Being the CEO of a high-end travel company sounds like the ultimate dream job. All those expenses-paid trips to exotic locations and five-star hotels in the name of work. But when Jennifer Atkinson was suddenly thrust into the role of running the Inspiring Travel Company (ITC), it was a business on the brink.
Founded in 1974, ITC was the first travel company to charter Concorde, but the global recession had seen the Chester-based company fall into the red.
In 2009, tragedy struck when the chairman was diagnosed with cancer. He asked Atkinson, who was head of marketing, to step into the breach and became COO. Not only did she manage to save ITC but she has transformed its fortunes, from making a loss to generating £43m in turnover by 2013 and nearly doubling that figure in 2016.
Along the way she has learned some valuable lessons about what it takes to be an effective CEO. Here, she reveals the value of vulnerable leadership.
How did you go from head of marketing to running the company?
It had been a perfect storm of events: the credit crunch was in full swing, ITC was losing £1m a year, the business hadn’t really embraced the internet and its founder and chairman Drew Foster had been diagnosed with cancer. Having been head of marketing since 2004, I knew we couldn’t call time on a small business that had been going since the 1970s, so one night I went home and wrote a rescue plan on two sheets of A4; practically a relaunch and restart mission. The next morning, I found myself running the company – something I’d never done before. Six months later, Drew passed away.
What was your plan to save ITC?
The banks came down hard on us, and we did what we needed to do to survive – including making 40 redundancies from a workforce of 130 in the first six months. That didn’t exactly win me any popularity competitions. But that year we managed to break even and keep the wolf from the door. It was the most formative experience of my career. A few years later, after I’d had my first child, I bought the business off the family with the help of my business partner, Paul Pinder, former CEO at Capita. We then acquired Western and Oriental – by which time we were making a £3.5m profit from a £1m loss.
What do you think are the qualities required to be an effective CEO?
A background in marketing has helped me. CEOs tend to progress from the financial sector, which can be a hindrance. The most important part of being a CEO is being able to paint a picture, present a vision and bring people with you – and, essentially, that’s what marketing is. Rather than ignoring the people around me, I embrace and work with the people I have, and my strength is listening and communicating with others.
I find other people fascinating, which is really at the heart of my job. There’s a classic quote from Richard Branson that says it’s good to employ people you trust and then trust them. And if I didn’t find other destinations or cultures interesting too this wouldn’t be the right career for me.
What are your greatest strengths and how would you describe your style of leadership?
People say I’m courageous and resilient, which is true. I have bottle. I also think that if you believe in something strongly enough, the world moves towards what it is you want. But the thing that has really helped me succeed is that throughout the difficult times when I’ve had all sorts thrown at me personally and commercially, I have always asked for people’s help. This is one of the cornerstones of vulnerable leadership.
When I think, ‘I’m out of my comfort zone, this is scary’, it pays to say, ‘I don’t know what to do here, but I know you people are really great and can you help me?’ It’s not about collapsing in a heap and saying, ‘I can’t do it.’ People would rather see strength in crisis than a dogmatic ‘It’s my way or the highway’. Asking for help engages people to find a solution on the common behalf.
What is the best piece of advice you could give to another businesswoman?
Failure can be a really good thing. If I could give anyone a gift, I’d give the gift of courage and confidence. While the male mentality is, ‘I can do that, I’m going to put myself forward,’ women tend to say, ‘Am I good enough, can I do it? You know what, I’ll go and have a bottle of wine with my girlfriend and talk myself out of it.’
Ultimately, my advice is to jump off the cliff and engage the parachute afterwards…because it’s the leaping that gives you momentum.
Do you know someone like Jennifer who deserves to be recognised? Nomination open for the 2018 everywoman in Travel Awards.