How the San Diego Airport Uses Performance Management to Reach New Heights

I had the pleasure of meeting with Kurt Gering, the Director of Talent, Culture and Capability at the San Diego International Airport. If you’re not from San Diego, you might not know that the Airport is well-recognized for being a great place to work. So I wanted to find out how the Airport maintains this reputation, and Kurt had some great answers.

The Airport is a unique entity because it is technically in the public sector but does not receive tax revenue like most public sector agencies. Instead the Airport has to earn its own revenue and thus functions with an entrepreneurial spirit and the goal of attracting private sector employees and vendors.

Like many government agencies, however, there are a finite amount of promotions available. Generally the only way to move up is if someone retires. While many organizations might see that as a hindrance to retention, Kurt sees this as an opportunity. Instead of focusing on retention the Airport focuses on building a partnership with employees. “If they see us as a partner in building their career, when they leave they’ll have gotten something from us and we’ll have gotten what we can from them.”

In other words, people can move through the organization instead of up, building their skills and experience as they work in a variety of roles. Employees are an asset and the Airport wants to learn everything it can from them before they move on in their careers. Employees stretch themselves, the Airport gets to obtain and retain knowledge, and everybody wins.

In addition, the Airport’s performance management processes align with its culture. “The airport is a community asset so we must support the economy and San Diego’s quality of life. Our talent philosophy has to reflect that as well,” says Kurt. Recently the Airport retooled its performance management program to more closely align with its culture. The airport is on a pay-for-performance plan, not a pay-for-promotions plan, and performance is measured as it ties in directly with the Airport’s strategic goals. Airport employees have “coaching conversations,” rather than employee evaluations, and the Airport is spending a lot of time ensuring managers are trained on how to have those conversations.

Performance management is so much more than an annual performance evaluation – instead performance management drives employees into helping the Airport achieve its plan. While Kurt didn’t say this specifically, I would guess this increases performance because employees feel they are a part of something. When work is more than clocking in, and is instead about achieving something, people work hard to achieve that something.

Does all of this really work? Well, the Airport has a 78% engagement rate according to their most recent annual employee survey, and their annual turnover is 2-6%. That’s pretty good considering that the average engagement rate in North America is 65%, and the average turnover rate in American businesses is 15%-25%+, according to the Society for Human Resources Management.