• Leadership

Developing High Flyers at Emirates

Warwick Business School brings greater intensity to Emirates’ senior leadership development


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Since the 2008 financial crisis the airline and travel industries have been under unprecedented pressure, characterized by intense competition, fuel price volatility, and the need to keep pace with rapid technological change. Yet during this period the Emirates Group has maintained solid growth and evolved as a globally influential travel and tourism organization supported by an Executive Leadership Development Program (ELDP) designed and delivered in partnership with Warwick Business School.

Launched in 1985, Emirates was the fastest growing airline of the 1990s, and now has more than 265 aircraft which fly to over 155 destinations in more than 80 countries. The Emirates Group which comprises dnata, an aviation services company providing ground handling services at 130 airports, Emirates airline, and other significant businesses in logistics, hotels and retail, has a turnover of approximately US$27.9 billion and employs over 100,000 employees.

In this era of budget airline carriers, the basis for Emirates’ success has been strategically different, with its commitment to providing high-quality services and customer experience. “They're not just selling you the seat, they're making sure you've got the best seat, you've got the best in-flight entertainment, fantastic catering and great staff to look after you.” says Paul McCarthy, Client Director, Executive Education at Warwick Business School. The commitment to quality also encompasses investing in the development of its current and future leaders which, allied to maintaining a lean workforce and a responsive organizational structure, has ensured Emirates Group’s hard-won commercial success.


Warwick Business School’s new Executive Diploma Series focuses on four key strategic challenges facing organizations – Strategic Leadership; Digital Leadership; Organizational Change; and Strategic Innovation.

Start dates: April-May 2019 │ Duration: One year part-time (4x4-day modules) Location: WBS London, The Shard



Coming out of the 2008 crisis, Emirates wanted to make sure it had the people able to deliver its ambitious growth plans. To meet this need Emirates established an executive program targeting high-potential, high-performing people in senior functional roles and this program helped to develop a cadre of effective managers. Following the initial success Emirates felt they needed to raise the leadership development bar further. To meet the new challenges of the business environment Emirates wanted to shift the focus towards developing future leaders able to operate with a strategic view of the whole-business, not just individual business units. With a view to building on their ambition to be the very best at what they do and to help define Dubai as a world-class business centre, Emirates wanted to create a pool of future-thinking senior leaders who could take the organization forward, transforming the business capabilities to be both more outward-looking and more integrated internally.

With this in mind, Emirates spoke to ten potential providers and selected Warwick Business School (WBS) to join them in co-creating a thought-leadership oriented senior leaders program that would heighten the intensity of their leadership development and bring new impetus to addressing future challenges and opportunities.

The focus, says Paul McCarthy, was on “the transformation of people to being strategic in their thinking and behaviour, able to move into senior general management roles as well as providing outstanding functional leadership. Leaders able to manage change and complexity by accessing thinking outside the prevailing mindset in the business.” Emirates who are committed to partnership in the way they do things were looking for a business school prepared, as Paul McCarthy recalls, “not just to develop and support the program, but also to keep looking for opportunities to add additional benefits from the relationship – supporting the participant’s ongoing development throughout and after the program.” This suited WBS which prides itself in being able to go beyond one-off interventions and offer a long-term partnership approach.

Emirates started speaking to WBS about the program in 2011, indicating the structure and scale they were looking for and suggesting six specific objectives. A joint program steering group was formed to craft a program that was relevant to the target population, the organization and its strategic requirements. “Senior stakeholders from Emirates, not just HR but across the business, and faculty from the business school came together to explore how to deliver the objectives and devise the structure and elements that needed to create a challenging development experience delivering organizational capability through individual development.” The WBS program which is offered to cohorts of 25 individuals is now in its 6th year. At its core the program provides “a real stretch in terms of content, introducing participants to future focussed insights, and encouraging them to think critically about the business and what needs to be put in place to take it forward by connecting back from the future to the here and now,” says Paul McCarthy.

An amazing experience working with tutors of such diverse experience, with the ability to convey complex messages in such a clear, interactive and intuitive fashion. The concepts taught were brought to life through interactive games that, at least for me, will resonate longer in my memory.” Program Participant

Strategic thinking is elevated to a business level rather than remaining a functional activity, understanding and managing the challenges and opportunities of highly interdependent organizations, for example, how HR can help IT deliver the best solutions or how an aircraft can be made available safely, at the best cost, with passengers getting the best possible experience. The project groups have implemented their learning by addressing real business challenges that have delivered qualitative and qualitative returns across the Emirates Group. These range from a combination of strategic business enhancements, cost savings and revenue acceleration, which have returned multiples of the original five-year contract investment.

