“I was the first person on the executive floor to wear jeans,” says Kelly Singleton, HR director of MAG-O and airport services at Manchester Airports Group. Such subtle rule-flaunting is clearly a point of pride, but it’s also emblematic of the way the year-old organisation has challenged not just how its parent company operates but the way it views its HR department.
Conceived as a cross between an internal digital agency and an R&D department, MAG-O is the latest in a trend of large companies driving innovation and new revenue streams by incubating a start-up ethos inside their own four walls. And so far it is paying off spectacularly.
The opportunity for the group – which owns and operates Manchester, Stansted, Bournemouth and East Midlands airports as well as a US airport services business – was to generate greater insight from its customers, provide tailored e-commerce products and take a greater market share of holiday services such as duty free and parking among its 60 million passenger journeys each year.
Having decided that a dedicated digital agency – MAG-O – was the answer, CEO of airport services Andrew Harrison made an HR leader his first hire, reflecting the fact that, when digital innovation is your aim, people are your only currency. Even so, plenty of questions remained: how would the new business compete for young digital talent in a city and region with a flourishing tech scene full of start-ups? And how would an agency operate within the traditional, governance-heavy culture of an airport group?
A year on, the fact that the team has grown to almost 100 and revenue targets have been comfortably exceeded is testament to the strategy’s success. But it began, says Singleton, with a deliberate and concerted period of learning before even attempting to define strategy.
“I had to immerse myself in the business,” she says. “It meant that I didn’t go in from the outset telling people what I wanted for the people agenda. I spent time understanding the business, helping develop the strategy; I was sat there with analysts and the leadership team, researching the market, watching TED talks, reading books, going to conferences, meeting people. Because how can you overlay a people strategy if you don’t understand the business strategy?”
Together with the rest of the leadership team, Singleton ‘hacked’ the company’s strategy in a series of workshops. The wider team then hacked the people strategy: “I don’t believe HR should write strategy in a darkened room – if it is about people, engagement and performance, then the team should be involved in its creation. That ultimately meant they owned it and felt accountable to each other for its implementation. It has led to a really special culture emerging.”
Equally importantly, she helped define what leadership should look like in this new environment: “We had to explain to our leaders that the people they were hiring were extreme experts in their field: if you hire a data scientist, you can’t tell them how to get from A to B. You have to move into a world where you set and agree a vision and strategy, give them the right resources and coach them towards the desired end goal. It’s hard for some people to provide that space for truly empowered teams, but now it feels like it was always there.’
MAG-O’s first hires were sourced, naturally enough, from the rest of the airport. But it soon became clear that fresh blood would be needed in the form of data scientists, digital marketers and product development ‘squads’ with specific expertise.
While Singleton says attracting techies is often portrayed as “harder than it actually is”, there’s certainly a knack to it. “The main thing is not to recruit the way you always have – you’ve got to change your approach to the market, and build a relationship. I spent a lot of time out there in the Northern Quarter [of Manchester] in the evenings, for example, going to different events and talking about what we were working on.
“Digital people want to work on things that are exciting and have never been done before – and no airport has conquered this end-to-end model. That gives us an interesting story, plus we’re a well-known brand in the area. But you can’t just knock on people’s doors when you’re ready for them; you have to be out there, actively contributing to the digital scene.”
Recruitment, Singleton adds, is now fully digital, with candidates viewing immersive videos before being encouraged to upload their own video selfies alongside their CVs. By the time they are hired, a Facebook-style profile has been created and circulated to new colleagues, and the team have presented them with a personalised gift bag based around their interests: “It means that, from day one, they feel they’re part of something really special.”
That sense is only enhanced by MAG-O’s location, in a customised standalone building within the airport complex. It’s enabled the business to be truly ‘agile’ in a way that works for digital specialists. “Initially, I wanted everyone hotdesking,” says Singleton, who has previously worked in organisations as diverse as Iceland Group, Mercedes-Benz and the NHS. “It’s worked for me in the past, and it gets people socialising. But it just wouldn’t work in this setting because you could be breaking up a core project team. Plus they have all this tech that they need at their desks.”
‘Agile’ instead manifested itself in an ethos of iteration and constant improvement. This methodology, coupled with a design-thinking approach, has provided a framework in which governance and risk is actually easier to manage, she says. “It has provided confidence in how we work, and the ability to fail and learn fast actually reduces financial risk.”
This attitude has not only brought new revenue streams, but also influenced the HR team to think differently about how it operates; Singleton’s belief that “you can hack anything” has led her to take on various aspects of HR, with mutually beneficial results. “It’s shown me that you can’t be the HR director walking around in a suit every day, operating within a narrow remit. You have to be creative, be digital in your approach and be that person they can talk to, generate ideas with. For example, HR has led brand developments and social media campaigns with the team. We are breaking the traditional boundaries of how HR is seen.”
There are still challenges, particularly around cultural fit. When MAG-O moves to a custom-built office featuring a gym, diner and collaboration space, it will make the distinctions with the rest of the business starker. Singleton has already dealt with remuneration discrepancies, collaboration challenges and cultural differences, and says the key is constant communication and clear lines of accountability, as well as ensuring opportunities are genuinely open to everyone across the group.
Ultimately, she says, the aim is to create a complementary business that both learns from and adds to the rest of the group. And the same ethos applies to HR: “HR is part of the business – not partnering with it.”