For most people, it would not come as a surprise to find personnel on a military base running, jumping and climbing trees as part of teambuilding exercises. Add a bit of shovelling sand, bridge-building and circuit training and it’s business as usual. In fact, if you were to turn up to RAF Marham, in Norfolk, on its training day last month, nothing much would have seemed out of the ordinary. That is, unless you delved a bit deeper.

Inside one of the buildings, you might have found the eminent leadership academic John Alban-Metcalfe. He’s giving a lecture to an assembled group of RAF officers, including the station commander, saying things such as “some of the worst examples of leadership can come at the top of organisations”, and citing such sources as Charles Handy while proceeding to debunk the myth of the charismatic leader. That might have struck you as odd.

As might the fact that here, at one of the biggest RAF bases in the country, there weren’t any planes in the air. Or that a group of uniformed personnel were standing around jets and weaponry looking bemused, as if they’d never seen them before. Something strange was going on that day at RAF Marham.

The airbase is one of the biggest employers in Norfolk. It houses around 3,000 military personnel and up to 700 civilian staff. If you include the military-owned housing outside the perimeter fencing, RAF Marham represents almost 10,000 people. Within the base itself are four of the seven Tornado squadrons in the UK; the RAF’s Tactical Imagery Intelligence Wing (TIW – the technical whizzkids who process and analyse aerial images of the ground); the headquarters of the Force Protection Wing; and the Armoury Squadron. But not all of them used to be at Marham.

“We’ve taken the functions that used to be performed in four airbases and one Ministry of Defence facility, and brought them all here,” explains Phil Osborn, the station commander. “We’ve accepted a huge amount of logistics tasks, while bringing down the number of personnel to make us more efficient and effective, and that means we’ve had to go through a fairly stringent transformation.”

Marham now accounts for 8 per cent of the RAF workforce and, as it all falls under his command, Osborn admits it’s a pretty daunting job – it’s half-jokingly described as “the CEO and the mayor rolled into one”. Osborn is clearly focused on change: “We’re a public-sector organisation, if you like, and we should be as efficient as we can for the taxpayer. We are focused on operations in a way we’ve not been for decades – but if our lives were just operations, then after two or three years we’d have a massive retention problem. People have to join the force for clear reasons, and it’s up to the service to reinforce those reasons as much as possible.”

It’s this reinforcing of values that forms the core of the Leap – Leadership, Ethos and Air Power – day at Marham. Three times a year, the whole base takes part in a day of physical, practical and mental training. On the Leap day in April, all 1,800 personnel who were not overseas on operations were divided into 52 modules. Rather than being with members of their normal squadrons, everyone is mixed – pitching together chefs, support staff, engineers and pilots, to name but a few occupations. Given the size of the base, many will have never met. And, crucially, some will have little idea of what their team-mates’ day jobs entail.

They are then led through a series of exercises, from circuit training and fitness to problem-solving, leadership seminars and debates, lectures on RAF history and presentations from psychiatrists on how to cope with stress. It is a day that’s unique to RAF Marham (although a number of other bases are considering adapting the model).

The base’s equivalent of HR director is Gary Headland, wing commander of the base support unit, who starts the day enthused about what’s to come. This is the third Leap day they have held, and he has already seen it evolve.

“It’s about developing intellectual capital, understanding air power, learning from history, providing dynamic opportunities for teambuilding and confidence building – some of the physical activities are traditional training interventions but they’re very effective; and the bottom line is having fun. This is a reward, and it builds capacity.”

When speaking about their work, Headland and Osborn continually drum in key phrases: “context”, “agility and adaptability”, and “we are what we are, not what we do”. They refer to creating a values-led organisation in which training and development and employee engagement are key. It’s striking just how far modern management thinking seems to have penetrated the military and altered the stereotype of the autocrat barking orders. And, to use an inappropriately naval phrase, the Leap day is the flagship of everything they are trying to create at Marham.

Throughout the day, leadership is encouraged to grow organically. In mixed teams, the junior corporal could have as much chance of leading a physical exercise as a senior officer or have as much input in the debates. After a somewhat challenging lecture from Alban-Metcalfe, a number of attendees could be heard uttering the name of second world war field marshal “Monty” Montgomery in defence of the charismatic leader figurehead that Alban-
Metcalfe had accused of “toxicity”. But a number of his points, such as leadership and culture being two sides of the same coin, struck a chord with Marham’s force development aims.

Ann Giles, force development squadron leader, who helped to design the Leap day, argues: “We’ve done a lot of work on analysing leadership, and, yes, what we heard today [in Alban-Metcalfe’s lecture] was completely left of some leadership thinking in the military, but it gives us food for thought. For example: is 360-degree appraisal something we should look at to develop soft skills? You bet!”

As well as 360, Giles and her team have also begun to introduce coaching. Rather than focusing on the senior levels, they are, like many in the business world, recognising the value of introducing coaching at middle management level to instigate cultural change.

