With more than 15 years of experience in HR functions across the Middle East and Africa, Rabah Bu Hamdan is adept at ensuring optimal organizational performance. As the Kuwait-based group chief human resources officer (CHRO) of National Aviation Services (NAS), his responsibilities span all HR functions, from recruitment and performance management to training and development, succession planning, and diversity.
Through Wharton Executive Education’s Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Program, Bu Hamdan aims to gain the skills and knowledge to successfully align HR policies and procedures to meet the organization’s mission while implementing key drivers in performance management and professional development.
Please tell us a bit about your education and career journey before enrolling in the CHRO Program.
I graduated with a law degree from Beirut Arab University and then received my MBA from Maastricht School of Management. I moved to Kuwait in 2004 for my first role in HR with McDonald’s for approximately eight years. Then, I joined The Sultan Center, a retail business, as a corporate HR and admin manager, after which I took up a role at NAS in 2013 as group HR director, and within a year, I was promoted to group CHRO.
NAS operates in 15 countries, managing 52 airports. While our core business is ground handling, we do all airport-related services from takeoff till landing. We handle every supporting operational procedure — from baggage control and handling to passenger services, cargo, mechanical engineering, lounges, meet and assists, and security.
Tell us about your current role as group CHRO.
We are an international organization with a large scale of operations supported by 50 HR employees across all four sectors: organizational development, employee engagement, compensation and benefits, and performance management and payroll. It took my team and I roughly eight years to build a robust digital HR system tracking around 180 key performance indicators aiding us with budgeting, hiring, retention strategies, succession planning, and other decision making.
As a group CHRO, my goal is to deliver value to the organization's stakeholders. For the successful execution of this objective, it is imperative that every employee is satisfied. At the end of the day, people are the company’s assets, and they are the ones who create value for the business. Therefore, we have an important role in corporate decision making beyond handling the usual HR responsibilities. Other critical functions of our HR department are diagnosing problems, predicting outcomes, and prescribing actions that directly impact our employees and add value to the business in the long run.
Performance largely depends on the fit between an individual and their jobs. Therefore, in my field of work as a CHRO, determining a candidate's compatibility with their work interests is a central focus point. Qualitative and quantitative factors are used to assess the situation and predict the employee’s work ethics to inform a final decision.
Businesses tend to go through different challenges limiting their capabilities and outreach. Such instances require thorough investigation and collaboration with the CEO and CFO to identify and work through the issues. Furthermore, these issues mainly arise from a lack of team cooperation, which calls for a reorganization of the team's structure to generate new ideas and allow the company to flourish.
As airlines took a hit during the pandemic, how did NAS stay on track?
Aviation was one of the most affected industries by COVID-19 worldwide. At NAS, we lost a big part of our revenue. Unfortunately, because of that, we had to let go of about 30 percent of our workforce. We used the LIFO (last in, first out) principle to ensure a humanistic approach. In addition, we looked at each employee's personal life to determine dependency and performance. As things slowly returned back to normal, NAS introduced a re-hiring policy that has allowed us to welcome back 15 percent of those we let go.
On the other hand, we added 15 additional airports to our portfolio during the pandemic. We also acquired two big businesses — one in Kenya and another in South Africa — supporting the company financially and keeping it strategically stable.
What challenges and successes have you come across in your role as an HR leader?
Since ground handling is a niche industry, our biggest challenge is finding talent. Distinctly trained ground handling experts meeting specific requirements — language skills and a grasp of local sociopolitical and geopolitical conditions — are the only suitable candidates. People from other industries would not be a good fit with NAS’s requirements of experience or skills.
Our success is apparent when you look at our ex-employees. Our HR department is heavily data-centric. Through exit interviews, we have developed statistics that show that 80 to 85 percent of our ex-employees are looking to rejoin us. Thanks to their fit with our work culture, we are pleased to welcome them back as our business allows.
How does your role as a CHRO synergize with other C-suite leaders in the organization when it comes to decision making?
Our CEO is people-oriented and sets the standards for collaboration and teamwork. This translates into a highly supportive environment across all departments. Moreover, cooperation is greatly appreciated and seen throughout all our work with the C-suite. Communication within our company is emphasized; the management holds regular meetings to make decisions, and the HR function’s contribution to all decision making is critical and valued.
What digital shifts has your organization made lately with respect to your workforce?
Digitalization has always been a priority at NAS, and the pandemic has expedited certain timelines. But it was never something new to us. During COVID-19, we were able to have a smooth transition for our employees to carry out their daily work remotely and efficiently while maintaining a healthy balance between their work and personal life.
Among other COVID-19 preventive measures and to ensure safety and comfort in the workplace, our attendance login system has shifted from biometric (fingerprint) scanners to facial recognition hardware. We also implemented a barcode software system that provides information about employee capacity at any given time, alerting us if maximum capacity is attained.
Lastly, but far from least, we have implemented the first online platform in the Middle East that targets our blue-collar workers. Since about 80 percent of our total workforce does not have access to laptops or email, we initiated a project to engage all those workers in the ongoing events that take place within our organization. After three months of development, we launched the HR bot known as NASsie. This app can be accessed through any device, providing any information an employee wants to inquire about, whether policies and procedures, labor law, or remuneration. It even functions as an HR call center for staff, enabling employees to raise complaints and answer their inquiries or concerns within 48 hours.
With more than 10,000 employees, what is your employee gender ratio? What kind of DEI initiatives have you undertaken?
Gender diversity is important at NAS. Currently, 20 percent of our leadership positions are held by women, and we are looking to increase this number to 25 percent by the year 2025 as part of our belief and commitment to the IATA gender diversity initiative. In addition, women’s empowerment is an important element of our corporate responsibility, and we support women in their career growth.
What were you looking for when you discovered the Wharton Executive Education CHRO Program, and why did it appeal to you?
Having already had a stellar firsthand impression of Wharton before looking into the program, I believe that pursuing this program would widen my knowledge of business in general and HR in specific. My initial motives included career prospects, better analysis and insights into our business, and a highly reputable academic path that would open the doors to many new opportunities. Since starting the program, it has exceeded my expectations in light of the amount of support received from the faculty, especially Professor Matthew Bidwell. He has a unique and simple method of delivering messages and explaining topics. The richness of the information I’ve gathered is such that I have already begun to implement it in my work.
Which aspects of the program have been beneficial to you so far?
Through the topic “Opportunity and the Trap,” I realized that our current performance management system needed some revamping in terms of employee empowerment. My capstone project focused on these issues, and I immediately acquired the necessary knowledge to implement a working solution at NAS.
What advice would you give others considering the Wharton Executive Education CHRO Program?
Don’t overthink it; just enroll in the CHRO Program. The return on investment for this program is very high. But, of course, you have to approach it intelligently and not just consider it as a certificate on your wall. It would be best if you approach the program with a positive mindset and look to incorporate every detail learned for the betterment of your company, allowing it to flourish. The program also has aspects beyond HR that will enhance your global understanding.
You can learn more about the Wharton Executive Education Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO) Program by visiting our program homepage.