Change in the air: Interview with Samya Ketait, VP of L&D and Meshari Al Bannai, VP of HR at Dubai A

Written by
Changeboard Team

03 Oct 2013

03 Oct 2013 • by Changeboard Team

Talent philosophy

When we began our change programme, we decided to adopt a more creative and innovative outlook to address the needs of our employees. Since then, we have been recognised as Employer of the Year in the GCC HR Excellence awards 2011 and 2012, and Best Employer in the Public Sector in the HR Leaders Award. In the past five years, the average length of time employees stay with us has increased from eight to 15 years. In the same period, our attrition rate has fallen from 10% to 3% – lower than the average of 5%.

We work to the philosophy that if you invest in your talent, you will sustain it. It’s not about money here, but culture. Our philosophy is concentrated around ‘what’s in it for you’ as an employee.

Performance management

We have 3,400 employees from more than 52 countries and we recognise that our success lies in the hands of our people. We want every employee, however junior, to know how their role relates to the big picture and how they contribute to the overall business.

As part of this, we introduced a PMS (performance management system) three years ago. Every employee has individual competencies which are agreed upon with their line manager before meeting for regular discussions. If objectives are not achieved, we’ll review these and change them if necessary – there’s lots of flexibility. There are three phases: setting objectives at the beginning of the year, followed by a mid-year and end of year review.

We believe every employee has the right to agree on their objectives and how they are measured, as well as to speak their mind. This played a key part in encouraging people to participate in the PMS. Initially there was a lot of resistance, with responses like: ‘I’m the cleaner, I don’t have any objectives’. 

Implementing this across the whole business at once was very challenging. To reach out to our whole employee population effectively, we made sure the PMS was available in different languages, and everyone received training to use the online system to record their objectives and scores.

Reward and recognition strategy

We reward high performance with more than just money, which is unusual for organisations in the Middle East.

We communicate to all our employees how valuable they are and pledge to invest in them. Our in-house ‘star’ and ‘mega star’ performer awards are central to our recognition programme. The criteria for selection is closely aligned to the Dubai Government Excellence Programme and other government organisations. We ensure our stars’ achievements are celebrated – our internal communications team write about them and we send emails to their line manager.

Personal and professional growth

Our training framework is designed to help and protect people, not to control or restrict them. All our employees have the opportunity to develop their skills and aptitudes through a selection of training courses and on-the-job coaching.

We have set up a range of structured programmes and management development courses to tackle the existing and future needs of the business. We also support nationals to pursue their academic studies in aviation.

All our development and talent programmes are internationally accredited/awarded by the Institute of Leadership & Management and the United Nations.

To graduate from our talent development programmes, participants must contribute something to society. To facilitate this, we run UAE community initiatives such as clean-up days and helping the elderly.

Hiring from within

We advertise vacancies internally before recruiting externally. There’s no restriction on applications – a junior staff member can apply for a senior role. About 60% of our vacancies are filled internally, saving us 20% on recruitment in the last three years.

Our core focus is on specialist roles and building the technological capability within the organisation. We have approximately 300 vacancies each year and receive around 300 CVs per position. Our next project is to implement a system to track applications.

If we cannot find the right person internally, we take it national. We have an executive research team who use social media to reach top talent in the market. If someone is making an international move, we put a lot of effort into explaining the culture of the organisation and the country they are moving to. We tell them about Dubai, dos and don’ts and what it’s like to live and work here. Once they are engaged and comfortable, we negotiate.

Finding out what employees want

Our HR team has become much more business-focused in recent years. Our business partners collate information so we can react to it. They speak the language of HR and communicate to our employees what’s in it for them. We don’t wait for our end users to create an issue – we anticipate a problem and try to fix it. For example, we have a lot of females working in the business who needed flexible hours to accommodate their family demands. We listened and responded and now they feel much more empowered to do their jobs successfully.

We conduct an annual engagement survey to understand our employee needs. Next a specialised team presents the results and makes recommendations in the areas we’re not performing well in. For the last three years, we’ve achieved at least 75% engagement.

We publish the results of the survey and tell employees about the actions we have taken. This motivates them to participate in future surveys.

Investment in the future

Recently, we announced a US$7.8 billion airport and airspace expansion programme, called SP2020, which will boost capacity at Dubai International from 60 million to 90 million passengers a year by 2018. We’re gearing our employees up for this too. We’ve realised that we’re lacking project management capability within the organisation, so we’re looking at ways of upskilling our leaders to be able to deliver this effectively in line with our SP2020 plans.

Communication is key

Many organisations create a restrictive culture where employees feel they are being spied on, which isn’t right. It’s important to explain why disciplines exist.

Try to make it friendly so people will listen, don’t make everything about HR policies and process, but rather about empowerment.

Change tends to fail if you don’t communicate it properly – people get worried and anxious about whether they are going to lose their jobs. Communication always helps to show how valuable the change will be and how it will change employees’ lives for the better.

Samia Ketait

SmiaSamia is a senior professional in HR & training with experience spanning over two decades.