Bob Duncan was taken aback a little when he went to a meeting last year as the new Indianapolis International Airport executive director.

There were only three people at the meeting. It was the employee engagement committee.

“I said, ‘What’s going on? Where are the rest of them?’”

It turned out the committee hadn’t been maintained that well. The group needed new leadership and was ready for a revival.

When Duncan along with the HR director breathed new life into the committee, it was re-energized into a much more interactive and robust employee group.

“So that’s worked really, really well in the last year,” he says.

It turns out that making things work well is Duncan’s signature. He had been with the Indianapolis Airport Authority for nearly 40 years and previously served as general counsel and COO. Duncan was closely involved in the planning of the airport’s new midfield terminal, which opened in 2008. Add serving as interim executive director in 2012 to his resume after the previous director and the board of directors parted ways.

As he came into the leadership post, he was fortunate that he had a fairly clear picture that the culture under the previous administration was not as collaborative as he would have liked. He already got to know over the years hundreds of employees by their first names, so the territory was familiar.

“But I viewed the culture as tense,” he says. “Kind of silo-ish. You hear that a lot, that people had developed silos, which was not efficient in my mind. With the reorganization that I did, I broke down the silos.”

Here’s how Duncan eliminated the silos, built up teamwork and put his signature on the culture at the Indianapolis International Airport, which had revenue of $193 million in 2011, serving 7.5 million passengers.

Instill a sense of teamwork

If you’ve determined that your mission is to make your organization’s culture more collaborative, the most important sense to instill is that of teamwork.

Duncan realized that he needed to focus on the senior team members as well as the line service. He wanted to gain their trust, which would increase their commitment.

As a first step, Duncan recommends making yourself known.

“I made it a point to get out and about at virtually all hours,” Duncan says. “I have been known to show up at 5 o’clock in the morning and go to police roll call. I show up on Saturdays just to talk to people, particularly on second and third shifts, to let the folks know that I am interested in what they do and how they do it.”

As you cover your territory on foot, you will get to know your people better.

“I insist that my employees call me by my first name so that we can develop a team spirit,” Duncan says. “At the same time, you have to establish trust in management so that they know when a decision is made that may impact them, they understand why it doesn’t come as too much of a surprise.

“Be credible. Be open. Be approachable. Recognize the type of workforce that you have. I want them all to call me by my first name.”

As an example of building trust, he cited a recent instance when the airport’s public safety officers, which are not law enforcement personnel, were privatized. Rather than eliminating the 38 jobs, Duncan found a private security firm that would start to re-employ the officers at the airport in similar roles.

“So everybody that day walked out knowing they had a future,” Duncan says. “That is the right thing to do when that happens. It established trust in management, that we were sensitive to the feelings of the people, and I didn’t want people walking out with a change like this without the security that they knew they were going to have a job and benefits. That’s what we did, and it worked really well.”

Look for inefficiencies

A shakeup will always cause people to sit up and take notice. It’s a sign that you are in charge and want to try a better idea, hopefully to get better results.

Duncan reorganized his senior leadership staff, and it resulted in the reduction of some positions. However, it not only shrank the senior management numbers, it improved the organizational efficiency.

“I literally abhor bureaucracy,” Duncan says. “We are a quasi-governmental entity so there is a certain amount of statutory bureaucracy that we have to deal with. But what you deal with about internal planning and internal decision-making, you try to cut down layers of the approval process so that you empower people to make decisions and do that in a collaborative manner.”

A sore subject for some executives is the number of hours of meetings they often have on their calendars. Duncan is a firm believer that such time often could be spent more productively.

He took 18 hours of senior-level meetings a month down to four.

“Let’s say there was a senior-level meeting, and then two days later, there would be a senior-level meeting with the director-level people,” he says. “So there are five hours of just talking. What I’ve done is to have all the senior managers meet at the same time with most of the directors at 9 o’clock every Monday morning.

“Everybody brings everybody up to speed, and then once a month, we bring in directors, managers and supervisor levels so anything that they want to talk about, we can bring up. That’s worked really well for me.”

Spending less time on unproductive discussions forces managers to organize their thoughts and prioritize issues. It’s important that everyone gets together on the same page, and it should be done at least once a month.

“We have a project coordination meeting; it doesn’t last very long,” Duncan says. “We go down all the projects, so all the department heads know what projects are, where they are and what’s going on with them. So that’s the kind of attitude I want. I don’t want anybody sitting in their chair without getting up and talking to other department heads.

