We sit down with Contiki Holiday’s managing director to chat about being a lawyer, her baby face and believing in yourself.
Can you tell us a little about your career progression?
I started my professional life as a lawyer in New Zealand. But being a lawyer wasn’t nearly as much fun as law school, so I accepted a role with McKinsey and Co, moved to Sydney and started a career in management consulting.
I spent the next seven years, the last three freelance, working with Fortune 500 and ASX100 companies in retail, telecommunications, fast moving consumer goods, mining, and financial services on overall business and functional strategy, startups, turnarounds and performance improvement.
I then spent seven years at the Virgin Group – firstly with start-up Virgin Money to drive strategy, then in private equity and investment management for Virgin Management – the parent company – and then was a co-founder of Virgin Active gyms in Australia.
After that I spent two years at BT financial group in digital, marketing, customer experience roles before being approached about Contiki, where I have been for 18 months.
What would you say is your defining career achievement or the thing you are most proud of?
I loved Lego as a child – so the things I am most proud of are where I have built something and then developed a great team around it.
For that reason, I loved being part of the start up teams at both Virgin Money and Virgin Active, but Virgin Active is special because there were three of us and we started with a blank sheet of paper and built an incredibly profitable large business which totally disrupted the market and irrevocably changed it for the better.
It was a great ride because I had full permission and no rules, and defined and ran every business function until we grew enough to hire. We created something really special, and am proud that we agonised over decisions that many would have de-prioritised or skipped over – but in the long term they made the difference between a good business and a great one.
Most importantly, when we sold the business, I left an incredible culture with 300 awesome employees that I’d call family.
What have been the biggest challenges to success you’ve encountered professionally?
I believe in meritocracy and not hierarchy. So early on professionally I found environments that gave opportunity and advancement based on hierarchy, duration of service or tradition, rather than talent or performance, very challenging and restricting. I also thought they missed opportunity for innovation.
Also because I have my mother’s baby face I struggled with credibility early on. Even when I was the team leader or head of a department it was assumed I was the graduate (although I’m not going to lie, I’m loving the baby face now I am 39).
With the benefit of wisdom, what advice would you give your 21 year old self when you were starting out in your career?
Believe in yourself. Like many women I suffered from low confidence or “impostor syndrome” early in my career – that belief that you aren’t as good as everyone else around you, or you aren’t smart enough, and that soon they’ll find out you are a fraud and don’t know what you are doing.
Those thoughts, combined with a perfectionist streak, made for a brutal early monologue, but it did mean I continued to push myself hard to achieve great results and growth. Funnily enough though, sometimes I wish more members of Gen Y suffered from a lack of confidence these days.
Another good tip would be to over-invest in getting feedback and then be yourself. I have invested a lot personally in getting 360 feedback from peers, bosses and employees over the years. I’ve focused on this and used it improve and grow myself as a leader, and it has been critical to my professional development and success.
In saying that, you need to be scrupulous with some feedback and ignore it – I often got told to be more this or more that personality wise – but I found I am most impactful and successful when I am who I am, when I am comfortable in my own skin.
Lastly, find good soil. If the soil isn’t right, you won’t grow anything, no matter how hard you try, and that’s just boring and depressing.
How would you describe your business/management style? What sort of things are most important to you professionally?
Apparently I’m pretty fun, but full on. I have a very “high” style – high engagement, high passion, high energy, high expectations and I am 100% focused on my team and our people.
I believe if we ensure that our people are happy professionally and personally then they will make our customers happy. And if our customers are happy then they will buy our product and in turn keep our shareholders happy.
So I focus on having:
- A very clear strategy and definition of success, ensuring everyone knows the goal, what the big hairy audacious goals are and why, and how they contribute to those.
- Very clear expectations, boundaries, in a cool, fun culture.
- High touch, high engagement people systems. Then everyone can just focus on their teams and their processes, and outcomes will come naturally.
Who are the people you admire most professionally or in any field/walk of life?
Professionally I’ve been lucky enough to have had very strong female mentors and role models – and these ladies who do it all with blistering intelligence and insight, grace and humour and keep their world in balance – and work in perspective – are my heroes.
A core value of mine is authenticity, so I admire people who want to leave the world a better place, but do this from the right place rather than from a place of self-promotion, like so many people these days in this generation of social exposure. A mate of mine is driving a social media based campaign to get men to get their skin checked for melanoma after his best friend died.
It’s become a movement and has grown exponentially. But when someone tells him it drove them to get a skin check, he doesn’t say “good on you“, he says “thank you” because he wants the world to be without the pain of losing someone you love.
What do you do to unwind when you aren’t working? What is most important to you outside the office?
We live at the beach so it’s about sunshine, sand, exercise, my hubby and friends on the weekends. And too much wine. And not enough yoga. And my guilty pleasures of reality TV shows and chick flicks.
What’s the best aspect about working in the travel industry?
The easy answer is the travel of course. I have always been a huge traveller, but now I have even more opportunity to see the world. Sure it might only be for 16 hours on a stopover, but I love the adventure and I love exploring other countries and cultures.
But the most important thing really is the positivity. I am an intensely positive person so I love selling and organising something positive, something inherently good. Trust me – selling dreams and adventure is far easier on the soul than fear and financial advisories.
What one thing gets you through a stressful day?
My team – if there is a lot of stress in my job at any time I just need to walk outside my office and there will always been something amusing going on.
My team are awesome humans, and together we have a large lively and energetic office, so that keeps me grounded. Oh, and a great wine when I get home. Did I mention wine?
You can see the other ladies from our exclusive Women in Travel series here: