Human resources insights: Heathrow Airport’s people-first strategy
Human Resources Officers

Human resources insights: Heathrow Airport’s people-first strategy

Paula Stannett, the chief people officer at Heathrow Airport, discusses how Heathrow supported their workforce through the challenges of COVID-19 and the importance of employee health and well-being.
Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Apple Podcasts Listen to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast on Google Play

In this podcast, Heidrick & Struggles’ Rachel Farley speaks to Paula Stannett, the chief people officer at Heathrow Airport. Stannett discusses how she and her fellow executive team members dealt with the collapse of the aviation industry that was caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and how they’ve been building the industry up again. She also discusses the importance of making DE&I a part of organizational strategy and prioritizing employees’ health and well-being and offers her opinion of what the future of HR will look like.

Some questions answered in this episode include the following:

  • (1:09) How did you work with your CEO to manage the complete collapse of the aviation industry, and its slow return?
  • (9:04) You mentioned that you have been tracking inclusion and belonging. Those are such intangible things. How do you know you’re making progress?
  • (10:03) What qualities do you look for in senior leaders? And are those qualities different from the ones you looked for before the pandemic?
  • (14:33) The pandemic has accelerated the rate of change and transformation in business—what does the future of HR look like to support this rapid evolution?
  • (17:29) How do you define mental fitness?

Below is a full transcript of the episode, which has been edited for clarity.

Welcome to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. Heidrick is the premier global provider of senior-level executive search and leadership consulting services. Diversity and inclusion, leading through tumultuous times, and building thriving teams and organizations are among the core issues we talk with leaders about every day, including in our podcasts. Thank you for joining the conversation.

Rachel Farley: Hello, I'm Rachel Farley, a consultant in Heidrick & Struggles London office. I'm a specialist in HR executive search and I'm a part of the European HR practice. In today’s podcast, I'm speaking with Paula Stannett, she’s the chief people officer at Heathrow Airport. Paula started her career at Asda and joined the HR team at Heathrow in 2007. She was appointed chief people officer in 2013. Paula, welcome, and thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Paula Stannett: Thank you, Rachel. It’s great to be here.

Rachel Farley: Airports were among the industries most affected by the pandemic. How did you work with your CEO to manage the complete collapse of the industry early in the pandemic, and its slow return?

Paula Stannett: Well, it’s fair to say that aviation has been completely devastated. We've seen a 70% reduction in passengers and a £2.5 billion loss in 2020, and we know that 70,000 people have lost their aviation jobs so far, which is devastating. So, John, our CEO, and I quickly decided to take decisive action. As early as March 2020, we developed a plan to significantly help our business survive the pandemic. We implemented a new operating model, right sized our organization by up to 30%, harmonized our terms and conditions, put in temporary pay reductions, and maximized furloughs. We wanted to move fast because we wanted to be transparent and give our people certainty. One of the things that worked really well for our colleagues was our implementation of a weekly update call. Everyone in the organization was invited so that we could update them on changes and answer any questions they had in real time. It really built trust and confidence in us as a leadership team, And, as the time went on, we were able to transition that call into talking about things that are really important to people—well-being, loss of loved ones to COVID-19, and diversity and inclusion.

Rachel Farley: In all of those conversations and all the feedback you received, and given what Heathrow needed to do in that really critical time, what was most important from a people perspective—what you saw as the CHRO?

Paula Stannett: I think it was most important that we all could really understanding what was happening; people needed certainty about their futures in order to make choices. Being upfront about the plan and what it meant for people and having those regular conversations gave them certainty and choice. I think it’s always really important to be honest and straightforward with your workforce, and it worked well for us.

Rachel Farley: How have you seen the concerns and needs of the workforce change during your time at Heathrow, even before the pandemic? Did the pandemic accelerate existing trends or create new ones?

Paula Stannett: Well, before the pandemic we were a growing organization—in fact, we were building a planning application for a third runway. The things on people’s minds were more about pay inequality and the need for greater flexibility. Interestingly enough, we've been able to solve both of those issues during the pandemic; we’ve been able to harmonize terms and conditions, and, of course, everybody’s working in a much more agile way now. We were very quick, once the government announced that people should work from home where possible, to ask our non-operational teams to work in an agile way, and we are still doing that now. We actually leased our head office out to become a vaccination center so we could do our bit for the local community.

