Taking HR Leadership to the Skies

HR programs at Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority have taken flight largely thanks to Tanisha Lewis.
By: | June 7, 2018 • 4 min read
Topics: HR Leadership

This article accompanies Agents of Change.

Tanisha Lewis has been a trailblazer for as long as she can remember. She landed her first job as an intern at Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority because of her drive and a determination not to work in retail.

Lewis recalls pulling out the Washington Yellow Pages, flipping to the “government” section and calling places to find out if they offered student-development programs. MWAA sent her an application, and she was hired as a clerk-typist intern within engineering and maintenance. And the rest is history … sort of.

After a few years, Lewis left MWAA to explore other career opportunities, but the agency wasn’t ready to let her go. Lewis’ boss called her mom (who also worked at MWAA) and begged Lewis to come back.

Upon her return, she continued to handle administrative tasks and also managed a union contract. At one point, the labor relations manager said Lewis should consider working in HR, advice she followed—and began making changes immediately.

“They were still working with electronic typewriters and carbon-copy forms in the early 2000s,” says Lewis. “I used one of the three computers in the department, opened up WordPerfect and created a training template for computerized processes.”

Her drive to improve workflow and develop her own career led her to where she is now: the organizational-development manager and Workday HCM functional area lead.

In her 17 years at MWAA, Lewis has spent seven in HR, three as a manager.

“I feel like I’ve always been a leader,” says Lewis. “When I walk into an organization, I start to think about how I can improve it.”

Personal Leadership Development

Once she was promoted to a managerial position within HR, Lewis’ boss, Anthony J. Vegilante, challenged her to get her master’s degree.

Within two weeks, Lewis applied to Catholic University of America and was enrolled in the human resource management graduate program. She graduated in just 18 months and used her education to continue to push MWAA into the future.

Development, as evidenced by her own career path, has been one of Lewis’ passions. And you don’t have to look any farther to see this than the three leadership-development programs she implemented at MWAA.

In 2014, approximately 35 percent of MWAA employees were eligible for retirement. To get ahead of this potential skills gap, Lewis and her colleagues developed a comprehensive workforce strategy focused on preparing existing employees for leadership roles, expanding internal promotions and hiring new employees. The 24-month program utilizes different modes of learning, from classroom to online training and more. Participants cycle through MWAA’s cross-functional teams, including fire and police, engineering and maintenance, public safety and trades.

“Filling vacancies with internal candidates helps with employee engagement and motivation,” says Lewis. “And it’s also a good plan for continuity of the organization, which is imperative in such a large facility with so many cross-functional operations.”

A step below this intensive program is training that equips newly promoted supervisors or those looking to fill a supervisor role with a combination of basic supervisory skills and MWAA business and systems knowledge.

A management-intern program was also designed to attract new grads to MWAA and develop a continuing source of diverse, highly trained and qualified personnel. After completing the 18-month program, interns are placed in full-time positions within MWAA.

Lewis says internal promotions increased from 69 in 2016 to 132 at the end of 2017. A total of 84 candidates have completed the supervisory training, 58 have completed the leadership-development program and the intern program is in its third successful year.

MWAA Soars Into the Future

Lewis also took the lead last year on the company’s move from an outdated HCM system—which was 13 years old, with poor user interfaces and challenging data-collection capabilities—to Workday’s latest platform.

Once the contracting process was underway, Lewis gathered a team to document every business process MWAA followed. From there, she asked her team to answer questions such as, “In an ideal world, how would we want Workday to work for us?”

Lewis says the planning and redesign of old policies and procedures put MWAA two steps ahead in the implementation of Workday, which rolled out in March 2018.

During the process, Lewis says, she encountered one of the biggest challenges in her career: getting people to accept change.

“We existed for 30 years in a status quo,” she says. “With Workday, it was such a monumental change, I really needed to get people to understand that this change wasn’t designed to harm anyone, but support and help them.”

Once the system was rolled out, Lewis says, employees would stop her in the hallway just to thank her—they couldn’t believe how much the new system improved daily work. Lewis is excited to use the information to help inform future decisions.

“In a way, since I started at MWAA, I’ve overseen my own career development. That never slowed down,” Lewis says. “I’ve paved the way for people to control their own professional development. I can proudly say to interns, ‘I once stood exactly where you are’ and inspire them to become agents for change.”

Danielle Westermann King, staff writer for HRE, received her bachelor’s degree in English from Temple University. She has written and edited articles for various print and online healthcare publications and is now setting her sights on human resources. She can be reached at [email protected]