Sky's the limit: HR at Virgin Australia

In the world of consumerism, you’d be hard pushed to find a more commendable or recognizable brand than Virgin

Sky's the limit: HR at Virgin Australia

In the world of consumerism, you’d be hard pushed to find a more commendable or recognizable brand than Virgin. What began as a small record label in the UK, evolved and spread across the globe – branching out into travel, banking and health care.  

Virgin Australia was formed in 2000, boasting over 130 aircraft and 10,000 employees. At the heart of their day-to-day business operations sits Virgin Australia’s exceptional people-centric plan – programs and development schemes designed to steer top talent into future leadership roles.  

HRD spoke to Lucinda Gemmell, chief people and culture officer at Virgin Australia, who revealed how her organization is pushing forward important diversity initiatives and how to measure the ROI on this, as well as talent and engagement initiatives.  

“One of my first priorities after joining the Virgin Australia Group was to implement a defined people plan, which clearly explains how our team would add value and help the organisation to deliver on its core business objectives,” prefaced Gemmell.  

“While developing the plan, it was clear that to really deliver on it, we needed to acquire new capabilities and work differently together, and with the company. We had to re-think our HR operating model, create a shared service function, and stand up Centres of Excellence, which enable our function to better align to the strategic priorities of the business, and deliver an efficient and effective people advisory service.” 

Gemmell explained that the response from within her team was incredibly positive – which in turn led on to a number of pro-active talent moves.  

“They were also able to see their day jobs radically change, supported by a best in class HR capability program. In fact, we measured the success of the change process for our team with nearly 100% of our team members reporting as being delighted about the change ahead of turning on the new model. The wider business response was also very encouraging. We are now partnering on what really matters to them, where their people are, and have seen the benefit of new initiatives we were not previously equipped to deliver, such as a suite of leadership programs. We also provide a new and different service that gives more accessible and timely support to the majority of our geographically dispersed workforce.” 

Another proud moment for Gemmell came in the form of Virgin Australia’s ground-breaking Pilot Cadetship Program. Here, Gemmell was instrumental in improving female representation in the technical areas of aviation – a sector that’s notoriously male-dominated.  

“This year we announced an equal intake of males and females for our 2018 Pilot Cadetship Program, and I’m proud to say that we exceeded this target and increased female representation by more than 200% compared to the intake for last year’s program,” continued Gemmell. 

“By developing a more targeted recruitment strategy for this year’s campaign, we doubled the amount of applications we received and saw four times the number of females apply. The calibre of talent this year was outstanding and that really excites me for what’s to come for our next generation of pilots.”   

One of the main issues in the Australian employment landscape revolves around the promotion and development of Indigenous employees. According to Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane: “Although those who have non-European and Indigenous backgrounds make up an estimated 24% of the Australian population, such backgrounds account for only five per cent of senior leaders.” 

Bridging this rift is something Virgin Australia takes very seriously – hence their standout Indigenous Employee Program.  

“We’re passionate about creating sustainable employment opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and we do that through our partnership with Diversity Dimensions to help source Indigenous talent,” explained Gemmell.  

“By offering a differentiated and culturally appropriate recruitment process, we look to support Indigenous candidates who enter the organisation via a diverse range of roles. We run monthly information sessions targeting prospective Indigenous candidates, showcasing the breadth of opportunities we offer within the organisation.   

“We deliver training for leaders and the teams within which new Indigenous team members will work and provide mentoring from fellow Indigenous team members. These frameworks are developed in conjunction with our Indigenous working group who tell us what is of most value, and how we can continuously improve.” 

Reports suggest that the best way to ensure that an organisation will survive in times of tumultuous change is to invest more in developing future leaders. Gemmell explained that this is something of a priority at Virgin Australia – which led to the emergence of their High-Altitude Graduate Program, Emerging Leaders Program, and the Women in Leadership Program. 

“These programs run alongside a set of clear and common leadership standards we have launched. These standards aim to give guidance to team members on how they can perform best in their roles, and how they can prepare themselves to transition to positions that are more senior if they aspire to do so. Our organisation is one that offers many diverse roles and that creates great opportunity. We have the ability for cross-functional moves through our talent planning processes, building breadth and depth across the Group, and a strong cohort of leaders to assume bigger and more complex roles.” 

And with all this commitment to embracing diversity and inclusivity at Virgin Australia, HR leaders will undoubtedly be asking how the organization measuring the return on their ethically-charged investments. Well, according to Gemmell, it all comes down to managing future pipelines.   

“We measure success on the talent pulled through onto our succession plans, and the number of internal moves we make as a result of our planning processes. A strong example of this is our corporate governance statement that sets targets for female representation at CEO-2 level, which is something we are currently exceeding. Currently we have over 50% female representation at an executive level.  

“We also know engagement drives performance, and we are very pleased to see the impact of these initiatives in our market leading engagement scores, and our recent financial year results.”  

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