Emirates: The man who hired 65,000 people

Written by
Karam Filfilan

20 Jun 2018

20 Jun 2018 • by Karam Filfilan

Emirates is regarded as one of the world’s premier airlines. With 65,000 employees from 160 countries and a status as Dubai’s flagship brand, how is executive VP of HR Abdulaziz Al Ali preparing the airline for the future?

The Sunday after I visited Emirates’ headquarters at Dubai airport, the airline showcased its brand new first-class suites at the Dubai Air Show. Featuring virtual windows with a live outside feed for enclosed central cabins, a video-chat system for face-to-face ordering to maximise privacy and ‘zero-gravity’ flat beds inspired by NASA, Emirates’ president Sir Tim Clark called the new product “a game changer”.

Clark declined to say how much the redesign was costing the airline, but he did reveal that the carrier had ordered 40 new Boeing 787 Dreamliners, at a cost of AED55bn.

Emirates’ growth since its launch in 1985 is astonishing. Started by Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum and Briton Sir Maurice Flanagan with just $10m in capital, the airline’s first flight was a Dubai-Karachi journey with an aircraft leased from Pakistan International Airlines.

Within nine months, the airline was profitable, carrying 260,000 passengers, and had added routes to Delhi and Mumbai. By 2003 – when Abdulaziz Al Ali became executive VP of HR – the airline was posting year-on-year profits of 94% and carrying 8.5 million passengers annually. 

How Emirates sustains growth

Today, the airline owns more than 265 aircraft, carrying 29.2 million passengers and making a profit of AED2.3bn – and that was just in the first six months of 2017. So what has Al Ali’s experience been of Emirates’ growth? And how has it worked from a people perspective?

“There’s a saying that ‘the future comes one day at a time’ and growth happens in the same way,” he smiles. “We’ve been blessed with a fantastic brand and a diverse workforce who are excited by the vision we have for our growth.

“People get excited by growth, but they also understand that it creates difficulties. There will be silos and there will be complexities. It’s easy to grow, but we want to be successful too. We want to keep our standards.”

No one in the organisation is better placed to understand the importance of Emirates’ standards than Al Ali, who has been with the airline almost from the outset. He joined Emirates as a management trainee in 1986 after graduating with an MSc in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, progressing through roles as personnel manager, head of HR and HR director before joining the executive board in 2003. This means Al Ali is ultimately responsible for the recruitment of almost all of Emirates’ near 65,000 employees.

While his leadership style has evolved through the years, he believes he has retained three core values that underpin what he looks for in an Emirates employee – integrity, trust and respect. For Al Ali, these traits are key to creating an environment of innovation that allows the airline to keep moving forward.

“Success is only sustainable if you have the right people and these values drive how I lead. In doing so, you allow people to feel comfortable taking risks.

“Yes , they might make mistakes, but the alternative is an environment of fear where people feel blocked. They might do a good job, but I can tell you your people will be thinking straight, not aterally. They won’t be innovative,” he insists.

This need to innovate runs through the airline’s DNA, allowing it to create groundbreaking ideas such as its onboard bar and a shower room for first class passengers. In an interview with travel industry website Skift in 2016, Clark retold the story of how he persuaded Airbus to install the shower room, having been told the space would be used for an art gallery. Clark says it was ‘instinct’ that made him ask for the shower room.

“You know something? If I had listened to everybody who told me it was nuts to do this, we would be four airplanes. The whole Emirates business model has been a complete destabiliser, disruptor to the aviation world,” he said.

Al Ali agrees that creativity is something the airline “lives and breathes”, influenced by the changing nature of the industry and the place in the world Emirates inhabits.

“Conditions are constantly changing. The market is constantly changing. So, how we deal with growth is by examining where the business is going, looking at our HR policies and procedures, and attracting the right people with the skills we’ll need in the future. The people that join you tomorrow will want different things to today, so it’s important always to look at what you offer,” says Al Ali.

Ultimately, he believes that Emirates’ culture reflects a can-do attitude. “When we’re in a crisis, we operate well as a strong team. If we’re suffering, we share the suffering. If we’re in a good place, we share the celebrations. We’re always engaging with our people.”

At the top of Al Ali’s HR agenda is the impact digital technology is having on consumer and people behaviour. He is currently at the end of a three-year transformation journey aimed at moving the function into a space more congruent with the cutting-edge way the business is run. 

Innovative change

Year one saw Al Ali create a service centre and HR business partner model to centralise administrative tasks and separate them from the strategic part of the business, before consolidating the airline’s HR IT systems in year two. Year three has been about driving innovative change and implementing the organisation’s values.

“People always talk about innovation being on the tech side, but innovation can be anything. My goal is to create an HR department where people are curious and creative. I want an HR function that is leading innovation.

“We want our people to think differently about their capabilities. The digital world is going to affect how we can attract talent, develop talent and how we retain our good people. It’s a huge competition and its either be disrupted, or be disruptive,” he adds.

Al Ali admits that Dubai’s position as a hub of innovation – and the airline’s embodiment of this as it’s carrier – brings its own pressures.

“Emirates is part of the fabric of Dubai. We’re cosmopolitan and so is Dubai. We’re looking at the digital world and so is Dubai. At the end of the day, Dubai’s vision is driven by Emirates. We bring the people here, we fly the flag around the world, so there has to be a lot of commonality between us and the government,” he says.

This drive to build on and continue driving Dubai’s growth means that Al Ali regularly shares best practice with other business leaders in the emirate, for example, working with Dubai Police on technology and customer service. 

Operating with trust and respect

Al Ali treats these interactions in the same way that he does when interacting with his employees – by operating on a basis of respect and trust.

“That’s what I thrive on,” he says. “When you give respect and trust, people do a lot more for you. I want to do away with fear, which is how most people manage.

“If you don’t, your people will do the job for you, but they won’t go the extra mile. Being a good leader is about sharing the suffering. It’s living with your employees.”