Leadership and culture change boosts Eurocontrol's MUAC

20 May 2022 Consultancy.eu 6 min. read

Maastricht Upper Area Control Centre (MUAC) manages the upper airspace between 24,500 and 66,000 feet over Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and north-west Germany. The area is one of Europe's busiest and most complex airspace areas in Europe.

The MUAC is considered to be one of the best performing and cost-effective air navigation service providers in Europe, and the only cross-border civil-military one. MUAC's circa 750-strong multinational, multicultural staff prides itself on the safety, performance, and customer service it offers.

John Santurbano joined Eurocontrol as the director of MUAC in October 2017, joining from the Luxembourg air navigation service provider ANA where he worked after graduating as a meteorologist in 1993, rising to director in 2013.

Changing the future

During his tenure, Santurbano discovered that MUAC's innovative reputation and organisational efficiency was suffering as the result of a lack of confidence in leadership, exacerbated by sub-optimal organisation and occasional doubts amongst the leadership in MUAC.

His conviction was that changes were needed at board and senior management level if MUAC was to be reinvigorated. This was backed by a staff engagement survey that pointed to challenges in the areas of leadership and line management, talent management and innovation.

In the survey, employees indicated that the vision could be improved, with management sometimes reacting at too slow a pace when it came to implementing new ideas. Additionally, it was apparent that not many people believed MUAC to be environmentally responsible in the workplace.

“These were the staff perceptions, but I believe that perception reflects reality and I was convinced that we should do something about it,” said Santurbano.

He embarked on a reorganisation to improve the managerial structures and skills and bring about a cultural change in attitudes and staff engagement that would trickle through MUAC top down and stimulate innovation. The objective: creating a cultural change that will long outlast his mandate.


For expertise on the matter, Santurbano turned to People Change, a Dutch leadership and business transformation consultancy. The partnership kicked off with board interviews – executives were interviewed individually and encouraged to say what they thought, and what they believe should be improved.

This led to a collective meeting where everyone was told what the others were thinking about them. This “brutal honesty” approach succeeded in breaking down barriers, and a new board emerged which according to Santurbano “is a truly efficient team of people, more connected with each other and more communicative, and more open to change.”

“One of the drivers for change was efficiency in decision making, and that has definitely become more effective,” said Chief Operating Officer Niels Lokman.

Bert-Jan ter Hofte, Rogier Offerhaus, John Santurbano

MUAC is a highly technical organisation and its staff consist of a mixture of highly-skilled air traffic controllers, engineers and other specialists from 30+ nations. However, the human element was often missing and so-called “soft skills” were less developed.

Lokman agrees that there was room for improvement. “There was an element of people not being transparent about issues because there was a fear of repercussions if they made mistakes,” he explained.

The COO is part of a diverse group of MUAC staff in the Engagement & Innovation team set up by Santurbano to focus on personal development and drive MUAC's cultural change. “It is a different way of working, more transparent, naming problems as they occur and putting them on the table in order to discuss solutions,” explained Lokman

“We have as a result of the change come closer to the situation that people no longer feel attacked if someone else has an opinion about their area of responsibility and these are the kinds of principles we are trying to expand to the entire organisation.”

New culture

The new head of strategy and performance management, Christopher Jeeves, pointed to “a seismic change” throughout the organisation. “We now have a director who is extremely focused on the people side of things and the big change we have achieved is a reorganisation and restructuring at the management level. The net result has been a shift in terms of positivity, inclusion, the way we work together and openness of communication.”

He continued, “And you see positive results wherever you go as the message trickles down: communication between people is better, meetings are better – even in times of Covid-19 with people working at home, it just seems to work.”

Structural change at MUAC has left personnel feeling more comfortable with decision-making, according to professional development and performance expert Natalie Van Gorp, not only because decisions are made collaboratively but also because information previously shared only at the top is now shared throughout the organisation. “There's more transparency and clarity than before,” she said.

Human factors manager Marinella Leone said that many employees perceive a shift of energy in the organisation and that they demonstrated increased resilience, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. “We made it acceptable to be supported, to ask for help, to work together, to tell each other what we think.”

“A team can build anything and MUAC is a team that performs extremely well now because we can tell each other things, how we feel and what we need,” Leone added.

Leone and communication officer Csilla Szabo have been instrumental in creating awareness of DIRECT, a new set of core values sponsored by Santurbano to guide staff towards understanding what they want from the culture and how it can be improved further. Rolled out in January 2021, the title is made up of the initial letters of each of the values – Diversity & Inclusion, Integrity, Responsibility, Excellence, Courage for growth and resilience, and Teamwork – and each one comes with a pledge.

Lokman said it will naturally take time for the cultural change to be structurally embedded in the way people work, although Santurbano is adamant the new culture is here to stay. “All the departments work together and people are happy to engage,” he said. “We have less demotivation, disputes or grievances. And the beauty of all this, is that you feel good and proud to work for MUAC.”

The results

For many, there are tangible results, Lokman contested: “I definitely see an improvement and more active involvement and concern for engagement with regard to the well-being of staff and the way and the way we communicate our values and how they are applied between teams, starting at the managerial level from the top down.”

In terms of the on-site environmental issues, MUAC introduced charging stations for electric cars, encourages cycling to work, reinforced targets to reduce electricity and consumption, replaced water in plastic bottles with glass jugs of tap water meetings, and introduced biodegradable disposable cups and stirrers to replace plastic and crockery.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, teleworking for office staff proved efficient and is expected to generate notable environmental benefits. It is also likely to be continued in some form or other when the pandemic is over.

The Maastricht Environment Group (MEG) was established in January 2020 to look at further ways of improving the environmental impact of MUAC's operations, the MUAC building and staff activities. Santurbano meanwhile was also appointed Champion CEO of the FABEC (Functional Airspace Block Europe Central) Environment Standing Committee in March 2020.