The European Border and Coastguard Agency – Frontex – 2016 to 2020

In by Amanda Anderson


As an international training and consulting organisation we have worked in over 60 countries and have welcomed approximately 4,000 participants from 170 countries to our London-based professional development workshops.  As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic we are all currently having to manage various degrees of lockdown and restrictions on who can enter and leave our countries and states.  The pandemic has sharpened attention on why and how people move around – whether for business, tourism, family or seeking safety – and how to protect borders and citizens.  So our project with a major border control institution is both pertinent and poignant.

Within Europe the responsibility for border management sits with each Member State but has been coordinated by the European Border and Coastguard Agency, known as Frontex (an EU institution) since 2004.  Frontex was re-established in 2016 and given a new mandate in 2020.  The Agency had faced a major crisis in 2015 when a significant wave of illegal migration swept into and across European states, often with tragic results.  Frontex has been far from static in recent years and now plans to expand in size and reach to meet its objectives.

Frontex has three strategic objectives: reduce vulnerability of the external borders based on comprehensive situational awareness; guarantee safe, secure and well-functioning EU borders, and plan and maintain European Border and Coastguard capabilities.

Frontex is headquartered in Warsaw, Poland; its senior staff are drawn from all 27 Member States and serve for fixed terms of five years, often renewable.  They have family and career networks across Europe.  Any investment in their development has to be focused on the institutional outcomes wanted but also must be sensitive to individual differences and flexible enough to accommodate managers leaving and joining over the lifetime of the project.In 2016 we were delighted to win a consultancy contract with Frontex to design and implement a Leadership and Management Development Programme in support of organisational transformation from a focus on migration and migratory flows to safeguarding the security of the EU’s external borders, including the crucial fight against organised crime.  The Executive Director saw that to achieve the necessary change the senior staff needed to be more strategic, operate more corporately and work in a new structure.  It required a step change in leadership capability at senior level.

Our approach

To be successful, an ambitious transformation leadership programme is not an event, but a carefully constructed series of activities designed to work together to build corporate leadership capacity and capability.  This meant focusing on the Agency’s leadership as a body and on individual leaders.  In preparing for the transformation Frontex had refined its corporate vision, mission and values (see below).  The key task was to help Frontex hard-wire these into the organisation and facilitate the leadership behaviours that would make them real.

Frontex Vision, Mission and Values

Our Vision: The European Area of Freedom, Security and Justice

Our Mission: Together with the Member States, we ensure safe and well-functioning external borders providing security

Our Values: We are professional.  We are respectful.  We seek cooperation.  We are accountable.  We care.

Our first step was to assess how ready Frontex leaders were to take the change journey. Structured interviews with members of the Executive, Directors and their Heads of Units addressed key questions about: the challenges Frontex was facing, their impact and how to prepare for them; the Agency’s culture and values; its people, their roles and capability;  organisational leadership and management; operational and business processes; and corporate strategy.

The interviews were confidential, and all insights were recorded but not attributed. Interviewees were candid about the many things they liked about working in Frontex, the challenge of leading transformational change and their willingness to engage. These insights were invaluable in focusing the design elements of the development programme.

We fed the results of the inception interviews back to the Executive and to the interviewees in the first of a series of workshops in April 2017.  The outline structure for a Leadership and Management Development programme (LMD) was approved.  Frontex agreed that the LMD Transformational Leadership themes would be: leading self, leading and developing individuals, leading and developing the organisation and leading the way forward.  These themes are based on the Real World Group’s well-researched model Transforming Engaging Leadership™ and supported by a 360° behavioural feedback questionnaire intended to inform personal development plans.

The Frontex Leadership and Management Development Programme

The key components of the Frontex LMD design are designed to build corporate and individual leadership capacity.  To meet the learning priorities identified in the inception interviews and feedback workshop we agreed a number of orchestrated activities to take place over two years, 2017-19:

  •  A series of short workshops on culture change; leading and developing yourself; change leadership; leading people through change; managing and engaging people; strategic thinking and corporate leadership
  • Challenge and support action learning groups to address real life corporate problems, to find solutions and promote collaborative working in leading change.  These would supplement a corporate initiative already established by Frontex.  The groups would be coached by PAI’s consultants and be scheduled alongside the workshops
  • Individual one-to-one coaching sessions with a PAI consultant.  The coaching would be based on a personal development plan and would be held monthly (or at regular intervals to fit in with participants’ availability) face to face or by skype
  •  Completion of a 360° feedback questionnaire to generate a personal development plan and supported by individual feedback and the coaching sessions
  • A final workshop and evaluation of the impact of the LMD.

Participants liked the comprehensive nature of the LMD design, the different formats of learning, opportunities to work together and to signal to the organisation that the LMD was happening.  They asked for long lead times to plan their diaries for any off-site or management retreat and asked that support also included communication, both in being kept up to date and letting others know what they were doing on the LMD.

Implementing the design and lessons learned

What worked?

All elements of the design were seen as positive in various ways.  All were planned for and most have been implemented. The active support and personal participation by the Executive Director, Deputy Executive and Directors proved essential to signal that the LMD was a serious investment and that the top team were committed to engaging with their Heads of Unit.  The workshops were run as planned, although with longer gaps between workshops than we originally anticipated and were generally well attended.  The group coaching (action learning groups) started off well, were remarkably open and challenging and generated creative solutions to real issues.  The personal coaching included the Executive and Heads of Units. It was hugely successful and is ongoing.  It was a good way of inducting new staff into the LMD Programme.

Feedback from the coaching suggested that having clear development plans helped participants to identify and manage career choices/changes and enabled them to take on new roles within Frontex, including on promotion, or sometimes moving on.  For some coaching was a new experience and the skills involved were transferred into day-to-day management.

New appointments, including at Director level, were easily accommodated into the programme as they had been selected according to the organisation’s vision and the Executive Director’s transformational aims.

Our administrative team worked closely with the supporting HR team in Warsaw.

The challenges

Participants forewarned us that diary management would be a challenge.  Despite advance planning, operational pressures on diaries and essential travelling commitments meant dates were put back or attendance at some of the workshops was reduced.  The overall elapsed time for delivering the programme has extended beyond the initial two years.

Staff turnover at senior levels was anticipated and generally accommodated.  The restructuring created two new Divisions, including two internal promotions from Head of Unit to Director level. Inevitably not everyone was fully engaged.  A few moved out, retired, resigned or were redeployed.

The planned 360° hit a significant obstacle over EU concerns for staff confidentiality and data protection and was not adopted. Frontex expansion plans under the new Regulations and EU budget for 2020 and beyond, combined with the impact of dealing with COVID-19, overwhelmed internal functions and momentum for delivering the final stages of the LMD has been affected.


Where are we now?

The organisation is incredibly busy and international migration and criminal activity has not slowed.  The LMD is suspended pending the finalisation of budget and expansion plans under the new Regulations for Integrated Border Management.  Like us, most Frontex staff are working from home under COVID-19 guidance and we are not able to arrange a final face-to-face workshop.   We might be able to set up an internet-based event in due course.  Some personal coaching is still taking place by skype.Sheena Matthews and Janet Waters, our LMD lead consultants, will be gathering information for the final evaluation of the programme and we hope to share this with our international community soon.