Opinion: Cook CEO hunt reflects travel’s failure to develop talent

Kristina Wallen, managing director, Harp WallenThe jobs market is big business, Thomas Cook is not the first company to look outside travel for a key appointment – the temptation is particularly great when businesses are hoping for a quick turnaround, or indeed ‘miracle cure’.

In some ways it is human nature to believe that the best people to steady the ship are on other side of the fence. Don’t we all think at one time or another that the grass is greener, and the people more capable, elsewhere?

But travel is an industry like no other, besest by incredibly tight margins, anachronistic processes and technology, and subject to instant challenges ranging from bad weather to war.

I challenge anyone out there to count on more than two hands the number of successful senior-level appointees who have entered travel from another industry, made a difference and still remain in the sector. The skills that seem to transfer with the greatest success are finance, HR and in some cases marketing.

Having spoken to a number of HR professionals on this subject, it seems the pure ‘travel operations’ roles demand a certain type of industry-grown knowledge.

This business reflects so acutely the economic political and climatic changes of the globe that no matter how talented an individual the ability to react and understand the immediate impact that ash clouds, SARS, snow or political uprisings have on bookings, routings, pricing, yield and margins is the difference between success and possible failure.

Detailed knowledge and experience of the nuances of the travel industry plays a huge part in growth.

Of course, there are some fine ‘outsiders’ who have made a difference. Tui boss Peter Long, an accountant by trade, has proved his talent beyond a doubt.

That said, over 20-plus years in the industry leaves the idea that he is a real outsider open to question. And the chances are he would have been a chief executive in whatever business he had chosen.

Travel businesses develop through certain life stages. We are brilliant at breeding entrepreneurial people who challenge the norm. From the package holiday kings of the 1950s and 1960s to today’s ‘disruptors’ online, getting businesses off the ground has never been a problem.

As companies grow, it is essential to recruit experts who can bring sector-specific knowledge and implement the right processes to keep that growth moving. This is where recruitment from within the industry is essential.

And at the top of the growth scale lies the PLC – a very different beast altogether. The top job is about more than just travel. It’s about satisfying investors, media relations, recognising commercial opportunities, developing a brand, motivating staff and having the contacts to interact at the very highest levels of government.

It’s also about succession planning too. There are some exceptional and talented people in our industry and we should be doing everything to develop them for when these golden opportunities arise.

That Thomas Cook has taken so long to find its new chief executive is perhaps more of an indictment of the industry than of the Cook itself.

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