Dubai Airports CEO Paul Griffiths has helped build the world's busiest international airport. Making the right calls early on, and anticipating the future have helped, he says
What is moonshot idea you are intrigued by and working toward in your business?
The future of airport design is going to look very different from what we see today. We can’t keep building airports with massive walking distances that aren’t customer centric. There is an opportunity to use technology to make the future airport experience much more personalised and intimate, and get some of these legacy processes that are been around for decades too long out of the customer’s sight. So immigration processes, security processes, all of those still need to happen, but technology will come to our rescue and make them seamless, quick and not get in the way of the customer enjoying the travel experience the way it used to be. Technology and biometrics as a global standard will play a major role in making that possible.
What does diversity mean to you?
Diversity really is absolutely key to everything we do here in Dubai. From the tens of thousands of people we employ to every person that comes through the airport, everyone is from hugely different backgrounds.
Being CEO of a major airport here, you have a commercial agenda with the responsibility of boosting the economy, but also a social agenda of making absolutely sure you incorporate local people into your workforce. Not because they are locals but because you’ve trained them and developed them to be the best candidates for the job.
There is also a business case for diversity because if you are an international airport serving more than 240 destinations globally that come to Dubai, when you are at the epicenter of global aviation, you need to understand how many different cultural practices there are around the world. So if you employ people that have different cultural backgrounds from all sorts of places in the world you’re going to serve the customer. Because if your employee base is as diverse as your customer base you have a chance of delivering some decent service.
How do you deal with the pace of change that now includes fluctuating exchange rates, trade wars, tariffs, a new emerging demographic in the workplace, and even moving calendars for instance Ramadan moving into the May season?
If you’re in aviation you’ve never been in a stable state. Change has happened in aviation since 1993. So you have to retain a degree of flexibility in your business to be able to adapt to things that are going to change. From China alone, I think there are going to be 1.3 billion incremental annual passenger journeys by about 2030. So we’re adapting our infrastructure changing our technology and changing our processes all the time. The other thing of course and this is I think quite a new phenomenon, the rate of technical change, process change, and the things that that technology is enabling are changing far faster than ever before. You also can’t run on your own an enterprise of this scale and size with so many moving parts that are changing all the time. That’s just impossible.
You need people who are really on top of the latest technology and I find that there are people a lot younger than I am that are far more up to date with those changes. And I listen to them very carefully because they are actually mapping the future. So you have to delegate. You have to listen to people who have got more relevant experience and more up to date knowledge. Otherwise you just become a dinosaur. And I’m hoping that I can never be described as a dinosaur.
What is the biggest challenge facing your industry today?
Clearly political turmoil is not good for the industry. Rising costs, environmental concerns, there are a number of things. But the growth in demand of air travel over the next decade will also continue to rise at a faster rate. Have we got the infrastructure to cope? Can we keep pace with the demand? That’s going to be the biggest thing.
Do you believe social networking has impacted your organisation?
Dramatically. Airports before had no real business to consumer relationship earlier because our customers were actually customers of our airline customers. Now of course we’re able to interact with every single passenger that comes through Dubai Airports with our superfast Wi-Fi which we believe is the fastest in the world.
Social media is an absolutely major part of our customer engagement strategy and it’s where the majority of our marketing and social networking focuses so it’s incredibly important and it’s transformed our ability to interact with our customers to get live feedback of how they’re feeling about the services we’re providing.
Can you name a person who has had an impact on you as a leader?
Well, I had probably one of the best opportunities that anyone can have when I worked directly for Richard Branson for 13 years. He was amazing because this was at the close of the 80s beginning in the 90s when Virgin Atlantic was growing. And he had so many alternative ideas and different ways of looking at the world. He really taught me to always search for something that’s better than where you are at the moment. And I think that’s given me my thirst for strategising and thinking of things differently, embracing technology and innovation, because he refused to accept the status quo as being the best way of doing things and that’s how he became successful. And I was lucky enough to be close to him as that success was flowing through during that period.
What is the most important decision you’ve had to make over your professional career?
I think the most important decision was very early on because I’m actually a musician by training. I wanted to be a cathedral organist and my father and I would lock antlers and argue because I wanted to be an organist. I want to play the organ all day, and he said ‘Look, you won’t ever be able to pay your gas or electricity bills or bring up a family. Forget it. It’s a great hobby but a terrible profession.’ I hated him for it at the time but in retrospect I think he was right. So I think that was the thing. I didn’t pursue my passion which is not the advice I’d give to my children now, but I think it was the right decision for me personally.
Do you value experience more than education or is there something else entirely that you think help career progression?
I think it’s a stage of life thing isn’t it? I think it’s very important to get the best education and be surrounded by the most inspirational people you can find, which shapes your opinions and sets you off on a good career. But there comes a crossover point at which experience becomes equally important. And once you get into your 30s and 40s you should have a good mix of educational background the skills that you refresh but also significant amounts of experience that you can build up by working with the right people and thinking about genuine real life business problems. My advice to anyone starting off is to get your educational skills to a level which will give you what you need to be able to start to make a successful transition into the business world.