How can aspiring travel executives ensure they “turn left” in their career path rather than end up with the multitudes in economy class? Three senior managers from the industry took time out of their busy schedules to reflect upon the actions and behaviours that were instrumental in their progression.
They are Ann Elliot, General Manager Corporate and Industry Sales at Virgin Australia; John Simeone, Head of Business and Government Sales at Qantas; and Mikhail (Mike) Dudarenok, Chief Customer Officer, Technology, at Flight Centre.
Think outside the box
There are plenty of standard, business school-type tips out there but, it’s the less-conventional factors – as described by these executives – that are often most useful.
Virgin’s Elliot says, “In my experience, being open and honest usually sparks actions from my team members.”
When on the road, a no-nonsense approach is even more important. The time you have with new contacts is fleeting and you may never meet them in person again.
And if you do as Elliot suggests – “Most importantly, familiarise yourself with the people you are meeting and their individual agendas and objectives” – you’ll find these encounters are even more fruitful.
Flight Centre’s Dudarenok takes things a step further. “In my role of a chief customer officer from a technology perspective, I need to be able to walk in the customers’ shoes to ensure we create the most appropriate user and customer experience,” he says. “To encourage this, I visualise myself as the customer – including creating a story and persona and then taking them through a particular interaction such as booking a business trip or stressing out over missing a flight. The more vivid, visual and engaging I make the virtual story, the easier for me to experience the emotions and pressures the customer in question will be experiencing.”
Try the university of life
A more conventional approach is through study, but this often works best when the classroom is the real world.
Simeone says, “You can spend a lot of time reading great books on the theory of leadership. But it really is important to always keep learning as you go – including from the experience of peers – and remain open to new ideas and ways of working.”
This is reinforced by Elliot. “My advice would be to observe and listen to others as much as possible,” she says. “In my experience, using these skills and reading plenty of relevant material has been the best approach for my career progression."
Even the most hectic travel schedule gives opportunities to read and reflect; while the distance from home and the office gives a wider perspective and the ability to dwell on the big picture rather than day-to day-minutiae.
Dudarenok is also a big fan of this contemplative approach. “Successful executives need certain skills and abilities,” he says, listing self-reflection, leadership, empathy, continuously learning, and the ability to delegate and execute as the most desirable.
“The path always starts with self-reflection and internal re-evaluation of how your actions and reactions impact others and your business; and what you need to change to become more effective at leadership; vision setting and more.”
Better than sharing a lift
Should you find yourself travelling with your boss, you have a much more potent opportunity than the timeworn elevator pitch. Not only do you have more time to shine, you can also bond with them during the inevitable travel hiccups. And help with routine tasks that become much harder after a long journey, such as checking into a hotel at 3am when they’re just too fatigued to cope.
But remember to give them their distance. Many seasoned travellers make sure they’re not seated adjacent to a colleague on long flights, so that each has some breathing space.
Those at the top recommend paying attention to technology advancements.
Virgin’s Elliot says, “In today’s world, it’s really important to be aware of the importance of technology and its capabilities in order to make sound business decisions.”
And over at Qantas, Simeone says, “We know how to harness the technology that will enhance our customers’ travel experience, and enable our people to do their work even better.
“We have a growing technology and innovation strategy at Qantas and we recognise the role it plays in our future success. It helps being part of a company that has always been an early adopter, including being the first Australian airline to start rolling out Wi-Fi on domestic flights.
“Personally, technology is moving so fast it’s sometimes hard to keep up, but I have a couple of teenagers who ensure that I don’t fall too far behind!” he says.
This rapid rate of change means there’s ample opportunity for someone to boost their visibility and indispensability by keeping up to date with how to operate and make the most of the latest innovations.
Flight Centre’s Dudarenok sees an intriguing link between computers and the human brain.
Technology is “absolutely essential”, he says. “The brain works in mysterious ways and, the more you expose it to different and new things, the more unexpected connections and insights you get in return.
“Exposure to new technologies equals new possibilities. As executives, we always have to think years ahead, not knowing what these possibilities are limits our capability in being effective in transforming our business for the future.”
The biggest factor
When asked what the most important factor was in their success, there was agreement: an unrelenting hard slog and the support of others.
“A combination of factors including determination, persistence, a lot of listening and seeking advice from others,” says Elliot.
“Perseverance, picking yourself up from the setback and going at it again, when others might have chosen to give up,” says Dudarenok;
“The support I’ve had from colleagues, family and the broader networks of teams I have worked with,” says Simeone.
Being overseas doesn’t mean abandoning your support network. Elliot says, “While away I always utilise technology to stay in touch with friends, families or even pets!” Skype and messaging apps such as WhatsApp are invaluable for this.
Dudarenok probably best sums up the essence of success. He says, “by continuously going through the process of refining and improving yourself, you will be preparing for this next step and be ready when the opportunity knocks.”