After a rigorous participant selection process, WBS and Emirates conduct a joint face-to-face induction in Dubai to clarify the objectives for each cohort and to agree personal development plans related to each individual’s current role. There are then two modules of face-to-face learning delivered in the UK, before and after which there are group webinars on the WBS learning platform and an element of individual coaching, either by Skype or face-to-face depending on their location.

Emirates is a very global business, diverse in terms of its people, culture and backgrounds, and each cohort of the senior leadership program is as diverse as the Group’s employee population. Consequently, the virtual elements of the program have to be delivered to participants based at multiple Emirates Group locations and here WBS’s high-end virtual learning environment ‘my.wbs’ is a critical component. my.wbs has been developed and is managed by a dedicated team at WBS, as a key contributor to the success of the WBS Distance Learning MBA program, now ranked No. 1 in the world. The features of my.wbs enable the WBS ELDP team to build a live classroom, share materials, link to web materials and interact through forum chat tools and a live whiteboard space. “It's as close to being in the actual room as you can get,” says Paul McCarthy.

Bringing participants to the Warwick Campus for the five-day residential modules enables participants to get deeper into an educational mindset. It also allows WBS to exploit its partnership networks to expose ELDP participants to see how other progressive businesses do things. For example, one cohort worked closely with Robert Welch, a Cotswold-based company that supplies business class cutlery for Emirates and, although small, has all the qualities of leadership, vision and customer value which Emirates expects from suppliers and wants to provide to customers. In an intense but accessible way this engagement contributed to exploration of the principles of innovation and strategy which can be visualised in a small organization and then applied to a 100,000-employee company. (Other companies explored during the program include Mercedes high Performance Engines, Rolls Royce, Williams F1, Eden Hotels, The Rigby Group and Birmingham Airport.)

Unusually for a customized program of this type, WBS offers participants the chance to gain an academic qualification, based on an assessment of their learning application demonstrated through enhanced role delivery and capability to deliver projects. Successful participants achieve a WBS Post Graduate Award in Organizational Leadership which provides credits that can be put taken forward to a full MBA. While good for individuals’ long-term career prospects does this benefit the organization? Paul McCarthy argues that this investment aids the retention of high potential people, it also brings new ways of thinking, and so it makes sense to encourage participants to take their learning as far as they can. “One of the real strengths of Emirates, is that they encourage people to do this. They are looking for people to bring back that difference of thinking and change what the business does so they can beat the continuously shifting pressures.”

Developing leadership capacity is central to the program and fundamental to this is the development of the behavioural capabilities that enable leaders to lead change and institute new thinking.

Participants are asked to consider what they need to be doing less of, or let go of in terms of control and micro-management, in order to be able to manage the complexity and ambiguity which comes from a more senior perspective. To further broaden participants’ strategic understanding, WBS and Emirates have established an integrated ‘strategy forum’ where past and current program participants get to sit with the very senior executives from across the Emirates Group to have very open conversations about the strategic challenges and opportunities for the business. WBS faculty also work with Emirates to address particular business challenges. Senior leaders need to be good at sense-making, understanding both what is going on now and implications for the future and they need to be ready to lead change. “We have to blend both of those things within the modules and the coaching support that participants receive. ELDP is about developing participants to have immediate impact and to prepare them for future roles as they arise and provides a great opportunity for participants to deliver significant change and return financial contribution to the business as well as showcasing their leadership potential.” Says Paul McCarthy

“So, it's a truly blended structure where my role as client director is to hold together the red thread of the program, to ensure things are working and to feed into the steering group the oversight that ELDP is actually delivering what they're looking for.”

The ELDP has developed a significant reputation within the Emirates Group who have committed to continuing it in future years. Success is measured in terms of the benefit the enhanced performance of its participants has brought the Group, assessed in terms of role and functional performance, direct financial returns that exceed the program costs, and by participants’ progress into more senior or broader roles.


Click here to learn more about WBS Custom Programs and how the School works with organizations to develop their people, their leadership and their strategic capabilities.

Warwick Business School is a leading thought-developer and innovator, in the top one per cent of global business schools.

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