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Human capital: challenges and opportunities with IAG's Adrian Binfield

James Parker spoke to Adrian at the World Aviation Festival Talent Summit

Pushing new concepts forward is exactly what Adrian Binfield has been brought in to do at the International Airlines Group (IAG). As Head of People and Culture there, he has an interesting perspective on the difficulty of recruiting and retaining in aviation at present. The need for fresh thinking and renewed focus on talent is more important than ever – and our Director, James Parker, was pleased to get Adrian’s thoughts on these topics at the World Aviation Festival Talent Summit (for which Venari Partners was delighted to be the official strategy partner). On 26 September, James and Adrian discussed challenges and opportunities around human capital for the aviation industry in IAG’s Fireside Chat.

A new role for changing times

Adrian’s role is relatively new, having been created just a couple of years ago. ‘There was a missed opportunity’ to protect what is unique about the various airlines under the IAG umbrella (British Airways, Aer Lingus, Iberia, LEVEL, and Vueling) while leveraging talent opportunities and supporting leaders in promoting a culture of health across the organisation. Now, colleagues across the group can grow and develop while experiencing different systems, and this increased connectivity helps IAG to train leaders of the future, too. ‘I’m very lucky to be in the role,’ Adrian said, mentioning the responsibility for developing talent and diversity initiatives as being particularly rewarding for him. ‘I’ve loved every minute.’

Transition to aviation

Working in aviation is something of a departure for Adrian, however. He began his career in consultancy before moving to HR with the BT Group. Over the course of 15 years there, he saw them go from being primarily a phone service provider to supplying broadband, mobile, and TV connections, which entailed ‘a completely different set of expectations from a customer experience perspective.’ By March 2021, when the IAG role came up, Adrian felt ready for a change, describing it as ‘an amazing opportunity to help a business get back to what it does best.’

While going into aviation might seem like a big change, Adrian highlighted the similarities between IAG and BT: flagship brands with well-established legacies to which customers feel an emotional connection. Still, he admitted that the complexity of the aviation industry is like nothing he’d previously experienced. The uncertainty of variables like alliances, supply chains, and the level of dependency needed to deliver for customers mean that:

'You never know what you’re going to face in weeks and days and years, and I think that fundamentally changes what it means for a business to be successful.' Adrian Binfield, IAG

For businesses and leaders, having the agility and flexibility to respond to situations at short notice are the key ingredients to counter to the sector’s unique challenges.

Leadership goals

Fostering a positive and inclusive culture at IAG is central to Adrian’s role – not only did he describe it as ‘the right thing to do’ but highlighted that ‘customers are very mindful of the business that they choose to spend their money with.’ For Adrian, a business’ sense of belonging should encompass talent, customers, and investors alike, with people’s unique identities and differences celebrated and appreciated. ‘If you’re looking to drive innovation and change, which is absolutely critical for our sector, you need loads of different ideas,’ Adrian noted. ‘One of the things we’ve really been focused on over the last couple of years is getting that right balance between experience and diversity of thought.’ Bringing in talent from outside the industry isn’t enough – having people that understand the complexity of aviation will be key to solving human capital problems in the industry going forward.

At IAG, leadership values start with ambition – less about your career progression than ‘your desire to make a difference,’ as Adrian put it. The ability to keep going when you hit bumps in the road, ‘dreaming big and driving change’, are crucial. They look for team players – Adrian described how they would prefer a football team of ‘ten utility players’ over having one Cristiano Ronaldo – and how you build trust and mutual support with other people is essential to the group’s working ethos. At the same time, driving innovation and change within IAG is ‘a privilege and a huge responsibility’, which is no simpler for the company representing a portfolio of brands. From low-cost carriers like Vueling to full-service airlines such as British Airways, there are a number of very different identities under the same banner, but each business is enabled to focus on customers and their own unique contexts in their own way.

Overcoming retention challenges

Recruitment and retention difficulties in aviation have been well publicised in recent years, and the challenges are no different for IAG. A strong value proposition with competitive salaries is certainly important to combat these, but Adrian also mentioned the need for structural changes in the industry. This is especially relevant to areas such as digital and engineering, where updating legacy systems to modern technology that helps with data, network planning and operational management. As Adrian put it: ‘It’s not technology on its own, it’s about how technology helps you to do your job better.’

DEI is also a central part of IAG’s planning for the future, and while Adrian recognises that the group has ‘made really strong progress in the leadership space’, there are still areas of the business – for instance, engineering – where they can improve. (Adrian took part in a separate panel session on diversity in aviation – stay tuned for our write-up about it!) Sustainability is another huge issue for the industry, and while Adrian doesn’t think that wholesale transformation is on the horizon just yet, ‘we’re not just investing in the skills that we need for today, but looking at how to build the skills and the capabilities that we need for our business tomorrow.’

Look no further if you need assistance finding executive talent in aviation – we’d be delighted to help!


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