“Let senior directors and their directors develop their own action plans, their goals and initiatives,” Duncan says. “I can count on one hand and two fingers the number of times that I have gotten directly involved and changed something. That is because I know a lot of these people, and I trust their judgment, they trust mine, and that’s really important to the effective operation of the organization.”

Duncan says it is essential that the CEO encourage his team to challenge the leader’s ideas without fear of any potential negativity. It’s part of being flexible.

“I can remember when I reversed myself twice in the same day,” he says. “Someone came up to me and said, ‘You sure you want to do that?’”

Members of a team should feel free to make mistakes and get the experience of surviving through them.

“I always ask folks that I come in contact with, ‘Do you know what experience is?’ I will get a wide variety of answers,” Duncan says. “Then I will say, ‘No, experience is the exercise of good judgment,’ and you get experience through the exercise of bad judgment. Everybody is going to have some of the bad judgment experience.

“Let people know that if they make a mistake, they are not going to get their head chopped off. As a team, we will work around those kinds of problems the best we can.”

You don’t necessarily have to say you’re not an asset to the organization because you just made a mistake.

“I don’t do that, I mean, there are certain folks that sometimes you try to do all you can to improve them and like all organizations, there are just sometimes when you have to say this just isn’t working,” Duncan says. “I work real hard not to have that happen.”

Nurture success and keep it alive

There comes a point in your effort to build teamwork that you want to know if your approach is working. If you aren’t seeing more employee engagement, it’s not working. Employees should feel a more collaborative effort. They know that you are in charge ultimately, but without teamwork, there is no progress.

“I think as an executive director or CEO, sometimes you have to keep your ego in check,” Duncan says. “At the same time, you are earning the respect of the people that you’re working with and maintaining that respect. You do that by empowering people.”

Also, look at your turnover rate.

“At the senior director, manager director level, we don’t have much turnover,” he says. “Since we do run three shifts a day, we have a little higher turnover rate in third shift janitorial services. But I am trying to figure out how I can reduce that rate of turnover, and it could just be the hours that the third shift works or things like that.”

Once the operation shows improvement, don’t get complacent about communicating with employees — and fall into the lure of email’s convenience. Duncan believes email has become too impersonal.

“If you are not careful, you can say things in emails that don’t mean or that people take the wrong way,” he says. “It is much better to walk around and talk to people — more of a face-to-face thing. Again, that’s part of my concept of openness and having people come in. I have two doors in my office and they are always open. People can walk right in anytime they want. “That’s the way I like it; some people don’t. I do.” ?

How to reach: Indianapolis International Airport, (317) 487-7243 or

The Duncan File

Bob Duncan

Executive director

Indianapolis International Airport

Born: Philadelphia. I lived in New Jersey until I was 15. Then I moved to Indianapolis. I learned to fly when I was 16 years old, and I was a professional pilot when I went to law school. Flew all day, went to law school at night.

Education: Bachelors’ degree from Hanover College in Indiana, with a major in history and political science. I went to law school at Indiana University.

What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

I worked in service stations. I pumped gas, cleaned windshields, and I was a pretty good car mechanic back in the early to mid-’60s. Then I started flying.

What is the best business advice you ever received?

The gentleman that hired me, Dan Orcutt, executive director of the airport for 25 years — I’ve had the deepest respect for. I think part of my business attitude came from him. It was kind of what I have already said. He said, ‘Be credible. Be trustworthy. Be firm but be fair.’ I think that that works because sometimes in business negotiations, you have to be firm, sometimes vocal, but you always want to be fair. We work hard at being fair to ourselves and our business relationships but also to our customers and tenants. Sometimes we have to say no, and they don’t like hearing it, but they will always understand why and why the decision is what it is.

Who do you admire in business?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know if I could drag it down to one particular industry. The aviation industry — one is Elaine Roberts, the president and CEO at the Port Columbus International Airport. She started here at the airport. I always admired her sense of fairness and her sense of doing the right thing, and at the same time making very sound business decisions. I really kind of admire her in my particular industry.

What is your definition of business success?

For me, it would be respect, that people shoe respect knowing that they would be treated fairly in dealings with the airport, that we are recognized for our integrity. That would be business success for me in addition obviously to positive financial results.


Published in Indianapolis