· 8 min read · Features

Interview with Alita Benson, group director of people at Easyjet

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Easyjet’s Luton Airport base is hard to miss.

The hangar, where staff (and a number of aircraft) are based, is right beside the terminal building and coloured in - you've guessed it - bright orange.

Garish as it might be perceived by some, the orange branding has worked a charm for the low-cost airline, with virtually everything associated with it bearing a colour, rather than a logo - from uniforms and name badges, to offices, planes and the staff canteen.

And since its launch less than 20 years ago, in 1995, the airline has grown from running flights from Luton to Scotland, to becoming the UK's largest airline, carrying 29 million passengers on domestic flights. In the year to September 2011, it carried 55 million passengers across all its routes - and is the leading presence on the top 100 routes in Europe (operating in 49 of them, compared to British Airways on 43 and KLM on 22). It also flies to 44 of Europe's 50 biggest airports.

But, as its group director of people, Alita Benson, explains in her first-ever magazine interview, soaring development has not been without challenges. "Our exponential growth has sometimes meant our internal processes - including HR - have been slower than the pace of growth of the business," she explains right at the start of the interview in a calm and reassured way she keeps up throughout her meeting with HR.

Benson joined the company in April 2011 as head of HR for central resources (the company's head office) and when Mike Campbell, the then people director, moved on to take the role of Europe director, Benson took the top HR spot in June last year.

Her first task was to ensure her department was up to speed with the development of the business and - if you'll pardon the pun - since becoming people director, Benson's feet have barely touched the ground.

"Businesses need to experience a good HR function, so they can know how it works," she explains. "I have never worked in HR for HR's sake - it is all about where the business is going and I am passionate about this.

"I have worked to upskill the business partner team and have put HR into the commercial fabric of the business. HR departments have to be provocative and proactive: it can't just be a tag-on admin piece."

By 2015, Easyjet has set itself the ambition of being Europe's number one short-haul airline - in all sectors, not just budget. As Benson explains, the challenge is great. "In the UK, consumers really 'get' booking using a website, but our brand awareness is not as high in mainland Europe, where people still often like to book flights through travel agents." In keeping with her goal of a business-focused HR strategy, she has worked to transform the HR department to support the agenda for growth to a market-leading position in Europe.

"I want to be known for delivering brilliantly, being part of the commercial fabric of the organisation and acting as a provocative and proactive force within the business," she reasserts.

And in fitting with the business approach, Benson has devised a people ambition, poised to roll out to the company's 8,000 staff from this November.

This involved three airline-themed prongs: 'at the gate', which is about bringing the right people to the right jobs and equipping them to succeed through the correct support mechanisms; 'on board', which means staff will know the company's values and the individual part they must play in living them; and 'able to fly', which will involve the development of a high-performance culture where success and continuous improvement are expected, managed and rewarded.

This will come, Benson continues, through the creation of five HR pillars: service delivery; organisational efficiency; leadership, manager and self development; high-performance culture; and succession and talent management.

Benson is pragmatic about the speed of the rollout. This year, she intends to "build the foundations, fix the basics and sow the seeds", then embed the changes in 2013 and become more creative and ambitious with people strategy from 2014.

"We are working on a plan for success," she adds. "We have already built this within the HR team, but 7,000 of our staff are in the air and only see line managers for 30 minutes at a briefing or debrief before they fly. We are not a retail environment where staff are with managers all the time and this is a level of complexity all airlines face. That is why I am passionate about excellent leadership and the importance of the people manager."

Company CEO Carolyn McCall, who joined Easyjet in 2010 from Guardian Media Group, recognises people strategy as a priority. McCall was chair of gender equality group Opportunity Now and was awarded Veuve Clicquot Woman of the Year in 2008.

Benson reports directly to McCall and sits on the company's airline management team (its version of a board of directors).

But HR wasn't always given such a high priority at Easyjet. Before Benson and McCall joined, previous CEO Andrew Harrison had removed the people development strategy dimension from HR in a cost-saving move. Benson, her predecessor Campbell and McCall have been working to build it back up.

"I now have four people working on people development in the HR team and they are focused on engagement and performance management capability," says Benson. "Since the summer of 2010, we have been working on improving engagement levels, which had been low. This has already dramatically improved and we are a different company today, for the better."

She hesitates, then adds. "There had been a gap in people strategy. When this part of the HR department was removed, it had not been embedded, so it just… disappeared.

"Now competencies are being developed. We are on a journey and it is a challenge I love, but there is still a long way to go to create sustainable positive change throughout the business. We are focused on making sure we understand the outcomes [of people strategy], rather than just outputs. HR now is about looking at the bigger picture and shifts in thinking."

Benson's 'people plan' has many components. It seeks to incorporate the launch of management development modules, investigate new approaches to rewards and benefits, move salary management to line managers, implement an induction programme, launch a mentoring programme for staff at Gatwick Airport and review the organisation of the company, managing transparent change-management programmes, as necessary. The list goes on.

