Rising to the challenges of rapid growth

Avolon / INSEAD

– FINALIST OF THE 2020 EXCELLENCE IN PRACTICE AWARDS –

By any measure, Avolon’s story of meteoric growth is unusual. INSEAD strategy professor, Daniel Simonovich, describes the Irish aircraft leasing company’s trajectory as ‘astonishing’.

In 2017, less than a decade after start-up, Avolon had an annual turnover of over $2.3 billion and assets of over $27 billion. Much of the growth was organic but in 2017 the company successfully completed a merger with the aircraft-leasing arm of American bank, CIT. All integration goals were met well ahead of schedule – and Avolon’s numbers of aircraft and people doubled overnight.

Fortunately, all the members of the Executive Team had worked together before. One colleague called them the FC Barcelona of aircraft leasing: “They could pass the ball without looking because they knew the other player was going to be there.”

Yet they now had a 250-strong global workforce, half of whom had been with the company for under two years. Success – especially in the form of rapid growth – can be hard to manage. And so Avolon’s leaders approached global business school, INSEAD.

Before: the challenge

In 2017 Avolon was still operating like a start-up. There were too many Excel spreadsheets and ad hoc email attachments and too few systems and processes. Although many procedures were highly effective they were not necessarily written down. The founding “FC Barcelona” team was used to passing the ball without looking, let alone documenting its path.

Moreover, Avolon was a deal culture – reflecting a high-adrenaline, high-stakes industry where a single transaction can run to hundreds of millions of dollars. All the company’s key performance indicators were financial, which failed to capture the complexity of the business. Senior executives were so wrapped up in day-to-day transactions that they had little time to think strategically.

Meanwhile, junior managers were so busy rushing around, making their larger-than-life bosses’ deals happen, that they had little time to lead their own teams or to use their own insights.

In the initial high-level meetings between the Avolon Executive Committee and the INSEAD team (which included Deputy Dean, Peter Zemsky) two overarching objectives for the partnership were defined.

First, leadership and strategy. Senior staff had to stop being doers and become thinkers, while junior staff had to stop being followers and become leaders – with no fear of speaking up or sometimes failing.

Second, processes and strategy execution: Avolon had to move from small-company to big-company systems.

According to Avolon HR Director, Susan Rafferty, “A spark was lit from the very first meeting.”

Creation and delivery of the programme

INSEAD’s initial analysis identified “4 + 2” critical areas, the “4” being strategy, structure, culture and execution and the “2” being talent management and leadership. Avolon immediately embraced the analysis and asked them to translate it into an educational programme.

After much iteration, the partners agreed on three modules delivered over 8–12 months: Strategic Leadership for more senior managers (around 50 people in two cohorts) and Accelerated Leadership for junior managers (150 in five cohorts). Each would cover similar ground, so that everyone in the company was aligned around the same “4 + 2” learning. This represented a two to three year commitment and a significant investment by Avolon.

By the time the first module ran at INSEAD Fontainebleau in March 2018, it was clear that the objectives were as much about cascading a learning culture throughout Avolon as about strategy, execution and leadership.

Since then over 65% of Avolon employees have attended INSEAD.

The learning is carefully adapted to career levels. For example, the junior programme focuses more on business basics than strategy (project management, negotiation, communication, team dynamics and cross-cultural interaction). Similarly, where senior colleagues learn about leading change, juniors focus on experiencing and influencing change.

Avolon requested an entirely face-to-face rather than online programme in order to strengthen bonds between employees from different functional teams and hierarchical levels. However, delivery methods are highly innovative, most notably in the “business in action” simulation.

Participants are taken completely outside their comfort zones for two whole days in a kind of ‘reality-TV’ experience”, as they deal with surprise challenges, delivered as text messages, calls or emails in real time.

After: the impact

Since 2018, Avolon has undergone an unlikely process revolution thanks to INSEAD’s application of Kaizen principles to a non-manufacturing context. Despite initial scepticism, the sessions have spawned a whole new company structure, the Project Management Office (PMO).

Built around an existing IT team, it not only ensures best practices in managing new projects across the company but is also mapping – and improving – all of Avolon’s day-to-day processes.

By January 2019, the new team had its own space and dedicated “process mapping” area to apply the principles learned at INSEAD alongside colleagues from other departments. All staff can literally step outside their day-to-day routine into a creative “design” space where they can see their tasks with greater clarity and set their roles within a bigger picture.

In year one, the team helped to optimise 33 distinct internal processes by cutting out unnecessary steps or finding technical solutions. The resulting improvements resulted in many quality enhancements and have saved an estimated 10% of the company’s time.

The PMO has also led two major company-wide IT projects: a document-management system that enables files to be shared throughout the organisation; and a bespoke platform for managing transactions and operations, capturing all KPIs for the entire company to access on any device anywhere in the world.

“It’s a game-changer that encompasses every deal we make and has transformed our working practices,” says COO Tom Ashe.

The leadership impacts are inevitably less tangible but should not be underestimated. Ask any participant about the effect of the programme and they will cite changes in their own behaviour. HR Operations Manager, Claire Hudson, is typical.
“Before, a lot of people found me intimidating,” she says. “Today I adopt a softer communication style for certain situations.”

Simon Hanson, Head of Asia Pacific, already had an MBA and was sceptical about what he would learn at INSEAD. But he too has changed: “Today I think more like a football coach on the sidelines, rather than a star player.”

And after that

On 6 January 2020 a major milestone was announced: Avolon had gained “investment-grade” status, enabling it to borrow at more favourable rates – and to grow yet further. Of course, INSEAD cannot claim the credit. However, better management and sleeker operations certainly helped. And, adds Hanson, “Thanks to INSEAD, the smell of learning is everywhere at Avolon.”

Little did either organisation know about the turbulence ahead. The entire aviation industry was about to be buffeted by a pandemic storm that no one could have predicted.

At the time of writing, planes are flying again but the long-term outcome is still unknowable. One fact is definite, though: the stronger, faster Avolon that emerged from the partnership with INSEAD weathered the first quarter of the crisis far better than expected. The company is already steering a steady, confident course into the uncertain future.

Watch the partnership project video.

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