Leading Change Finalist - Anil Varma, Auckland Airport
Auckland International Airport is New Zealand’s largest airport employing over 300 people. Over 70 per cent of visitors enter or leave New Zealand via Auckland Airport, which handles over 13 million passengers a year. More than 20 international airlines serve Auckland Airport, Australasia’s second busiest international airport, after Sydney.
Anil Varma joined Auckland International Airport three years ago as Engineering Support Services Manager. Engineering and Emergency Services (EES) needed to become more cost effective to ensure their future sustainability. Anil quickly identified key areas for change to drive greater efficiency and deliver good outcomes for the business and employees.
“It was clear that to support the growth of the business the culture within EES needed to change. EES provides operational services that are critical to the business. Previous attempts to align the department to the wider company had met with extreme resistance from employees.
“Issues within EES could significantly impact the business, so it was imperative that a positive change be implemented immediately,” says Anil.
An experienced manager, Anil knew that the key to successfully implementing change in the department lay in gaining the trust and confidence of the workforce, who were more aligned to their union than management.
He identified the need to improve communication and remove barriers between management and staff.
“One of the first initiatives was to create one lunchroom for everyone to use. Previously there had been two, one for management and one for staff. This eliminated a visible barrier, helping to break down the structural hierarchy and encouraging greater sharing of ideas,” says Anil.
Anil led by example, moving his office out into the main area to increase his accessibility for team members. He insisted that team members meet face to face, around a table to discuss issues, rather than sending emails. Time was also set aside for team building and leaders and supervisors participated in development courses.
Leaders and supervisors were expected to share new ideas with the whole team, ensuring everyone benefitted from the new learning. Tools learnt such as the use of fishbone diagrams to analyse problems, are now well embedded in the department.
Getting the communication right at the start allowed Anil to build trust within the team. He worked hard to ensure all messages delivered to the team were consistent. With a strong values approach, Anil has grown a strong management team and instilled a sense of pride across EES. Everyone understands which behaviours will support the continued success of EES, and they know Anil will make the hard calls to make sure he has the right people, doing the right job. They also know that good performance will be appropriately recognised and rewarded.
Anil’s ability to connect with employees on the front line, and see the big picture as well as the finer detail, has helped him turn around EES. Team members have confidence in the changes he has driven and trust Anil to make the right decisions for the department. Those that didn’t share that belief have moved onto other opportunities.
Despite having to make some tough decisions, Anil’s employees identify him as a very genuine leader who brings a high level of integrity and honesty to his role. He is seen as a leader who empowers others to think for themselves and develop their potential.
Anil’s hard work is paying dividends for EES and Auckland International Airport as a business. Within the EES team, the workload has increased and team members are thriving in an environment of open, honest communication. EES team members’ report that they feel supported and acknowledged for their efforts. Anil encourages everyone to share their ideas, and use their initiative.
As with all change some areas have embraced it more readily than others. However, despite some initial reluctance everyone now understands the rationale behind the changes and has responded in a professional manner. Anil’s investment in making sure EES has the right people, processes and structure in place has paid off. The team has greater clarity around their roles and they no longer feel they are being micro-managed.
“Our customers are also enjoying the results of the changes we have implemented. We’ve received a lot of positive feedback from travellers who come through Auckland Airport. Perhaps most pleasing is the huge improvement in our relationship with the airlines. We’re now more inclusive and proactive in the way we work together. The creation of dedicated key customer liaison roles has been instrumental in improving our customer relationships.
“We’re very proud of how hard the EES team has worked to ensure the success of the changes. We don’t see our change journey as over, it’s important that we continue to look for ways to improve our performance within the department and as a key part of the wider business,” says Anil Varma - Engineering Support Services Manager, Auckland International Airport.