Inspiring Travel Company chairwoman Jennifer Atkinson on how asking for help engages people to find a solution, and why failure can be a good thing.
Former head of marketing Jennifer Atkinson was 34 when she became CEO of then-ailing luxury travel company Inspiring Travel Company (ITC), transforming it into a multi-million-pound enterprise. Now chairwoman, she tells us why vulnerability can be a positive when it comes to leadership.
When I was named COO of Chester-based ITC back in 2009, I thought, ‘Be careful what you wish for.’ It had been a perfect storm of events: the credit crunch was in full swing, ITC was losing £1 million a year, the business hadn’t really embraced the Internet, and its founder and chairwoman Drew Foster had been diagnosed with cancer.
Asking for help engages people to find a solution on the common behalf
Having been head of marketing since 2004, I knew we couldn’t call time on a small, family-owned business that had been going since the 1970s, and one night I went home and wrote a rescue plan down on two sheets of A4; it was practically a relaunch and restart mission. The next morning, I found myself running the company – something I’d never done before.
Drew passed away several months later. It was a terrible time; the banks came down hard on us, and we did what we needed to do to survive – including reducing the workforce by around a third. That didn’t exactly win me any popularity competitions. But in 2010 I moved into the CEO role, and that year we managed to break even and keep the wolves from the door. It was the most shaping experience of my career – it was, literally, survival of the fittest.
A few years later, after I’d had my first child, I bought the business with the help of my business partner, Paul Pindar, former CEO at Capita, before acquiring Western & Oriental Travel. By this time, we had reversed our losses and were making a £3.5 million profit.
Asking for help
People say I’m courageous and resilient, which is true. I have bottle. I also think that if you believe in something strongly enough, the world moves towards what it is you want. There’s one thing that really helped me succeed: throughout the difficult times, when I’ve had all sorts of stones thrown at me personally and commercially, I have always asked for people’s help.
This is one of the keystones of vulnerable leadership. When I’m thinking, ‘I’m out of my comfort zone, this is scary’, it pays off to say, ‘I don’t know what to do here, but I know you people are really great. Can you help me?’ It’s not about collapsing in a heap and saying ‘I can’t do it.’ People would rather see strength in crisis than a dogmatic ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ Asking for help engages people to find a solution on the common behalf.
My background in marketing has helped me, too. CEOs tend to progress from the financial sector, which can be a hindrance. The most important part of being a CEO is being able to paint a picture, present a vision and bring people with you – essentially, that’s what marketing is. Rather than ignoring the people around me, I embrace and work with the people I have, and my strength is listening and communicating with others.
I actually find other people fascinating, which is really at the heart of my job. If I didn’t find other destinations or cultures interesting, this wouldn’t be the right career for me. Many successful business leaders hold the mindset that it’s good to employ people you trust, and then trust them.
Of course, the people you trust are sometimes going to let you down – and I’m the first to admit when I’ve made spectacular mistakes. But failure can be a really good thing. If I could give anyone a gift, I’d give the gift of courage and confidence. Ultimately, my advice is to jump off the cliff and engage the parachute afterwards. Because it’s the leaping that gives you momentum.