanding of the board’s vision, can be risky. “When you are without staff, you are in maintenance mode. If you have no executive director today, if an airline wants to renegotiate rates and charges because it is going bankrupt, it ain’t going to happen,” Gouloff says.
Tory Richardson, the Executive Director of the Fort Wayne airport, agrees. “There are risks for relationships with airlines. There are risks in not understanding the vision that the board wants to see.”
Things can also get sticky from a regulatory point of view, Richardson adds. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) wants to make sure that the right people, properly trained and experienced, are [in place]. The FAA can actually come to an airport and say, ‘we feel you have a problem and there are problems with remaining certified’ – a requirement for commercial airline operations. There are risks to funding and risks to operating airlines.”
That an airport can also run foul of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), is definitely a bad idea. “There is a security element. If you have only delegated the director as the airport security co-ordinator (ASC) and he leaves, you may have a security issue with TSA. The ASC is TSA-trained to carry that title. If an executive with the ASC title leaves and there is not another person trained and certified, you do not comply with TSA regulations. You may put your commercial air service in jeopardy. Who takes his place?” Richardson asks.
Mr Gouloff, an architect with several offices, has used his business knowledge and authority as the board’s president to change the culture of the board and the airport toward succession planning. “The Board was not at the level of reality that there was no succession plan. I asked, ‘what would happen if this guy leaves?’ The Board had not thought about that at all,” he recalls.
Kuelpman, with long experience with airports and boards of directors, insists that this lack of preparedness is common. “We think boards should insist on succession planning. By and large we see a lack of succession planning and even a lack of knowledge whether good people are on staff who can step into certain jobs.”
Gouloff directed Kuelpman to locate a candidate for the executive director position. Later, Kuelpman selected candidates for the positions of Director of Operations and Facilities and Director of Administration and Finance. They also had to be capable, with training, of moving into the Executive Director’s chair. “I believed we needed a process that went beyond our positions. We needed consistency and direction that board members cannot establish,” Gouloff says. That is, a culture of succession planning at the airport more durable than the terms of office of its elected board members.
The board hired Richardson in January 2004. He had 17 years of management experience with airports, fixed base operations and airlines. He was the Executive Director of the Rapid City Regional Airport in South Dakota from 2002 until Fort Wayne hired him.
Scott Hindeman moved from his position as executive director at the Cheyenne Airport in Wyoming to become Fort Wayne’s director of operations and facilities. The board then hired Craig Williams as the new director of administration and finance. Although without direct airport experience, Williams had other skills and experiences that fit his new job, and would serve him well, should he become Executive Director.
“Craig had worked for the American Association of Airport Executives [AAAE]. He understood the business side of aviation. He brought a different perspective to us, because he had worked on Capitol Hill lobbying for AAAE. He had political skills,” Gouloff explains.
Hiring from outside the industry does not work well for operational positions. That this happens repeatedly for finance positions points to a shortcoming in the education of finance specialists, Kuelpman thinks. “The industry is missing graduates who want to become airport finance managers. When they went into finance they were never thinking that they were doing this to get into airports. For the most part, they do not have the desire to become airport directors.”
Gouloff is extremely pleased with the results of the board’s new succession plan. “We have an ascent in progress that allows one leg of the stool to fall off, but still stand. They are young professionals, they have more to learn. We encourage them to stay with the AAAE and earn more certifications. Tory got the Accredited Airport Executive status about eight years ago. The directive given to him was: “these two people need, at some point in their careers, to be able to run this airport or another airport.”
Of having two potential successors, Richardson comments: “It gives them a very good sense what is going on day to day and where we are going – a huge benefit over someone brought in from the outside. You may not have buy-in from an outside person. That person may want to completely change things. Craig and Scott know – Our focus is to train two Number 2 people, make sure they are very comfortable with their traditional line of work, also switching operations with finance to get more experience. If one has to be pulled up into my shoes, he will succeed.”
