Thursday, 23 April 2009

RAF High Wycombe

I went to an exhilarating meeting of the Institute of Chartered Managers at RAF High Wycombe, for a behind the scenes view of Air command. The fascinating talk was on leadership and was an MBA useful?

The charismatic speaker - a squadron leader with 2500+ hours of Tornado flying, after a tour of duty, leaving Basra, viewing the Euphrates and the Tigris and thinking he might want to come back and visit later, meaning in five or six years, finds himself back in weeks but this time in charge of the airport and airfield. This squadron leader becomes Group Captain Dean Andrew.

The brief is to get the airfield ready to hand over to the Americans at an unknown date, and the airport ready to hand back to the Iraqis at some unknown date, and not to let each party know when about each other. In the meantime, the insurgents are launching 125+ rocket attacks a week at the airfield, an area one and a half times as big as Heathrow airport.

The airport had been built in 1983, but never had air traffic through because the Iran-Iraq war happened soon after, and there were the two gulf wars. Group Capt Andrew used a variety of resources - the ground force (I didn't realise the RAF had one) to defined the no man's land by the airfields and make sure no rockets got launched there. Every day these men worked in 66F in the heat of the midday sun - "mad dogs and English men ..."

He mapped out the stakeholders with high/low power against ability to influence, so he could identify people he really needed to work with. He recognised the cultural challenges of difference between English, American and Iraqi. The cultural difference probably saved his life. The RAF was not exactly very welcome; the insurgents bombed their offices two weeks after he arrived. The insurgents chose a Sunday morning, which is an ordinary working day for Iraqis, but a day for church (or whatever) for the British, so the office was empty.

He prioritised his day by working hard from 7am to 11 pm, but spent the first couple of hours doing the most important things - allocating jobs and trusting people to do what they had to do.
"Understanding culture builds trust"
He built trust. Having some spare money he could have spent it on something important to Westerners, like fixing the luggage carousels, but he asked the Iraqi airport manager, who wanted pot plants, because that what made an impression in Iraqis eyes. Dean Andrew got someone in the UK to fly out such pot plants within 48 hours - thus earning the trust of the Iraqi manager, who was so grateful that he invited Dean Andrew to break the end of the Ramadan fast with him and has invited him to return with his wife.

He handed over the airport to the Iraqis in January 2009. And did the MBA help?
This was about leadership, not management, so depends on personality. The RAF didn't know he had an MBA when he put in there - he was put in because they'd already seen his leadership qualities, and whilst he used knowledge from his MBA studies (e.g. case studies of other airports), it was the leadership that mattered.

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