HRD speaks to Rose Thomson, CHRO of Travelport, about being prepared to take on more responsibility and accountability
With an impressive body of work experience behind her, and a current global HR role, an obvious question to ask Rose Thomson, CHRO at Travelport, is how a global HR leader can possibly hope to gather what is likely to be many vastly different corporate cultures in a global entity into something that resembles a unified front. Her response is telling:
“I’m a very simple thinker. The way I’ve been talking to my team, the senior leadership team and the board is very much about the fact I see us as being more similar than different, and I describe that as the vanilla ice cream. My whole 2020 HR strategy is predicated on ice cream!”
Thomson elaborates that it’s the common frameworks and “key elements” that make Travelport the company it is. Then it’s acknowledging that each country, each division, will need to take a “bespoke” approach. “That’s the topping –the sprinkles or the strawberries. So it’s done from a functional perspective: if you sit in the commercial or technology department you’ll have a slightly different flavor to that, and if you sit in Asia or Australia you’ll have a slightly different flavor as well.
It’s about how we build the framework that is Travelport, which everyone understands, and then add that flavour on top that acknowledges there are some legitimate unique elements that we must also address.”
HRD sat down with Thomson – back in her hometown of Sydney on a fleeting visit – to discover what else she has learned throughout her career.
HRD: Can you provide some context around Travelport as a company?
Rose Thomson: Travelport on last count had 4,100 employees globally and a 2016 net revenue of over $2.3bn. We’re represented in around 80 countries, including Australia, Canada and Singapore, with our headquarters in Langley, UK. We’re a B2B specialist in technology for the travel industry. We have a very large sales force and equally large technology function, so we look after airlines, travel agents, hotels, cruises, car hires, all that back-end technology. When you as a consumer use an online travel website, for example, we pump all our content into that website so when you’re doing an online search for flights and a hotel, you’ll be seeing our content. However, you’ll be seeing it on the front-end of an online retailer.
HRD: What are you currently concentrating on in your role?
RT: We have close to 100 HR professionals in the global team and one thing we need to look at is how efficient we are in supporting the business and the role that HR plays. Moving forward, my vision for HR at Travelport is very much that it’s an instrument of business transformation, because as a business we are undergoing tremendous change. I’m focusing on HR’s role in driving that. How do we leverage our people resources to be able to enable that strategy? How do we create agile leaders, so as the organisation changes, as our customers change, as their customers change, how do we need to be leading? And then having a high performance culture, which is very much about how do we raise the bar on what good and great looks like, and then how do we ensure people understand what that looks like and what’s required to get there.
HRD: You have experience in change management, and M&As in particular. What have you taken from some of those experiences?
RT: Let me tell you about the reason I got into HR in the first place – because I actually started not in HR but in the graduate program at IBM in software manufacturing. I lived through the night of the long dark knives when IBM in Australia lost half its workforce almost overnight. I was lucky, I survived – but I remember it well. It was a Friday when it happened, and when we came back on the Monday there were six desks between me and the next person, everyone’s name tags were still on their desks and it was almost like they had all died in a terrible accident.
All the effort was rightly put towards those who were exiting, but as a survivor we suddenly had to do the work of 5,000 people but there were only 2,500 of us. I just thought these kinds of changes could be done in a more effective way, and that’s what flipped me into HR. I think I’ve always enjoyed change and transformation, because that’s about growing, both from an organisational perspective and from a personal perspective.
It’s about helping people to understand why change is important, helping them to see what that means for them, and doing that in a respectful way. Change is always going to happen but we’ll be judged based on whether we treated people with respect and fairly once the emotion comes out of those decisions. That was the catalyst for me moving into HR and since then I’ve worked on several M&As, I’ve done divestments, all sorts of projects.
HRD: You’ve worked around the world in some well-known global companies. Can you outline some of your best learning experiences from those companies?
RT: I moved into HR when I left IBM in the 1990s. The majority of my career has been with big multinationals – IBM, Disney, Coca Cola, Barclays, and now Travelport. I’ve been fortunate to work with those companies. I’ve had incredible opportunities, I’ve seen the world, I’ve done things I never would have dreamed of doing. I’ve dressed as a princess, I’ve stood on the street and handed out free cans of coke – not to mention all the more serious HR work I’ve been involved with! I’ve just had a privileged career.
HRD: What do you put that success down to?
RT: My personal mantra is to never say no when someone asks you to do something. And throughout my career that willingness to take on more responsibility and also take accountability for things has led me to bigger roles and bigger opportunities. It’s not that they’ve fallen into my lap – because I don’t think that happens – but I’d like to think those opportunities come from hard work and doing the best I can on a daily basis.
HRD: How do you stay on top of everything you need to in a global role?
RT: I’m lucky that I’ve lived and worked across Asia, across Europe, and I’ve worked with big American corporations so I’ve spent a lot of time there as well. Things change all the time in terms of legislation and regulation, and I think it’s impossible for any one individual to be on top of those things. So whether it’s leveraging your own team in terms of making sure you understand what’s going on in their markets, or whether it’s just being connected through various industry networks or leveraging your legal partners, or just reading a lot about what’s going on, while I say you can’t be on top of everything you do need to at least recognise things do change.
HR in the hot seat: Georgina Boyd of Amadeus
HR in the hot seat: Helen Fraser of Aecom