“I was initially sceptical,” says squadron leader Steve Chapman, who agrees coaching seemed a “touchy-feely” concept. “But I found it gets you to look at what makes you tick as an individual – at points where you really felt positive about yourself – to understand why certain things are important to you and how you can bring certain values into your working practices, and identify those that stop you achieving.”

He and a trial group have now had three sessions each. Exploring personal and practical areas while at home should help when making spur-of-the-moment decisions on operations, believes squadron leader Vicky Grafton.
“Coaching helps me to break down that barrier that makes me feel indecisive, when my initial thoughts were actually okay,” she says. “You don’t have the same amount of time to make decisions on operations, so this will help my critical decision-making.”

Throughout the day, there are surprising examples of modern HR thinking in what is unarguably a traditional, hierarchical organisation. “Johnno”, a PT instructor, says the RAF is using neuro-linguistic programming techniques to help the best pilots, who may not be naturally the best teachers, to pass on their skills. Gary Headland also says his team are working on computerised simulation programmes to train for management situations, in the same way that pilots would do to practise flying.

But it’s the occasional throwaway comment that belies the parts of their working lives that sit in stark contrast to “civilian” HR. When describing bringing the airbase to a stop for the day, for example, Headland says this is only “unless there’s a critical task, such as preparing a jet that’s got to go to the Middle East”. There are wars going on, and everyone involved in Leap is involved in them too. All the HR staff are deployable, and their tasks can range from running the facilities management in a tented operations base in the desert, to monitoring casualties and organising the retrieval of dead bodies.

It’s in the light of this reality that the operational, practical purpose of Leap becomes clear. Leadership, quick thinking and an understanding of context are crucial. They are a matter of life and death. And, in the day-to-day business on the base, ensuring understanding between the various functions is vital. Before Leap was introduced, Headland explains, people could have feasibly worked at Marham all their lives without getting near a Tornado.

Now they are talked through the Tornado and its capabilities by a pilot, through the armoury by an armoury officer, and the imagery units by the TIW team.

“You can’t put your finger on how many areas of engagement there must be,” says Steve Chapman. “For instance, if you’ve got a cohort of 20 people who didn’t know each other at the start of the day, and are brought together under one module, it might mean that next week one of them phones another who was on his module: it’s midnight, he needs [to get] a toolkit from one side of the airfield to the other so he can get an aircraft airborne by 9am to go to Iraq – and he can say ‘All right mate, you were on my module last week,’ and they know each other’s role and the context they are working in… then it’s a success. And there are so many of these relationships being set up today.”

RAF Marham is not about to ditch the uniforms and enter a period of flattened hierarchy and devolved leadership. Indeed, neither is the RAF at large. But they are taking the best of modern HRM to give them the edge over the competition. Just don’t expect an article about their competition any time soon.

BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce at RAF Marham
The need for RAF Marham to reinforce its culture and values becomes even clearer upon discovering that there are aliens in its midst: non-military, blue-overall wearing aliens, whom the RAF engineers must work alongside. And they come from BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce.

“We’ve got an operational airbase, and right in the middle we’ve got an industrial facility,” explains the station commander, Phil Osborn. “It’s a £1.5 billion contract with BAE and Rolls-Royce over the next 10 years, and is there to provide all of the maintenance for Tornado. So we’ve got RAF servicemen working alongside civilian contractors, doing the same job. And that invites comparison.”

Managing this potential clash of cultures naturally falls to HR, explains Gary Headland, wing commander of the base support unit. “There are chunks of our workforce with very different cultures. But there is integration in terms of having civilian personnel writing appraisals on service personnel, and vice versa,” he says. “So there’s a shared understanding of performance management. There’s an HR community of interest that sits below the management board, to find good practice or at least understand the differences in such a way that they don’t become frictions.”

The RAF has seen some personnel jumping ship, but for Osborn that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “They have experience and expertise that would be hard to find anywhere else, so by working for BAE they are still serving us in an important way.”

For those airmen who work alongside the civilians, a day off for Leap helps to serve as a reminder of the unique culture they are a part of. And, indeed, for BAE and Rolls-Royce engineers, it was just another day at work.

“We have to make sure that the serviceman understands and values why he’s in the service,” says Osborn. “So apart from everything else around the base, reinforcing to those guys who are working inside the industrial facility that the RAF is worth being a part of is really important to us.”

HR lingo, RAF-style
Station Commander – chief executive
Base Support Wing – HR directorate
Command Group – management board
Hot debriefing – a standing meeting after an exercise
Wash-ups – group plenary sessions
P1 (Discipline) – combination of employment law and air force law (criminal law), administered by HR department

HR directorate functions
Personnel Management Squadron – pay, administration, equality and diversity, welfare casework, grievance, performance management
Force Development Squadron – professional and personal development
Community Support Squadron – caring for service personnel and their families
Media and Communications Department – external and internal engagement
Facilities Management Squadron – infrastructure management