Phillipa Harrison

Managing Director, Tourism Australia
AGSM MBA (Executive) 2007

Tell us about your current role?

I'm lucky to lead the 220 talented individuals who make up Tourism Australia, the government agency responsible for attracting international visitors to Australia, both for leisure travel and business events. The organisation is active in 15 key markets and activities include advertising, PR and media programs, trade shows and industry programs, consumer promotions, and consumer research. Due to the closure of international borders, we are currently marketing domestically as well to encourage Australians to explore their own backyard.

How would you describe what you do (what you ‘make'), your specialist skill?

My father worked for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade so we travelled extensively when I was young. We moved to India when I was eight years old and then later moved to Paris. Having an early perspective on the big world out there and different ways of living instilled a real wanderlust in me and as soon as I finished university I packed up and went travelling again. Honestly, I fell into the travel industry because I was looking for a way to keep travelling. My first job was leading adventure tours around Turkey in the early nineties. It put me in good stead for my career as I spend a lot of time working out what makes people from all different walks of life tick, what motivates them and gets them doing their best work. I create a safe space around them to do what they do and then I get out of the way! I had a colourful path to career success and I thought studying an MBA would round out my skills. In my mid-thirties, I was looking to move industries and I thought AGSM would be a really great way for me to do that, to ensure I had the right skills. But it was through completing my MBA that I realised I loved this industry - I wanted to stay, and I wanted to become a leader. My AGSM MBA helped me do that.

How has your leadership style changed or pivoted in the midst of the unprecedented uncertainty we are now facing?

I don't know that it has changed more than I have had to really dial up a couple of aspects of it. Firstly, I communicate - A LOT - to industry, to the board, to staff, to our partners. People are craving certainty in an incredibly uncertain time. I can't give them that but I can give them as much information as I have and be a reliable, calm source. The other thing that is really important right now is transparency. Where there is a void, people create their own version of reality and often, it is worse than the facts! I appreciate consistency of approach in other people, so I am diligent in trying to deliver that myself.

How have you responded, adapted or innovated as a result of this new world reality?

This is the most disruptive change tourism has ever seen. Firstly, we had to focus on the business continuity issues of the industry. Then, we had to ‘fish where the fish are' and that's not just a marketing theory – the survival of the 300,000 businesses that make up the tourism industry in Australia depend on it. So, we started marketing in the domestic market to try and fill the gap of international travellers with domestic ones. But how do you do that when people are in lockdown? We got them dreaming about and planning about their next Australian holiday through the Love Australia campaign. It was a rally cry around mutual recovery – you need a break after a tough couple of months and in doing so, you will be helping an industry on its knees.

Longer term, my intention is for Tourism Australia to provide the thought leadership on what the industry of the future will look like and how businesses will have to adapt to meet its needs - this will be across customer motivations to travel, the distribution landscape and the very changed industry that will come through the other side of this. It's very early days for this project as most businesses are very much still in crisis mode and focusing on business continuity. When they get through this, Tourism Australia will be ready with insights and plans to help them start up again.

What was the catalyst for your response?

Complete and absolute shutdown, knowledge that the sources of our past successes wouldn't be the same as our future successes, and the assumption that travel motivation and aspiration will be different, at least in the medium term, on the other side of this pandemic.

What were you able to tap into from your AGSM qualification in this new world reality that's been most useful / impactful?

Leaders are facing situations that we've never faced before. There's no precedent for any of the problems we are trying to solve, there's no playbook of rules, we are having to adapt as we go. As a leader in the tourism industry, I would have never, in any risk assessment I've done, foreshadow the shutdown of the world's airlines and the tourism industry. It's just not a situation that anyone would have considered even six months ago. We've had to revise our strategic direction several times in the last six months as first the bushfires and now the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly changed our operating environment. My MBA has given me the ability to have meaningful conversations with technical experts across finance, IT, marketing, research, government and consultants, be able to digest the information quickly and make fast, informed decisions.

The discipline that comes from just going through your MBA is so beneficial. Using response models to help frame conversations, both internally and externally, I wouldn't have been able to do that without the AGSM MBA. Of course, there are a lot of ‘hard' skills that you learn but the interesting take away has been around emotional intelligence (EQ). I've always highly valued EQ, but my MBA gave me some tools and some insight into it. It gave me structure around what it exactly is and how you can (and should) use it in a business context. It was the big “aha!” moment for me during my studies, and hand on heart I use it every day. I think it's the thing that separates good leaders and exceptional leaders. It's the ability to have empathy and understand what's motivating people that you are dealing with every day.

What are you most optimistic about over the next few months?

The complete shut down of the tourism industry gives all of us an opportunity to think about what we want it to look like in the future. I'm excited at the prospect of building it back up again, working out what is going to be important for customers and reimagining what our industry looks like in response to this. The sector is very entrepreneurial, we have been united and innovative in our efforts to survive and we will collectively work together to invent that future together.