Employee Experience

Conversations that Matter Podcast with Phil Donnelly, Travelport

Chief People Officer shares how managers became coaches, not bosses. Listen to OpenBlend's Conversations that Matter Podcast with Anna Rasmussen.

Conversations that Matter: Episode 4, Phil Donnelly, Travelport

OpenBlend Podcast Series: Conversations that Matter

Episode 4: Phil Donnelly, Chief People Officer at Travelport 

Welcome back to our Conversations that Matter podcast. Throughout this series, you'll hear the opinions and experiences of individuals who deeply believe in the power of conversation. Each episode will be unique, some personal, some professional, but all are incredibly insightful. 

Our first guest of 2024 is Phil Donnelly, Chief People Officer at Travelport, an innovative technology platform that supports exceptional travel retail experiences. 

As you'll hear throughout the conversation, Phil has had an incredibly diverse career in the world of HR, spanning over 30 years. From starting his career in the military where he learned teamwork and high performance, Phil has spent the last four years at Travelport transforming and delivering incredible value to their customers, their stakeholders, and of course, their people.

OpenBlend's Founder and CEO, Anna Rasmussen sat down with Phil to discuss the changing landscape of employee experience and how the role of the people manager has shifted to one of performance coach and career concierge.


'...but above all else, just have passion. There's so much that we can accomplish in the world of work just through the energy we create for ourselves and others.'

When leading change across an organisation, what are some of the most important aspects to the role of a people leader?

What's important in the role of a people leader in these organisations with significant change challenges, is that it's all about the people. To achieve change, you need to win over the folks within your organisation. You need to do two things in my opinion, liberate talent and unlock people's potential. If you can do that, you can accomplish anything, no matter how ambitious your agenda.

I guess there's a few things that I try and do in these situations. One, I want to make sure people feel really engaged, I want them to feel involved, I want them to feel informed, I want them to feel excited and energised and invigorated by what we're doing as an organisation. Even if it's tough and difficult, and challenging people find that very exciting. So really transparent, open, authentic communication, particularly by the leadership, but throughout the organisation, helps drive that level of engagement.

And secondly, alignment. I want folks to be doing stuff that's really contributing to where we need to go as an organisation. We're a kind of scrappy organisation, we don't have huge amounts of resources to get things done. So, we have to use the resources that we've got really wisely, including our human resources, and that means making sure that folks are doing the right things to contribute to where we're going. Specifically, for Travelport, we had a need to really re-energise the organisation and create a really compelling, winning culture that was focused on high performance and that had the organisation raise its game, raise the bar of performance, do more with less, really compete with our major competitors and win in our marketplace. 

Can you tell us more about the employee being treated and perceived as the consumer? 

If I look back over my long career, earlier on in my career, I think the employment relationship would have been very much a one-way relationship between the employer and the employee. I think the employer had criteria for their roles, they could go out into the marketplace, recruit people on their terms, and pay people accordingly and it felt very much like the power in the relationship resided with the employer principally. I think over the course of the last decade or so, I think that power in the relationship has begun to shift from the employer to the employee, and I think we saw that most acutely during that period post-pandemic of the great resignation, where employees were reflecting on their employee experience during the pandemic. They were reflecting on what they wanted from their careers and from their professional lives and their personal lives, and they decided that change was what they wanted and it was very much a candidate's market they could choose.

They were demanding things from employers around flexible working and agile, and the employee experience that employers had not been providing, and I think that is part of a trend. I think it was exaggerated post-pandemic by the conditions that the pandemic created. But I think that those trends that have been changing as really a microcosm of what's been changing in our society. If you just think about our experience as consumers over the last ten years, with the advances in technology, the speed of communication, the amount of available data, we now have choices that we can make as consumers that we never had before, and it's making our expectations greater and greater. 

But generally speaking, my view is that the employee is now the consumer of the employee experience. They have lots of data on which to make their employment decisions. This is not just for new hires. This is for existing employees as well. They expect the experience to be personalised, some would argue kind of hyper-personalised, really tailored to their experience. And if you want engaged employees, if you want a stable workforce with low regretted attrition and unwanted turnover, then you're going to have to deliver that to your employees. If you just deliver a single plain vanilla experience that everyone experiences in the same way, then I think that you will not be delivering what it is that the consumer is looking for. So that's my thesis around the role of the employee as a consumer of the employee experience.


So much sits on the shoulders of an individual's people manager, how have their roles and responsibilities changed? 

You're absolutely right. For me, the most important role within an organisation, particularly one that's undergoing the type of transformation that our company is, is the role of the people manager. They are the people who manage the individual contributors on a day-to-day basis. They interpret the strategy set by the leadership, and they understand what needs to be accomplished within their area of responsibility, they drive that alignment, they drive that engagement of the colleagues within their teams. There's that old adage that people don't leave organisations, they leave managers and teams that they belong to, and historically, for me, the role of the people manager has been fairly one-dimensional. It's been about setting goals and then evaluating people's performance in achieving those goals, and if you think about the performance management process, historically, we even called it performance evaluation. It was about how did you perform, It's like an end of school report. It's a report card on how you performed and typically linked to reward. So, some form of reward outcome, whether that's base pay or bonus, linked to how your manager judged your performance to be.

Again, I think as part of these changes in the world of work over the last 10/15 years, I think the role of a people manager has changed fundamentally. I think that there is still the responsibility to agree on goals, but it isn't a unilateral process, it's now very much a bilateral process. It's about dialogue and discussion, agreement between those two parties, about what goals make sense and why. The role of the people manager becomes one of a performance coach. We talked before about Sir Clive, if we have individual people managers coaching their team and helping their team member to liberate their talent, fulfil their potential, drive alignment, drive engagement, and they're raising the performance of their team, then we've got a team of individual champions and we've got an overall enterprise of teams, of champion teams, and that can only raise the bar in terms of the performance of the organisation. So when we talk about high performance and a winning culture, it's not just rhetoric. We really have to compete against larger, better resource companies, and that means we have to get the most from our organisational assets, which include our people.

So the role of the performance, the people manager, as a performance coach, is really important, and for me, that requires placing the employee at the heart of the conversation, understanding what it is that motivates that individual, talking about what drives them, what engages them, what they're looking for, what their strengths are, what their areas for development are, and you helping them build on their strengths and develop in their areas of weakness or development. 

You can listen to the full episode, and past episodes, over at Apple Podcasts, Spotify and Google Podcasts.

Browse the latest resources