Virgin Atlantic’s HR in Practice: high-flying management

A period of rapid growth meant Virgin Atlantic needed to bring its experienced management team up to speed and fill more positions internally.

The business

Established by Sir Richard Branson 22 years ago, Virgin Atlantic has become Britain’s second biggest airline. It operates 37 aircraft, employs 9,000 staff and flies more than 4.5 million passengers a year to some of the world’s major cities.

The challenge

After the slump in air travel following 9/11, Virgin Atlantic went through a period of rapid growth. It had built a brand that was trusted and respected around the world. But its young management team lacked experience and the company was worried about its ability to respond to new opportunities that arose. It was also keen to increase the amount of management vacancies that were filled internally, to safeguard Virgin’s work culture.

The solution

Virgin Atlantic introduced a leadership development programme that was led by business objectives rather than HR processes, and fitted into the organisation’s long-term goal of increasing profits by 7%. The leadership team started by identifying the traits it believed had made Virgin successful and followed this with a 360-degree appraisal of the management team’s strengths and weaknesses.

Andy Cross, head of learning and development at Virgin Atlantic, explains how the company wanted to create a strong team of managers that could take advantage of new opportunities at short notice. “We need to have the leadership strength to be able to [respond to opportunities] without damaging the main airline business,” he says.

Virgin decided to send all of its 120 managers on personal development workshops at Roffey Park, at a cost of £2,000 to £3,000 per head. Cross estimates the overall cost per head of the whole leadership initiative is £4,000 to £5,000. The two-and-a-half-day sessions started in May 2006, and 90 managers have so far been through the process. The remaining workshops will be held this year.

The workshops began with individual coaching sessions that set personal development objectives for the managers, based on feedback from the 360-degree appraisal and personality tests.

These were followed by a series of activities that aimed to instil Virgin’s leadership principles into management behaviour. The programme finished by producing individual personal development plans and split each group into two sets of six managers, who met up six times over the next nine months to monitor their own progress and bounce ideas off each other.

Virgin Atlantic now plans to review its leadership development plans annually and implement further development programmes this year. It also intends to extend the programme to its team in the US and to the next level of managers.

The outcome

As well as increasing motivation and retention, the ratio of management positions filled internally rose from approximately 50:50 to 60:40, says Cross. Virgin Atlantic has since run a second 360-degree feedback programme, which revealed the perception of managers’ performance by their direct reports has also improved.

Cross also gives an example of how Virgin Atlantic unexpectedly benefited from the closer co-operation between different aspects of its business. While on the course, a general airport manager got talking to a legal manager about a specific contract. The legal manager suggested the airport manager get in touch with the procurement department and the business was able to save £140,000.

Guide to leadership development in 11 steps



  1. Understand the present and future context of the organisation and the sector in which it is operating.
  2. Know what you are going to require of your leaders in the future. This mean you need to focus on potential performance.
  3. Make sure any programme is tied into other company activities, such as secondments, mentoring, cross-functional working and masterclasses. It should mot be a standalone project or seen as solely an HR initiative.
  4. Involve existing leaders by asking them to describe current and future leadership challenges.
  5. Use a variety of development mechanisms. These might include group sessions and one-to-one work, experiential and paper-based activities, company projects, feedback and coaching.
  6. Develop a framework on which to build the design of the programme, such as leadership competencies or principles.
  7. Reflect company culture in the programme design. Make full use of the organisation’s values and use the programme to bring them to life.
  8. Give participants the opportunity to voice their career aspirations.
  9. Wherever possible, involve line managers before, during and after the programme.
  10. Build personal development planning into the programme. Individuals rarely complete development plans after the momentum of the programme is lost.
  11. Carry out an evaluation of the programme at both a behavioural and results level through 360-degree appraisals (undertaken both before and after), surveys and performance data.

Employee perspective

Chris Birch, head of product and service, premium economy and economy at Virgin Atlantic, was one of the managers who took part in the 360-degree feedback and personal development workshops.

“It gave me a strong amount of focus because I was able to take the development plan I had put in place during those two-and-a-half days and use it to manage my own personal development,” he says.

“It gives you more buy-in and it helps you to see where you want your career to go. It’s also indicative of how the company has grown up – it shows the business understands the true benefits of having strong leadership skills at the top.”

If I could do it again…

Andy Cross, head of learning and development at Virgin Atlantic, admits he could have better explained the concept of the leadership programme to the managers.

“They were busy people who hadn’t really had a chance to understand why they were there,” he says.

“I would also have made sure everybody understood that having a personal development plan was a requirement going forward to stay in the business development programme.”

He says he would have liked to have completed the programme by summer 2006 but this was not possible, due to the day-to-day challenges Virgin faced and the impact of the alleged terrorism plot that created havoc in the airline industry last summer.

Guide to leadership development in 11 steps



  1. Understand the present and future context of the organisation and the sector in which it is operating.
  2. Know what you are going to require of your leaders in the future. This mean you need to focus on potential performance.
  3. Make sure any programme is tied into other company activities, such as secondments, mentoring, cross-functional working and masterclasses. It should mot be a standalone project or seen as solely an HR initiative.
  4. Involve existing leaders by asking them to describe current and future leadership challenges.
  5. Use a variety of development mechanisms. These might include group sessions and one-to-one work, experiential and paper-based activities, company projects, feedback and coaching.
  6. Develop a framework on which to build the design of the programme, such as leadership competencies or principles.
  7. Reflect company culture in the programme design. Make full use of the organisation’s values and use the programme to bring them to life.
  8. Give participants the opportunity to voice their career aspirations.
  9. Wherever possible, involve line managers before, during and after the programme.
  10. Build personal development planning into the programme. Individuals rarely complete development plans after the momentum of the programme is lost.
  11. Carry out an evaluation of the programme at both a behavioural and results level through 360-degree appraisals (undertaken both before and after), surveys and performance data.

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