Thomas Cook: Harriet Green takes on a historic culture

Harriet GreenThomas Cook is an iconic name among British travel agencies. Its new CEO Harriet Green faces tough times for the travel sector as well as having to deal with a resilient corporate culture.

Some years ago I researched the company after reading a historical biography. I was struck by the corporate culture, which reminded me of the provincial ‘assurance companies’ at the time, loyal staff, solid and traditional in its values. Harriet Green faces interesting challenges.

A recent interview in The Independent sketches the leader and her possible dilemmas.

The shelves are wedged with books, as you would expect for a history graduate, and another nod to the past is mounted on the wall overlooking Ms Green’s shoulder: a sepia-tinted portrait of Thomas Cook himself.
She hopes to take a leaf out of the founder’s book. In 1841, the Baptist preacher arranged to take a group of temperance campaigners to a rally 11 miles away, charging a shilling each to cover rail fare and food.
More innovation followed over the decades. Thomas Cook was the first company to develop travellers’ cheques, a low-cost airline and the round-the-world trip. Now Ms Green is leading the march for new products beyond the company’s sun, sea and sangria core. That means city breaks and winter sun and catering better for discrete categories of holidaymaker, such as Nordic divorcees.

She has closed shops but refashioned others, which look “a lot more Apple than travel”. Sunseekers can now load their vacation wishes on to an iPad and take them home to discuss with the family.
Ms Green has been vocal about women putting themselves forward for top jobs, and wrote to Frank Meysman, Thomas Cook’s chairman, to tell him she had the skills he needed even though her background was in electronics, not travel. “I felt I had enough experience, that I would be pacy, resilient and be able to generate belief,” she says. Thomas Cook shares fell when her appointment was announced – but have risen tenfold now.
“You ask any chairman, any chief executive: it is about getting women, from 13-year-olds to 25-year-olds who take business degrees, to think running a business is good and positive and fun.”
Ms Green climbed the corporate ladder starting as a trainee at Macro, which distributed semiconductors, and rising to be UK managing director. Her next company, Arrow Electronics, gave her a larger canvas. After setting up its European network, she travelled to Africa, Asia and America.

“My last meeting is usually at six or seven and then I do my reading and emails. I make a commitment to everyone I’ve ever worked with that every email they send me will be responded to in the day. I’m the only chief executive I know who does all her own emails – that is something very personal and important to me.”

Ms Green has shaken up her senior team at Thomas Cook, with a third of her lieutenants promoted from within and a third new appointments.

Leaders and leadership

Some aspects of culture in the company seem to have survived. I noted the mention of the founder’s portrait in the article cited above. It’s the one that was an ever-present ghost of Thomas Cook in the old corporate headquarters.

As for emails: I applaud Harriet Green’s energy. But with 30,000 staff with direct access, I wondered about the cultural discouragements still present to deter most employees attempting to communicate ‘over’ a line manager. Maybe that’s how the emails arrive in manageable numbers each day?

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2 Responses to Thomas Cook: Harriet Green takes on a historic culture

  1. Thanks to Cranston for ‘liking’ this post. I don’t usually ‘like’ my own blogs. Can’t remember now if this was accidental, or acknowledgement of the material re-blogged from the BBC ..

  2. Reblogged this on Leaders We Deserve and commented:

    I reblogged this post on the news that Harriet Green is to leave the company after a period of considerable success in her restructuring policy.

    The post indicated concerns over the difficulties she was likely to face in changing a powerful corporate culture.

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