Kevin Kirkpatrick, executive director, aftermarket operations, Asia, Pratt & Whitney, shares about his passion in developing people, his long term goal of developing three people to become part of the executive council, as well as how leaders can empower their employees in this interview with Jerene Ang.

How did you get to where you are with Pratt & Whitney?

I was formerly a youth pastor in a church working with junior high school students and it was then that I became very passionate about working with people – helping them to develop and guiding them to what they wanted to achieve.

Then I went to a business school to get my MBA and was excited to join a global leader in aviation technology like Pratt & Whitney as a leadership associate in 1999 as I wanted to pursue my passion in leading and managing people in a corporate setting. At the same time, I was intrigued by the products the company has i.e. jet engines.

Over the next 18 years as I grew within the company, I assumed roles of increasing responsibility and have been given the opportunity to lead businesses in the U.S. and in Asia.

My passion is developing people. My long term goal at Pratt & Whitney is to develop three people who will grow and become part of the executive council and run the company.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would describe my leadership style as an affiliative leader and this falls in line with Pratt & Whitney’s people inclusive and development motto.

I believe in building people to be effective in wherever they are – letting them be comfortable and active in putting forward their recommendations, allowing them a safe environment to make mistakes, and emboldening them to think of overcoming challenges while I support them from behind and providing the necessary safety nets.

Some say “you want to work yourself out of a job”. I say so too. That means that your team is coming up to speed, taking more initiative, you’re empowering them more and that they have the right skillsets to make the right decision. But sometimes that’s challenging to do and it also means freeing them up to let them make mistakes.

In aviation, quality is of utmost importance. But you can put processes in place to ensure that as employees follow that process, it will lead them to the right decision. My job is to make sure employees have the right information and empower them to make the decisions and I believe that they will make the right decision if I give them that framework.

Having worked in the U.S. and in Asia, what differences do you notice in the two regions and did you have to adapt your leadership style accordingly?

While I notice differences, I wouldn’t say that my style has changed. I think the culture is different but the people are similar. People want to do a good job, provide for their families, and they want to be respected.

The biggest difference I see is that there is a tremendous respect for authority in Asia - which is good especially in the aerospace industry where we want employees to follow processes to ensure quality.

But I want them to challenge the process sometimes, I want them to innovate and say “can I do it better?” - just because your manager asks you to do it doesn’t mean that it’s the best way.

On the other hand, in the U.S., people will always challenge the process. What that brings is a great deal of innovation, but sometimes, you also want to just follow the process.

We need to strike a balance - consistently follow good standard work, but always challenge that standard work and try to make it better. What I would like to see here is more innovation from employees.

How can business leaders encourage employees to challenge the process?

I think it’s about building trust in your team and making sure that they feel empowered and supported even if they challenge the process.

As a leader, how I respond is very important, if I respond to one team member in a bad way, then I’m not going to hear from the others. It’s also about communication and getting all levels of the organisation to reinforce openness and candour.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

The most enjoyable part of my work is getting to know my employees better and helping them develop in their career wherever they are.

Inspired from my experience early in my career at Pratt & Whitney, a manager - now the president of Pratt & Whitney - advised me to focus on three things to be a great leader: Learn about leadership, learn about our products, and learn about our customers.

I took his advice to heart and decided I wanted to find out more about what our customers wanted by working for them – for free. As a developmental initiative for myself, I put together a white paper for my supervisor then, proposing that I gain employment under an airline, not report to anyone at Pratt & Whitney while still being on the company’s payroll. To my surprise, my proposal was accepted without any objections, and I worked for United Airlines for the next eight months.

It was through that experience that I learnt Pratt & Whitney was a company that truly valued employee development.

We offer specialised trainings sponsored by the company as well as encourage lifelong learning through an Employee Scholar Program that allows any employee who has completed one year of tenure to pursue their personal interest by obtaining a degree in any field, whether it is related to the job or not.

What role does HR play in the organisation?

I believe HR and key business functions play an integral part in shaping our business today and in the future.

I believe key business functions have a dual role. For example, while HR provides rest of the team counsel of issues and how to move forward, they also need to challenge and think for the overall business and beyond their immediate role.

The idea is to urge cross functional thinking and encourage lateral contributions so that my leadership team is involved in key decision making and instrumental to shaping our businesses.

Can HR leaders make it to the CEO level?

Anyone with the right attitude and interest to acquire the required skills and knowledge of the overall business can be a CEO. If a HR leader wants to be the CEO or run a major division, they can too. They are really informed and successful on the HR side. But, they also have to be sure they also have experience on the other side - customers, operations and how the business is run.

Hopefully, because I make my team wear two hats, they get to see more than just the HR side - they get to see financials, customers, processes and operations.

Photo / Pratt & Whitney