But in a highly unionised industry - with UK cabin crew members of Unite and pilots affiliated with BALPA - there is also an emphasis on employment relations from Benson and her teams.

"Across Europe, staff are members of 22 unions and I want to build more of a dialogue with them," she explains. "I see it as an important relationship and I want to engage in a two-way conversation with them. We are moving in that direction and I want to create something positive. We are not quite there yet, though.

"Leaders in the business need to own the people and communications issues, not the unions."

Internal issues with staff are not the only challenges the HR team needs to overcome, as the company moves forward. The growth of the business in developing new routes and bases around Europe and further afield has set the company the task of ensuring the airline has a workforce ready for change, rather being merely reactive, as in the past. The company has made a business case and developed a strategy running on a budget, and while Benson has put plans in place to make sure a lean team is not to the detriment of the people agenda, she is keen to build efficiency in HR, wherever possible. "Our model is to get as much as we can out of each plane every day and make sure we maintain operational performance throughout disruption, so staff have to be on the front foot and informed about what's going on."

And as the company spreads its wings across Europe and beyond, efficiency and management can only become more important to the successful execution of Easyjet's plans.

"We want to change our network [of routes] to ensure a competitive advantage," says Benson. "Some routes have changed because it will lead to a new profit stream, some have been created because we want the slots in certain airports. It's about moving planes around a lot of the time, rather than adding new aircraft to the fleet. For example, some of the flights that were operating from London Stansted are moving to our new base at London Southend and staff have been happy to move there.

"We are setting up bases in Toulouse and Nice, because France is a growth area for us and we want to develop domestic flights there."

Another area the company is investigating is business travel - which accounts for 18% of its total passenger numbers - but does Easyjet's ethos of being a low-cost, customer-focused airline accommodating families and with no business class appeal to this clientele?

The company, in 2010, created a commercial sales team to complete contracts with corporates for staff travel. Last year, it enhanced its relationship with travel technology provider Amadeus to make its inventory available for business customers via Amadeus' booking system. It is also working in partnership with American Express Global Business Travel to become a travel management company partner. It has launched a 'flexible fares' scheme, which allows passengers to change their flight times up to two hours before a departure.

Benson seems quietly confident about the business travel market. "Business travellers tend to book later and pay more and we look at the models we use to sell seats on a daily basis, for this reason," she explains. "We have some of the best on-time performance in the industry [which benefits business travellers heading to meetings] and we want to nurture trust and loyalty."

And while Easyjet's low-cost model (the airline famously used a parody of British Airways' 'to fly, to serve' in a marketing campaign, adopting the slogan as 'to fly, to save') means no meal, seat allocation or baggage allowance included as standard, Benson doesn't believe budget flights need to skimp on customer service and this puts the challenge back into HR's in-tray. "We recruit crews that are down to earth and bring in personality," she explains. "Customer service is on my radar all the time and we give staff recurrent training in dealing with the customer, encouraging them to be friendly and have a big smile. In fact, all our staff, whether in [head office] or in aircraft, are challenged to think about how what they do has an impact on the end customer.

"Our talent pipeline is strong and we brand ourselves as a young, energetic company to work for - but the days are intense. My challenge from an HR perspective is to develop talent from within. But we are lean and there are not a lot of layers, so we place learning and development above promotion."

In saying that, though, the company does not employ ground staff at airports, despite the fact those working at the gates or check-in can be seen proudly wearing the orange Easyjet uniforms. These roles are contracted out to suppliers, such as Menzies. But in a situation where passengers can't differentiate an Easyjet staff member from a contractor, there is the risk of a customer service breakdown.

"There are elements that are out of our control," Benson admits. "But strikes, weather, security problems and volcanoes can impact on the customer experience as much as on outsourced staff. But we have built relationships with our partners and have worked to make sure they know our ethos - that the customer is key. We want their staff to wear our colours because we want customers to have an Easyjet customer experience from when they arrive at the airport."

Easyjet doesn't announce its customer satisfaction scores, but at its February AGM, chairman Sir Michael Rake reported "high levels" of customer satisfaction. For the six months ended March 2012, Easyjet announced revenues of £1.4 billion (marking a 15.7% increase from the same time the previous year), and the company is in a sound financial position for growth and investment.

What Benson's experience serves to demonstrate is that without strategic HR, even in a successfully performing company, holes can form that can damage staff engagement and morale - and in a unionised sector, this has the potential to be disastrous.

She is moving her department into a position where it can support the business in leading a growth strategy, rather than playing catch-up.

"People strategy is critical here now," Benson reiterates. "We carried out a focus group among 40 of our most senior leaders and every one of them put 'people' among their top five priorities.

"The HR team is now fully in place. We are building on the foundations now and preparing to roll this information out to staff. We are on a journey and the important thing is that staff have the right experiences while we are on it."