Nataliia Petleva has faced a series of circumstances that have only made her and her organisation more resilient and agile for what’s to come.
By Simon Kent
Managing a business and its workforce as your country is being invaded is a challenge few can imagine. Yet, it has been daily life for Kyiv-based People and Transformation Officer Nataliia Petleva.
Since 24th February 2022, when Russia commenced its war on Ukraine, her organisation, SkyUp Airlines, had to flex quickly and effectively to (literally) survive, taking its people along for every step.
SkyUp Airlines was created as the first Ukrainian low-cost flight provider whilst sister company Join UP! operated within the Ukraine tourist industry. When the war began, the company’s usual business immediately came to an end. With skies now closed to civil aviation, the business switched to cargo flights, wet-leasing (where aircraft and crew are made available for other airlines), and humanitarian purposes.
With this swift change in direction, Petleva and her team had to deal with many people challenges—both logistically and emotionally. “The first month of the war was shocking,” she says. “We were in touch with our team, but the business had to be stopped for the first several weeks of the war. A lot of our employees were forced to leave their homes because they were afraid for their families’ lives. Another part of employees gathered to join up the Ukrainian Army.”
Interestingly, Petleva says that the recent experience of working through the pandemic, with its consequent requirement of remote working, meant that her team already knew how to work outside of the office. This helped the business pivot swiftly to address its new mission. However, underlying this was the motivation to drive the business forward, despite the drastic times. “The key principle is motivation,” Petleva explains. “To stay in the sky, to help people, to open the world, and the main one—to protect our land and win this war.”
This motivation pays testament to the strong culture that exists in the company and the set of values that Petleva says all employees share. Petleva says that the Up family is one of only 5% of businesses worldwide whose mission is aimed at improving peoples’ lives. “There are a lot of companies that have mission and values on their sites, but not in their hearts,” she notes. “For us, the values are our basis for every step and decision. It’s the main reason why we are surviving even during the war.”
The company’s five values emerged from an intense period of development back in 2021. At that time, the business held a number of strategic sessions with founders, managers, and key employees. From these discussions, the principles and priorities of the business emerged. The values were then further shared across employees through the company’s corporate university, “GROW UP.” The five values that emerged and still underpin the business include the following.
1. Challenge accepted
2. Energy and love
3. Keep costs low
4. Work responsibly
5. Play together
“Certainly, all these values are good for a peaceful time,” Petleva says. “But as you may see, they also fit in critical situations. We keep our energy, we never lose the sense for what we are doing, we aim to be efficient, and act as a team.”
With a strong company culture in operation, the business still needed to address the more practical side of working through a war. Employees were moved to the western part of the country or abroad whilst the business’ headquarters remained in Kyiv, a site with a nearby bomb shelter used when the air raid sirens sounded.
Alongside the physical safety of employees, their mental health was also addressed. From the start of the invasion, the company has provided online sessions with a psychologist to help them stay calm despite the surrounding stress.
At its heart, the Up family of companies is, Petleva says, human-centric, working for people and with people. As such, the values, structure, and operation of the business have proven resilient even in the toughest of times. This approach has not just sustained a business that has held onto all of its employees, it has also created an organisation that has been ready and agile to flex according to extreme circumstances.
Petleva notes that the business is now seeking to expand its tourism services through Eastern Europe—Romania, Poland, and the Czech Republic—as well as continue development where it already exists in the Baltics, Moldova, and Kazakhstan. The business continues to look at new options and business models which take advantage of its resources, both physical and people-wise.
As a leading HR professional, Petleva is still able to deliver the strategy, care, and operations required to keep the company’s workforce going. “One more significant insight is about having one big goal,” she says. “When all the team shares the common goal, values, and strives to achieve an ambitious aim, it fills life with meaning and makes everything possible. It’s the basis for our resilience.”
From a personal perspective, Petleva derives her own sense of resilience and motivation from the actions and tenacity of those around her. Alongside her fellow coworkers, she is motivated to succeed both in business and in the war. This has given her the determination to deliver exceptional HR services and support to an organisation that consistently shows how to transcend even during the most challenging of times.