Making influential HR take off at easyJet

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To discover exactly what HR influence means Ashridge Business School interviewed our top three practitioners of 2016

When easyJet began in 1995 with its promise of low-cost flights few people could have predicted how fast it would grow. The first operations were modest, but now a fleet of 272 planes operates over 700 routes in 30 countries, with a workforce of 11,387. Since March 2013 the company has also been listed among the FTSE 100. But while it is a story of growth, the industry is affected by many exogenous factors like strikes, geopolitical issues and currency fluctuations.

Jacky Simmonds joined in 2016 as group director, people and leads an HR team of 90. One of Simmonds’ priorities was to review HR to ensure it was aligned to the business strategy.

Key is the ‘Next Generation easyJet’ programme that is reviewing the working environment. “With the help of some external consultants and in consultation with unions, we asked staff to tell us what was good about what we did – what should we keep – but also what wasn’t working and what needed to change,” says Simmonds.

One obvious challenge was central decision-making in Luton. The HR team identified different roles in the process and used the model of RAPID decision-making to make things more efficient. The key to this model is that people can clearly understand, and therefore talk about, the various key roles that are involved in decision-making. Explicitly talking about these means that everyone becomes clearer where there’s a block or barrier.

Simmonds made a few changes to the HR team. “It had been organised in the traditional Ulrich model but I realigned roles slightly to help us deliver more impact,” she says. The organisation development role for example was a new area, while improving digital and technical skills and resourcing crew and pilot availability across the different countries were quickly identified as key areas.

Simmonds designed the HR team framework so that HR would become more influential. “I wanted HR to be a strategic partner, to help easyJet as a business to deliver. It’s not something that’s necessarily so difficult to do but it is important for the HR director to be commercially aware,” she says. Establishing and maintaining links at the most senior levels – between the HR director, the CEO and the CFO – is also an essential part of HR impact. “You have to think of yourself first and foremost as a business person who also happens to be an HR director. The business part should always come first in my view,” says Simmonds.

She explains that one of the key ways HR can be at the heart of any business is by taking a lead on issues that will be important in the future. The Next Generation programme is crucial to this. Its survey identified four key issues: customer service and operational excellence, data and digital skills, strategy and network, and cost.

“Once we had identified this list of four key ‘spikes’ as we call them, it was about setting out detailed action plans for each area,” says Simmonds. “Our senior management team were on board and clear about the principles as well as understanding all the practical implications of what we were aiming to achieve with the programme. Getting people, for example, to understand that this was not just an HR project but was all-encompassing and would improve all our different business areas.”

Six months into the programme it’s evident that a great communications strategy has also played a role in helping to demonstrate the benefits. All in all it’s been a busy time and Simmonds’ achievements have been both high-profile and delivered business impact. “Everything should be about a focus on the business; what do we need to achieve and finding out how exactly HR can help in that process,” she says.

HRMI eight factors of influence

Of our eight factors of influence, Simmonds says the most important centre around ‘outcomes’ (so numbers one to four). “Achieving significant outcomes in the business is quite important – and you must have board-level involvement as well. Working closely with the senior team is important, but also having a track record of achievements is quite high on the list of what helps to make HR influential,” says Simmonds. What happens at board level is a key indicator: “Whether the board listen to you is a major factor in assessing whether HR is influential in a business.”

For full versions of these HRMI practitioner 2016 interviews and for others, download our free HR Most Influential interviews ebook

Read more on this year's HRMI rankings, sponsored by Open University Business School, here

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