Special Report: Digital transformation, millennial staff and business leadership redefined

Special Report: Digital transformation, millennial staff and business leadership redefined

A special Travolution breakfast event discussed the changing role of leadership and management skills in an age of digital disruption and transformation

A special Travolution breakfast event held during WTM and sponsored by Ixaris and SpencerStuart discussed the changing role of leadership and management skills in an age of digital disruption and transformation. Lee Hayhurst reports

Gallery: Travolution business breakfast

Travel is one of the world’s top?three sectors for digital talent due to the impact of technology and the internet, a Travolution Business Breakfast was told this month.

Senior travel figures discussed how management and leadership roles have changed as businesses have faced unprecedented transformation in the digital age.

Grant Duncan, a consultant at global headhunting and leadership consultant SpencerStuart, one of the event’s sponsors, said:

“When we talk to clients about where to get the talent from, particularly talent that understands digitalisation but also knows how to operate in a traditional environment, we say go to financial services, consumer retail and travel and leisure.

“That’s the well spring where a lot of this great talent can be found. What’s interesting is these are all sectors that were very traditional and then new players started to come in and that set the ball rolling.

“There’s a huge amount of publicity and excitement surrounding these new travel brands [like Uber and Airbnb] emerging in the consumer domain, which raises the ante for the category as a whole.”

Duncan said London remains one of the key hubs for digital talent globally although strongholds like Silicon Valley in the US remain the “heartland”.

“The problem is the talent likes it there. Why would you leave California? But the UK is that next stopping off point for that wave of talent,” he said.

However, Duncan added: “One of the challenges, and this is particularly true in the UK, is there is definitely the need to be at the heart of things, so in the hub of a city, whether that be London or Manchester.

“For young, talented employees today, it is about having a city centre existence and that brings about all sorts of ancillary pressures to do with the cost of living. That’s a big issue, particularly in London.

“I think in the end, market forces will take over and actually we will start to see a move to other cities and urban locations in the UK, acknowledging that London has become too expensive.

“What I don’t know is whether the great engineering and development talent will accept that. Do they want to be in London, where a lot of great innovation is happening?”

Andy Washington, senior vice-president travel at Culture Trip, a start-up that now employs 300 people, largely drawn from the millennial generation, in central London, said: “Our industry has paid really poorly in the past and I see a lot of businesses that are changing that to get the best?quality people.

“We’re based slap bang in the centre of London. There’s a cost to that, there’s a benefit too, but for the millennial worker their job is part of their lifestyle. That’s what feeds them and in return you get their creativity.”

Gunjan Verma, chief technology officer of London?based The Travel Corporation, said there are advantages to being based within a vibrant tech hub like London, despite the costs.

“Right now, for us it is a challenge because we are competing for talent,” he said. “But I think long-term it’s good for London to foster that community of talent.

“I’m very optimistic. There are exciting times ahead in the Far East, but I am still very bullish about London and Europe.”

Cressida Sergeant, vice president EMEA for Traveltek, said she was not surprise to see OTA On The Beach moving into a central Manchester HQ to attract the right talent.

“When I was at TravelSupermarket in Chester we struggled to find the right talent. I would like to think there is life outside of London.

“The regeneration going on in hubs and cities like Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow is quite phenomenal.”

Sergeant said Traveltek is working with local Universities in Glasgow where it is based on summer intern programmes.

It is also looking at how to restructure its technology teams work to give them broader understanding of how the business works to help retain staff who come into the business.

‘Empower your staff and learn to celebrate failure’

Business leaders today must allow their staff to embrace and even celebrate failure if they are to instil a winning digital culture, the Travolution breakfast was told.

Businesses were advised to adopt a more flexible structure and a culture that empowers staff and breaks down barriers between internal divisions.

Andy Washington, Culture Trip senior vice-president travel, said: “It’s tough to learn how to fail. But we are in a data-driven industry and results speak for themselves.

“Businesses that empower people to go out and fail move much faster. The old days of things taking two years before something is launched are gone.

“The industry and consumers are moving much more quickly. You have to set up your businesses to drive more ideas.”

SpencerStuart’s report, ‘Travel 2025: How Digital Transformation and Global Growth are Redefining Leadership Roles’ is now available

Gunjan Verma, chief technology officer at The Travel Corporation, said: “A young person leaving university today is looking for a workplace which will let them test ideas, celebrate failure and learn from that failure.

“They have an immense sense of purpose. Give them dedicated time to work on things they are really passionate about, things that make their lives simpler and also focus on the customer experience.

“Digital leaders have to make judgments, but I see my job as bringing creative and talented people together and leaving them alone with a focused mission on whatever they have got to do. Let them have their own way.”

Cressida Sergeant, who has previously worked for Expedia and TravelSupermarket and who is now senior vice-president for the EMEA region at software developer Traveltek, said: “Technology teams and sales guys do still tend to work quite separately in silos.

“It is OK to fail, but it’s not OK when you are dealing with a client. Testing and learning in a live environment is always a challenge in client-facing businesses.”

