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“Ensure your team stays engaged and motivated.” With Penny Bauder & Gillian Tans

Being accessible can seem daunting and comes with a great deal of responsibility, but it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. It also allows you, as a leader, to be held accountable for their actions. It’s important to remember that your employees, of all titles and roles, are watching how you respond […]

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Being accessible can seem daunting and comes with a great deal of responsibility, but it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. It also allows you, as a leader, to be held accountable for their actions. 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, as well as what you do — whether that’s in a television interview, a virtual town hall meeting or as you walk through the halls of an office (whenever that day comes again!). This responsibility is key to keeping teams engaged, empowered and ready to take on new challenges as a unit.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women in STEM and Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Gillian Tans. As Booking.com’s Chairwoman, Gillian Tans advises the company’s leadership on the long-term vision and operations for the business as well as key growth initiatives. Previously, Gillian served as Booking.com’s President and Chief Executive Officer, a role she was appointed to in 2016, following her experience as President and Chief Operating Officer as well as other positions at the helm of Booking.com’s Global Sales, Operations, IT, Content and Customer Care departments. Under her leadership, Booking.com advanced its operations and sales across more than 225 countries and territories around the world.


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

Growing up in the Netherlands, my parents often took us cycling and on camping trips across the small country, but we also explored beyond our own borders from quite an early age. It established a love for travel and exploration early on in life that carried over into how I approached my education and career. What always drove me was my sense of curiosity, so I found the internet fascinating right away. And even though it was right after the dot-com bust and things weren’t looking certain at the time, I sensed the potential the internet held for the world of travel. With that intuition, I made the decision to step away from a successful role at an established international hotel group and join a start-up. Joining Booking.com, a company that was only six people at that time, was definitely a risk — but capitalizing on opportunities as they came my way, with an eye to the future, has always been important to me. I pride myself on being open and willing to embrace change, and that’s led me to where I am now.

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 wasn’t exactly a funny mistake, but years ago I was overseeing a pretty substantial investment in a product change we were making on the Booking.com platform. 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. I feel strongly that mistakes are the most important aspects of a career — and they come in all forms and sizes. I always tell anyone I’m mentoring, as well as our employees, to not be afraid to make mistakes because as long as you learn from them, there is growth that will come from any stumbles.

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

Culture is an important piece of what makes any company stand out, and I firmly believe culture has been a massive part of Booking.com’s success over the years because its cornerstone has been diversity of all kinds. We strongly believe — and have since the beginning of the company — that diversity is key to building a workforce and inclusive environment that fosters innovation, collaboration and creativity. Our workforce was forced to be international from really early days, which helped to encourage diversity more broadly. Now, we are truly global, with over 140+ different nationalities, and more than half of our workforce — and a third of our Executive Leadership — is made up of women. With a mission to make it easier for everyone to experience the world, we embrace the opportunity to help create a more inclusive tech workforce by empowering people from all backgrounds and with all ambitions to enter, progress and flourish in tech. We know that diversity makes us stronger as a company and helps us to create better products for our customers.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

We all collectively recognize there are too few female role models in the tech industry and we need to work together towards a solution. There is always more to be done, and I alongside many others are not satisfied with the status quo. The solution requires us to look outside our own companies as well as the STEM field. We need input from all stakeholders — government, our education system — in addition to businesses to bring about a meaningful shift. There are certainly things businesses can do — that haven’t been historically common across the tech industry — to improve the situation, from internal initiatives like mandatory unconscious bias training, or implementing fair compensation packages, to external investments to shine a light on role models, encourage industry discussion and help inspire the next generation.

While it’s a fact that the tech industry has a long way to go on this front, what is good is that we’re seeing women continue to beat the drum and to implement change. Having more women in the room will empower more and more to do the same. And in reality, diversity — gender and otherwise — should be a priority for every single leader and every single company no matter what industry — not just tech. This topic’s momentum and the tech community’s attention to it over the past few years gives me hope that we are moving in the right direction. Conversations and columns like these are so important in creating a sense of community and urgency among women working to break down the barriers that remain.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in STEM or Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

I think normalizing the experience of women as mothers and caretakers in the STEM and Tech industries still remains an enormous challenge. From my own experience, one of the first moments I became conscious about being a “woman” in the workplace was when I was 8 months pregnant. At that time, there were around 12 of us working from and sleeping in a studio-apartment “office” in Spain trying to get our vision off the ground. It was a make-or-break time for the company, and every moment of work contributed by everyone in that room mattered to the potential success of Booking.com. It was difficult because I sensed them wondering what would happen when I was on maternity leave, or if I was even going to come back after the baby. It wasn’t something men had to think about. At the end of the day, the company was supportive, but it was definitely a moment where I noticed that being a woman in the workplace meant slightly different circumstances at times. It’s been 15 years since that experience, but I have heard countless stories of women across the STEM and Tech industries that continue to face down these dynamics.

The conversation around women in tech has taken a long time to evolve — it took decades for the industry to wake up and realize the importance of diverse teams, longer still for employers to move from peak talk on diversity to tangible actions to move the dial to action. Today, it’s fair to say that many companies are taking steps to recruit, hire and implement human resources policies with gender diversity in mind, although there’s still so much more work to do to ensure that tech is truly representative and responsive at all levels, to all employees.

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 to do their best work and to push themselves, your outcomes won’t ever change. 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 and comes with a great deal of responsibility, but it’s critical to ensure your team stays engaged and motivated. It also allows you, as a leader, to be held accountable for their actions. 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, as well as what you do — whether that’s in a television interview, a virtual town hall meeting or as you walk through the halls of an office (whenever that day comes again!). This responsibility is key to keeping teams engaged, empowered and ready to take on new challenges as a unit.

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 mentality of never being afraid to try something, which have shaped me as a person, and have helped me in my career and in my personal life. They are the ones who took us out to cycle and camp around the Netherlands and inspired my sense of wonderment when it comes to travel and embracing new challenges, and my mother is the one who really encouraged me to go to the United States as part of my education. Without their support and encouragement, I would not have had the incredible path up to now.

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

One of my tried and true favorite quotes is “Never let success go to your head and never let failure get your heart,” from Ziad K. Abdelnour. I have said it many times to myself, my teams, my children and more. It is relevant to me on so many levels, but most importantly it speaks to a mindset that has shaped me as a leader. It is also so reflective of our culture at Booking.com, and makes me so proud to have been a part of building a company that so clearly lives up to its values.

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