She took on a failing business and turned it around. What is the key to Harriet Green’s success and how can others learn from it, asks Nicky Little from Cirrus?
Thomas Cook has returned to profit after previous heavy losses and most commentators put the recovery down to the skills of chief executive Harriet Green.
Green has certainly made some brave moves. She recently revealed she got the job after cold-calling the chairman and telling him: “You need me.” She has encouraged other women to be equally fearless and forge their own path, rather than feeling they need to follow a traditional route to the top.
When she joined Thomas Cook in July 2012, one of her first tasks was to replace the board almost entirely. Of the seven directors, three – including herself – are women. She has simplified and stripped costs with bold initiatives, such as merging Thomas Cook’s UK, German and Belgian airlines, and selling off its unprofitable Canadian division.
Green has openly said that she relishes a tough job. Crucially, she also understands that it is important to take others along for the journey over rocky terrain.
Her love of amateur dramatics as a child has, Green believes, stood her in good stead as a chief executive who has to engage an audience. Communication is central to her success, and Green is skilled at engaging with different groups of people – her board, employees, customers, shareholders and other stakeholders.
Combined with an exceptional track record, her ability to connect with others at a very human level has helped her achieve great success during very difficult times in a highly competitive industry.
When she became chief executive of Premier Farnell in 2006, she aimed to meet 85% of the 5,000-strong workforce within six weeks. In preparation, she asked every employee what they considered the strengths and weaknesses of the company to be, and what they wanted to see from the leadership team. She then went spent six weeks meeting them all.
This type of open, two-way communication, by which leaders seek to learn from existing employees, builds strong connections across an organisation. In turn, this builds trust and encourages collaboration – essential elements of any successful transformation programme.
Green is extremely focused, and shareholders appreciate her emphasis on developing a new strategy to drive profitable growth. Launching her strategy to capital markets, to refinance the business, raised £1.6bn in May this year – paving the way for Thomas Cook’s return to profit.
Many around her could not understand why she was attracted to a struggling business like Thomas Cook, but Green said she was intrigued by “a really good business with a terrible balance sheet”. Throughout her career, she has chosen the people she wants to work for or the situations that interest her, and never wanted to be one of “the group of very talented guys who want to do the conventional thing”.
Like many of us, Green’s attitude to work is influenced by her personal life. She claims her fearlessness stems from the death of her father when she was only 14, and says she is more comfortable than most with unpredictability as a result.
So, what can the rest of us learn from the fearless Harriet Green? Her advice is: be bolder and braver. Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook has commented that women can be reluctant to go for a job if they don’t have a great deal of relevant knowledge. Green believed in herself despite her lack of industry experience. This type of self-belief can boost your career.
And, if you do land that elusive role, be curious. Build your knowledge as well as your connections with colleagues by engaging in active, two-way communication. You’ll build trust, gain respect, and hopefully help some of the people around you to be fearless about taking on new challenges, too.