‘Digital projects require different staff hierarchies’

Digital leaders must ditch old-fashioned “command and control” structures in their businesses to be successful.

Grant Duncan, consultant at SpencerStuart, said the demands of digital transformation require a fundamental rethinking of workplace hierarchies.

“You need a governance model where all key stakeholders work out what their roles are, which then creates a lot more flexibility to build cross-functional teams below them,” he said.

“Teams are given a task and once that has been completed they disintegrate and repopulate around another task.

“You contain failure within various task groups. Celebrate failure, make it OK. It sounds quite process-driven, but process is quite an important factor in this.”

Andy Washington of Culture Trip said top-down management styles are dead, with digitally savvy firms now organising themselves in teams, or squads, empowered to make decisions.

“I hate it when someone says that’s not in my job description. It doesn’t work like that any more.”

Traveltek’s Cressida Sergeant said: “The nature of flexibility [in our business is something that’s client driven, it’s 24/7, you have to be available to clients but I think you have to set the expectations of your team.

“If I send an email at the weekend I don’t expect an immediate response, it’s simply because it’s popped into my head, Monday is absolutely fine.

“We don’t expect people to work weekends unless we’ve got serious client issues and then it’s an all hands on deck situation. We do have a very passionate tech team who are committed to doing that.”

Washington said many firms organise off site meeting to contribute ideas but too often that only happens when something has gone wrong in the business.

“Why not do that every day?” he said. “The role of leadership is to give you the tools to open the doors for them to go and make the ideas happen.

“Brainstorming every minute of every day drives real change. The data and the results actually show it’s learning, test and learn and you adapt and move on to the next test.”

‘Diversity in the workplace helps retain top talent’

Diversity in the workplace is an increasingly important factor for employees in the digital age, but firms must invest in talent to make sure it is coming through the ranks.

Traveltek’s Cressida Sergeant recalled that when she worked for  Expedia [2015-17], the company strived to ensure a 50:50 gender split throughout its business but that this became more challenging for senior roles.

“We tried to get the recruitment guys to work harder to get the right calibre in, but if you haven’t nurtured that resource up through the ranks it’s going to be difficult when you get to that stage,” she said.

Seargeant warned against an overly bureaucratic approach. “Businesses can get quite tied up in things and end up creating reams of documents which people just never read.

“I agree it’s about how you set that culture in the office. Generally, technology teams do tend to be very male dominated.”

The Travel Corporation’s Gunjan Verma said he was trying to bridge the gender gap in his tech development team because he believes it will help to retain talented staff.

“In the past we have had very successful women working in the development team, but they haven’t stayed on for long with us.

“There is part of me that feels that because there were no similar people around them in the team to support their career at TTC, that was one of the reasons they left.”

Culture Trip’s Andy Washington said firms that have the right approach can take an active role in addressing issues like those the powerful online #MeToo movement is highlighting.

“There are societal issues people are addressing and that’s an issue for us whether we want to address them or not,” he said.

“If you get things right in the first place, you are not going to be sweeping up after there’s an issue.

“But if you are still running quite a hierarchical business, that’s when you tend to see politics coming in to play.

“If you’ve got a robust business with a great culture, that’s got people who are motivated, those issues don’t tend to come to the forefront.”

Washington said the millennial generation is “vocal” and has a voice, so companies should empower them and “treat them like customers”.

‘Office layout should reflect firm’s culture’

The physical working environment should be considered as an extension of the culture and brand values of a firm in the digital age.

SpencerStuart’s Grant Duncan told the breakfast: “The way the working space is organised should reflect the culture of the business.

“This means the removal of big-status offices where the CEO sits to create a much more open, fluid environment.”

Culture Trip’s Andy Washington said: “We have an environment that’s not just open plan for the sake of it, it fits with our squad functions.

“They sit together and then it’s about management, the people, the culture, the benefits, all of it coming together, that creates a very successful business.

“Millennials tend to want to move on quite quickly unless you create an environment they want to keep coming back to because they are enjoying it.”

The Travel Corporation’s Gunjan Verma said: “If you are locked in your office all day, issues can start to creep in.

“It’s very important that the door is always open, that you are available for staff to speak to.”

Companies urged to support mental health of workers

Employers can help tackle the stigma of mental health in the workplace and support sufferers back to work.

Culture Trip, which raised $80 million funding in April, was founded by a former psychiatrist, Dr Kris Naudts. Travel head Andy Washington said mental health is high on the agenda at the company.

He said although much of the stigma around mental health had gone, “there’s still a lot of work to do”.

“It is something our founder really wants to instil by bringing people into the business, getting them back into employment and encouraging them to be the best they can be,” said Washington.

“If I can help someone who has an anxiety issue, then I empower them to feel more motivated and help them in their personal life. That’s great for me, great for that person and the business, and great for society as well.”

SpencerStuart’s report, ‘Travel 2025: How Digital Transformation and Global Growth are Redefining Leadership Roles’ is now available