We are now starting to encourage colleagues to go back in a hybrid way—only one or two days a week—to achieve what we’ve all missed, which I think is the connectivity and being able to have team meetings and brainstorm and develop plans together. But there are new concerns, Rachel, that have come out during the pandemic. The main one has been well-being. It’s been 18 hard months and people’s well-being and mental fitness have been significantly reduced. We know that people are not able to bounce back as quickly as we might hope, and we know that stress adds to people’s concerns. In response, we've developed a mental fitness program that I'm quite excited about because I think it is so important to help people with resilience. We’re making sure we give our leaders an understanding of early warning signs for their teams and when people are struggling, and we’re giving all of our colleagues an understanding of what mental fitness is. We’ve introduced, for example, a mood chart; you can see where you are on a daily basis, whether you’re green (thriving or excelling), yellow (you know, just getting by), or moving toward the red and really struggling. And we've introduced tools for colleagues so that they can nudge themselves back up that continuum and really help themselves to improve their mental fitness. We've also introduced the concept of mental fitness champions, who can listen to colleagues who are struggling, and counselling services for people who really need extra help. All of that together, we hope, will really help improve the resilience in our workforce.

Rachel Farley: Another really critical topic that everyone is talking about at the moment is DE&I. Heathrow has enormous diversity in terms of the types of people that work there. Appreciating your experience over the years, what advice would you give companies that are seeking to increase diversity in their workforce? And can you share what diversity means to you and to Heathrow?

Paula Stannett: Well, firstly I think diversity, for us, is all about representation at senior level. As you said, we have a really diverse local community and we have huge diversity in the passengers that travel through Heathrow. And so we’ve made a commitment that we will reflect the diversity of our local communities at all levels in the organization by 2025. And that would be my first piece of advice to everyone who’s listening—make diversity and inclusion part of your strategy. If it isn't, you won't make progress.

The second part is inclusion, which is about developing a culture where everyone can belong. And that, for me, is equally important as representation. Inclusion also has to be part of your plan and strategy so that you can make real progress. So the second piece of advice I would give is that you need to track your progress on diversity and inclusion, because if you don't track it, you haven't got data to show the progress, and then people won't be able to see the journey.

Third, you need to make sure that everybody—everybody—in the workforce can make a difference on that journey. That's really important. We also have fantastic independent networks that challenge us to the right things and understand the barriers that still exist in the organization. And, finally, we use role models well. Just last week we had a female fire fighter talking about her journey in the fire service and after, several security offices applied to work in the fire service, which is really exciting.

Rachel Farley: You mentioned that you have been tracking inclusion and belonging. Those are such intangible things. How do you know you’re making progress?

Paula Stannett: We track inclusion and belonging through our pulse survey. We have a question about how included people feel and how they feel they belong in the organization, and we measure the percentage of positive responses. We also use our networks to listen and talk to people, to find out how they think we’re doing on inclusion, and we do a lot of education for our teams about what inclusion means. But the easiest way to measure inclusion and belonging is through that pulse survey question.

Rachel Farley: What qualities do you look for in senior leaders in a real-time environment like Heathrow? And are those qualities different from the ones you looked for before the pandemic?

Paula Stannett: Well, first, I believe that the purpose of a leader is to help their teams be their best. So, the leadership qualities most important to me are authenticity, and by that I mean that they need to understand their strengths and limitations and be vulnerable so that they can build trust in their teams; being values-led, and that means that all their decisions and trade-offs are based on the company values rather than their personal portfolios; and being able to build that inclusive culture. And during the pandemic, what I've really seen emerge as an important quality is being able to lead through uncertainty. Leaders who are better at dealing with the ambiguity of the pandemic have been able to think in a much more agile, independent way and change the way we've done business. They've created a new normal and collaborated with others to achieve it. We will be definitely looking for the ability to lead through uncertainty in our future leaders.

Rachel Farley: And how has the pandemic affected how senior leaders think about their talent needs in their teams? So, slightly lower down in the organization.

Paula Stannett: I think we've recognized that there’s still a desire from our workforce for us to really create careers and improve representation in the more junior levels of the organization. That’s the real thrust of our people strategy at the moment—how can we really get people coming through, particularly as we’ve reduced the size of the organization? We have more opportunities for people to grow into as we build back. We’re depending our leaders to grow the talent and particularly diverse talent, so that when we’re ready, it can come through.

