Florida Airports Council Launches Leadership Development Program

Dan Vnuk
Published in: 

Every day, 10,000 Americans turn 60 and begin counting down to retirement. Many will vacate management positions, leaving behind voids of leadership and industry knowledge. This Baby Boomer exodus could be particularly problematic for airports, which tend to have a limited supply of candidates to fill upper-level positions. The Florida Airports Council is working to help its members stay ahead of the retirement curve with a three-day program to identify, train and educate emerging managers so they're ready to take the reins as Baby Boom leaders leave. 

With funding from the Florida Department of Transportation and University of South Florida's Center for Urban Transportation Research, the leadership development course costs $200 per student. One of the council's primary goals was to make the course affordable for all sizes of member airports throughout the state.  


Project: Leadership Training Course

Sponsor: Florida Airports Council
Funding Partners: Florida Dept. of Transportation; Center for Urban Transportation Research, Univ. of South Florida

Course Duration: 3 days

Cost: $200/student 

Location: Univ. of South Florida

Available To: Employees of Florida Airports Council Members

Curriculum Topics: Self-management; strategic thinking; culture transformation; change management; communication; building relationships

Presented By: Direct Effect Solutions

Associated Credential: Certificate of Completion from Univ. of South Florida

Inaugural Class: 2013

Graduates: 97 employees from 35 Florida airports (thru Nov. 2014)

Inspired by Research

The impetus for the council's new leadership program came from the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), an industry-driven, applied-research program sponsored by the FAA and managed by the Transportation Research Board of the National Academies. In addition to documenting the need for programs to develop future airport leaders, an ACRP study found that the current gap in leadership development is partially based on affordability and availability of pertinent courses. Its findings also indicate that the leadership skills needed at airports are the same as in other industries, but the circumstances in which airport leaders apply the skills are unique. 

"According to the research, most airport leaders receive some supervisory training to meet mandatory technical requirements. But after that, there may be limited or even no additional leadership-specific courses," says Bill Johnson, executive director of the Florida Airports Council. "Further, the report found that existing and emerging leaders aren't learning the skills needed to lead an organization as complex as an airport."

After personally attending the program's inaugural course in early 2013 and reviewing results of subsequent classes, Johnson considers the new leadership course "one of the greatest programs our council has ever offered."  

Course Curriculum  

Content for the three-day program focuses on strategy execution and the six attributes/skills ACRP identified as key for airport (and other) leaders: self-management, strategic thinking, culture transformation, change management, communication and relationship-building.  

Course facilitators Michael Audino and Mindy Price use interactive scenario discussions to address the topics.

"Participants work in groups to discuss and resolve airport-specific scenarios that describe circumstances in which the leadership skills would be applied," explains Audino, a senior researcher and educator at the University of South Florida who guided the ACRP leadership development project.

Mindy Price, owner and principal consultant with Direct Effect Solutions, emphasizes the importance of the 360-degree assessments that participants must complete before they arrive at the University of South Florida for their on-site coursework. To complete the assessments, students must solicit input from three to five organizational subordinates, peers and superiors, for a total of about one dozen documents. Price considers the assessments a participant's "ticket for admission" to the program. 

"The leadership insights afforded by the 360-degree self-assessment helps participants focus on specific leadership topics during the subsequent three days of training," explains Price, who also consulted on the ACRP study. "The expected results of the course include increasing the self-awareness of each participant and an increased understanding of how they are perceived as a leader."

The first full day of training focuses on self-management. Participants learn about, and begin to develop, their own "personal leadership brands" by discussing various leadership styles, their individual leadership journeys, leadership passages and "followership" - a new concept for many.

During the second day, participants examine leadership fundamentals. Topics include communication styles, conflict resolution, critical thinking, decision-making, building a business case and negotiating skills.  

On the final day, participants concentrate on executing leadership techniques, with an emphasis on strategic planning, developing culture, relationship building, strategy execution and change management.

"Throughout the three days, participants have an opportunity to apply what they have learned through assessment centers," Price notes. The centers allow class facilitators to observe whether participants can demonstrate a command of specific topics - building a business case, communication/conflict resolution, negotiation skills - as well as overall course content. 

At the end of the course, participants create and present action plans to facilitate the immediate application of what they learned back at their home airports. 

In late November, five sessions of the program had yielded 97 graduates from 35 Florida airports; 12 airports had sent three or more participants. When contacted for feedback, all airports reported a positive change in their attendees. 

Additionally, two graduates have since been promoted and one team went on to win an award for strategic planning.

Return on Investment

Michael Stewart, director of external affairs for the Jacksonville Aviation Authority and current president of the Florida Airports Council, describes the course as "extremely well-tailored to the needs of today's airports."

Stewart especially appreciated learning from the experiences shared by fellow peers/participants. "Soon after completing the course, I found myself using techniques that I learned over the three days in my daily routine as an administrator," he recalls. 

After experiencing the benefits of the classes first-hand, Stewart is determined to make the leadership program sustainable on a long-term basis during his council presidency. "It can have such an impact on developing future leadership," he explains. "There is a lot of good young talent out there, but they need opportunities presented to them that will help them reach the next step on their career ladder. This course focuses on helping them define a direction instead of just grabbing the next job that may come along."  

Based on the program's success, the Florida Dept. of Transportation approved funding for an advanced-level course titled Airport Situational Leadership. It is scheduled to occur in early 2015.


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