Although Kuelpman believes that hiring outside one’s own airport reveals a certain weakness in succession planning, he acknowledges that it is a legitimate part of the game. Dr Kim Kenville, associate professor of aviation and graduate programme director at the University of North Dakota (UND), agrees. “”I would say that there is a lack of succession planning at airports, but it is good to work at different airports.”
In fact, it is pretty much obligatory to hopscotch from airport to airport while gaining altitude. “You normally have to move to a new town in order to move up,” Kenville says. “An airport will lose someone and then hire him or her back later on. There is a saying: ‘If you have worked at one airport you have only worked at one airport.’ ”
Take Jeff Mulder, says Kenville. “In a span of ten years he interned at Tulsa, went to Milwaukee, then was Number 2 at Evansville, Indiana, then Number 1 at Appleton, Wisconsin, then Number 1 back at Tulsa. He will probably be at Tulsa for the foreseeable future.”
There are 50 students spread across UND’s four-year programme. A business and aviation degree that combines for a Bachelor of Business Administration in airport management, it produces 10-12 graduates a year. Students are placed at airports to do internships, and Kenville is vocal that airports must really work with them to make the internship productive.
Graduates may move into an internship role or an entry-level operations job. Kenville also places graduates at small airports where, because of the tiny staff, they do everything. “After three to four years, from ploughing snow to talking to the media, they have great experience. They need this necessary experience to move on to larger airports. I feel that doing everything at a very small airport is the best learning.”
Kuelpman elaborates: “At small airports you have an opportunity to wear many hats. At big airports people can get trapped; for example, in the operations department at big airports there is no exposure to business development, finance, administration, nor to what is necessary to become an airport director. Unless the CEO at a big airport buys into succession planning and [moves people around] it usually doesn’t happen. It takes an exceptional CEO who supports cross-training. Otherwise you just don’t get it”
Kenville acknowledges that some airports do not have enough depth to have a succession plan. Nevertheless, she believes, “As an administrator you can’t think that you are bullet-proof and think that no-one can take your spot. You have to be seamless, make succession planning a priority. If you don’t, you are letting your organisation down.”
Calgary’s succession plan
As Canada’s fourth-largest airport, Calgary International loses few senior staff to other airports. “While some people may want to go to larger airports, the cost of living [where these larger airport are] generally makes it unappealing,” says Cynthia Ewanchyna, Senior Director, Human Resources with the Calgary Airport Authority.
Calgary has long recognised the importance of succession planning and formalized the programme in 2008. “Our employees ask us how we are planning for that. We want our employees to know that this is important. They have a very vested interest in the airport and the formal programme makes succession planning more visible,” Ewanchyna explains. “It is part of our overall talent management strategy. We want to maximise all of our employees’ talent, so everyone is ready for opportunities down the road. We need them all to be growing and developing.”
Calgary supports the efforts of any of its 160 staff with the ambition to train for other positions. For example, it pays all of the costs, up front, for any training or education outside the airport. It also holds a half-day training event every year called Pathways. Different topics are presented each year, with discussion focus groups. Employeees regularly raise concerns about succession planning.
During the annual review process supervisors ask their employees what their long-term career aspirations are: Another role? A different department? “We encourage a candid conversation about that,” Ewanchyna says. “They are jointly accountable for creating development plans so employees will be ready for future opportunities. Human Resources plays the consulting, advising role to help with these plans.”
Calgary believes in, and strongly supports promoting from within. Internal hires have been as high as 45% in a given year. It hired 40 post-secondary students for a summer programme this year. “They learn all about the ‘ins and outs’ of working at the airport. We have students in practically every department. They often do vacation relief for staff,” Ewanchyna says.
The executive team meets once a year to talk about upcoming retirements and how to proactively plan for that. Solutions vary, including having a pool of employees who are gaining experience to fill the more senior positions, and hiring from outside the industry.
“This is the best time to get into the airport game if it is your passion. There will be a lot of retirements in the next five to seven years. We will be looking for the right people to take over the reins,” Ewanchyna says. “This is definitely not something you can take a passive attitude with.”
If only airport succession planning were that easy, by Carroll McCormick.