Rachel Farley: Moving on to culture, if we look at Heathrow as an airport, it’s very well known for its values-led culture. How has this culture supported the significant changes and challenges of the past 15 months or so? And, in your experience, how can a company most effectively align culture to the strategy?

Paula Stannett: One of the first things I did when I became the chief people officer in 2013 was work with all our colleagues to build our values, and I think it’s fair to say that those values are as strong today as they were when we built them. Our number one value is safety first, which has been so important during the pandemic. Our other values are excellent service, doing the right thing, treating people with respect, working together, and aiming higher. Everybody knows those values and whatever we do, we make sure that we see and make decisions through the lens of those values. That has served us well throughout the pandemic because even when making difficult decisions such as having to say goodbye to very loved colleagues, we have been able to do that well through the lens of our values.

So, in terms of culture and strategy, I fundamentally believe that it should be people first. If you have a highly engaged workforce, they will deliver the business strategy and outcomes for you. At Heathrow we have a business strategy that has four pillars, and the first one is our people strategy, which we call “Mojo.” Mojo is all about making Heathrow a great place to work, one where everyone, whatever their background, can achieve their full potential.

Rachel Farley: The pandemic has accelerated the rate of change and transformation in business—what does the future of HR look like to support this rapid evolution?

Paula Stannett: That's a great question, Rachel. We’ve already talked about hybrid working but we've also seen a massive transformation in how we do training during the pandemic. We have moved all of our management programs to a digital platform so that people can access them from home. We now do induction digitally, and last week we did a virtual work experience for 800 local students, which was fantastic.

We’re also introducing a new back- office ERP cloud system that will enable the HR function to give much better data insight to our teams. So, we’re already working on that digital transformation. In the future, I think HR teams will continue to work through that digital transformation and that digital skills will continue to be important (also green skills). And I think that we will consider what can we do with AI and automation and make sure we are master-planning the development of our workforces so that we are upskilling people so that they can embrace automation and have the skills necessary for the world of work in the future. I think it’s going to be very exciting.

Rachel Farley: It is, I agree. So, coming to you as a leader, what were the biggest challenges that you personally had to face during the pandemic and what did you do to overcome them?

Paula Stannett: Well it’s fair to say there have been some tough days in which I’ve had to use that mood chart to really nudge myself back up to being in a good place. I found that running really helps me in terms of my mood, and also talking about my tough days. People shouldn’t keep silent when they’re struggling. We should talk about how we're feeling with close loved ones and colleagues because it really helps us develop positive action. I'm going to be honest, Rachel, one of the hardest things has been saying goodbye to some really wonderful talent. I have had to let go several people from my own team that I have missed every day since. But I do believe that when you let people go, they can become an ambassador for your business and they can come back in the future when we are growing again.

Rachel Farley: You mentioned the term “mental fitness.” Obviously, there are many ways of looking at mental health: mental illness, mental problems, well-being, low well-being, high well-being—the list goes on, and it will evolve going forward. (17:29) How do you define mental fitness?

Paula Stannett: For me, mental fitness is exactly as you’ve described. It’s about having a positive well-being and a positive mindset so that we can deal with all life’s stresses and bounce back quickly. All of us have good days and bad days, but when we move into a really negative mindset, that’s when we need additional help. Everybody, I think, including me, needs to work on their mental fitness as much as their physical fitness because it helps us from a business perspective. We can make much better decisions and therefore create better outcomes and value for the business.

Rachel Farley: Looking to the future, what's the most important way Heathrow is building on the lessons of 2020?

Paula Stannett: We learned that we have a very fixed cost base and we need to build in much more flexibility going forward. To that end, we’re working with partners to make sure that when we need to resource up, we can do so in a more flexible way. We’re also looking at a multi-skilling strategy so that we can use people across the airport and team Heathrow.

Rachel Farley: Well, Paula, thank you so much for making the time to speak with us today. We wish you luck in the future.

Thanks for listening to the Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast. To make sure you don’t miss more future-shaping ideas and conversations, please subscribe to our channel on the podcast app. And if you’re listening via LinkedIn, Twitter, or YouTube, why not share this with your connections? Until next time.

About the interviewer

Rachel Farley ( is a principal in Heidrick & Struggles’ London office and a member of the Human Resources Officers Practice.

Stay connected

Stay connected to our expert insights, thought leadership, and event information.

Leadership Podcast

Explore the latest episodes of The Heidrick & Struggles Leadership Podcast