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Booking.com CEO Gillian Tans on why being accessible to your team allows you, as a leader, to be held accountable

Being accessible can seem daunting, but it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. It also allows you, as a leader, to be held accountable. It’s important to remember that your employees, of all titles and roles, are watching how you respond to situations and hearing the words you speak…both on a platform […]


Being accessible can seem daunting, but it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. It also allows you, as a leader, to be held accountable. It’s important to remember that your employees, of all titles and roles, are watching how you respond to situations and hearing the words you speak…both on a platform and in walking meetings through the hallways of your office.


I had the pleasure to interview Gillian Tans. Gillian is the CEO of Booking.com


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I began my career in hotel marketing and observed early on how inefficient the practices at the time were. It was really hard to get people from all over the world to discover your property. This was around the time the internet was increasingly becoming a part of our daily lives, and I saw the immense potential for the internet to fundamentally change consumers’ access to information. That’s when I decided to leave a very successful career and company to join what was just a tiny start-up at the time — Booking.com as one of only a dozen employees.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There’s always an interesting story to share because our culture is so immersed in testing and learning, so we’ve become accustomed to expecting the unexpected. I recall one time I was on our website and noticed that our entire site had changed into just a blue search box. I came from a marketing background, so the decision to completely change a website’s interface is one that usually goes through iterations and dozens of meetings with various teams. But none of that happened, so after looking into it further, we learned that our product team was testing with different features on our site as part of our daily A/B tests (we conduct more than 1,000 tests a day) to see if it would be positive for the customer website experience. While perhaps not typical, it demonstrates a culture that is not afraid to test and learn new things, sometimes failing but failing quickly. That mentality has completely shifted my perspective on business, and I can honestly say that mindset has existed since Day 1.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Well, at the time it certainly wasn’t funny, but years ago I was overseeing a pretty substantial investment in a product change we were making. I’ll spare you the details but I essentially nearly broke our entire website. While our founder certainly wasn’t happy when I told him what happened, he later let me know how much he respected the way I owned the issues that went wrong, which ultimately allowed him to entrust me with even bigger responsibilities. Mistakes are the most important aspects of a career — and they come in all forms and sizes. I always tell our employees to not be afraid to make mistakes — as long as you learn from them.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

I’d have to say our diverse culture. I think sometimes we can even take that for granted, but we have over 17,000 employees across the globe, representing over 150 nationalities. That brings such a unique perspective to the decisions we make every day for our customers which come from all over the world. It also allows us to be more thoughtful and empathetic in how we treat each other, and ultimately creates an environment that helps us bring our mission of empowering people to experience the world to life.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

The advice I’d give to any leader, and it’s one I challenge myself to do, is to truly empower your team. This looks different for every leader and every team, but if you don’t empower your team, the outcome will be the same — an exhausted team that doesn’t take the necessary risks out of fear of failure. Your team shouldn’t fear failure if they see failures as opportunities. If they are not empowered, though, failures will remain failures and that can leak a dangerous toxicity that can affect an entire culture.

What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?

Being accessible can seem daunting, but it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. It also allows you, as a leader, to be held accountable. It’s important to remember that your employees, of all titles and roles, are watching how you respond to situations and hearing the words you speak…both on a platform and in walking meetings through the hallways of your office.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

It would have to be my parents, who together instilled in me the value of hard work, but also the notion of not being afraid to try new things. They embodied, commitment, hard work, creativity and a ‘never be afraid to try’ mentality, which have shaped me as a person, and have helped me in my career and in my personal life.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I’m really proud of two initiatives we’re working on right. The first is our “Women in Tech” program, which focuses on providing mentorship and scholarships to women in the tech industry and/or women who are pursuing a STEM degree. It’s a known fact that there aren’t enough women in tech roles, and the opportunity that a STEM degree could provide women, especially those in developing countries, could truly change the world. In fact, I’ve told my own daughter that if she is going to learn any new language, it should be coding. The second is an initiative we’ve been working on through our Booking Cares program, called Booking Booster, which focuses on giving grants to start-ups in the sustainable tourism space, which is a cause we are deeply committed to.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why.

  1. Think globally.
  2. Own your mistakes.
  3. Stay curious.
  4. Embrace empathy.
  5. Never stop challenging yourself.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’d love to inspire a movement that ensures everyone everywhere in the world had access to the technology that could enable great experiences — whether that’s through traveling somewhere or experiencing something amazing locally.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Never let success go to your head and never let failure get your heart.”-Ziad K. Abdelnour. This is relevant to me on so many levels, but most importantly it speaks to a mindset that has shaped me as a leader and is also reflective of our culture at Booking.com.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m on both Facebook and Linkedin.

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