An interview with Director of Talent and Development at Heathrow Airport

Head to Head with Becky Ivers, Director of Talent and Development at Heathrow Airport


Tell us a little more about yourself and your role

Despite my title, I have responsibility for areas as diverse as training, leadership development, performance and change management, resourcing and the Heathrow Academy. Whilst Heathrow Airport Limited (HAL) employs about 6000 colleagues, about 80,000 people are employed across the wider Heathrow community and the Academy was established to help prepare people for one of the incredibly varied numbers of careers available at the airport - from a barista at Costa to a baggage handler in Terminal 5. Furthermore, if and when we get the go-ahead for the third runway, we have committed to putting an additional 10,000 people through the Academy so it will remain a key part of my role for some considerable time to come.

Before joining Heathrow nearly two years ago, I spent several years during a significant period of change as Director of OD at Premier Foods and, before that, as the Director of Leadership and Development at Dixons Stores Group. That was another particularly interesting role leading the talent and performance agenda during a period when the Group was trying to bring various disparate operations together and ensure one consistent approach. Prior to that, I enjoyed two great years at easyJet where I had the opportunity to get involved in lots of interesting areas.

Like many others, however, I cut my ‘HR teeth’ in that commercial melting pot which is retail. I spent 17 years with Safeway starting out as an HR, or what we used to call personnel, assistant. I moved up through the ranks finishing up as the HR director before specialising in the OD field and helping manage the Safeway/Morrisons M&A.


How is the learning and development function within your company responding to the current aims and challenges of your business? 

One of the positive legacies of being previously, and still a part, regulated entity is the fact that we are hugely well organised and managed. We operate on a quinquennium system (which we simply refer to as Qs) whereby everything is planned and run around a five-year plan and everyone knows and buys into the vision. In fact, a recent engagement survey showed that more than 85% of our employees knew just what the vision was. 

This enables the L&D team to establish just what are our targets, ambitions and priorities – from both a commercial and HR perspective – and what we need to do to help ensure we deliver on the plan. In fact, striving to ‘beat the plan’ is one of the whole company’s key objectives; along with ensuring continuous improvement, creating a great place to work and, of course, expansion.


"It’s absolutely essential that the business strategy is aligned with the L&D strategy"

If Heathrow gets the go-ahead to expand or not, the next big challenge for us will come when the third runway decision is finally taken after the general election. We are going to have new pressures - whichever way the decision goes - ensuring that we have the right talent in the right place at the right time. In fact, I’d anticipate that if the decision goes against Heathrow, one of our toughest jobs will be to hang on to some of our brightest and best who have been inspired by these challenges and would have wanted to see them through to fulfilment.

Another legacy fallout is the fact that, as a heavily unionised operation, one of our biggest challenges is always to strive to ensure that our employee engagement levels are as high as possible. Finally, like most large-scale organisations in our position, we are having to manage the complications and issues around pensions provision. 


What do you see as the main challenge that the L&OD function faces in the future? 

I’m afraid it’s that old chestnut of not being commercial enough; it’s absolutely essential that the business strategy is aligned with the L&D strategy. I see too many people arguing the toss over what is HR or what is L&D or OD and whose responsibility it is. 

I appreciate that the lines are certainly more blurred than they used to be but that just means we have to share and collaborate more. It doesn’t matter what you call it when the occasion demands it we have to be all things to all people in order to get the ‘people job’ done. And it’s about the speed of our response to get ‘it’ done and deliver what the business needs as fast and as effectively as possible. Not being afraid to pick up the ball – whatever shape it is – and run with it.


What key characteristics do you look for in L&OD professionals when recruiting for your team?

Given everything I’ve just said about the challenges the sector faces, one of the most important characteristics I look for is the culture fit; are they up to the challenge of working effectively is such a dynamic and fast moving environment? And that also means we need pragmatic self-starters, not purist ‘yes men.’ I need those who aren’t afraid to push back and question the status quo. Decision makers who, in addition to the obvious technical HR skills, have the strategic ability to ‘walk the talk’ and deliver.


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