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Career profile: Will Leonelli, peopleworks leader, Flight Centre UK

Posted on from Changeboard

Get to know your peers in the global HR community through our career profile series. Today, we profile Will Leonelli, peopleworks leader at Flight Centre UK. He shares the most rewarding part of his role, why career setbacks have actually helped him succeed, and the best advice he’s been given.

Basic details

Name: Will Leonelli

Job: Peopleworks leader

Current employer: Flight Centre UK

CV in brief:

  • Peopleworks leader, Flight Centre UK, 2012 – present
  • Area leader, Corporate Traveller, Flight Centre UK, 2006-2012
  • Team leader, Corporate Traveller, Flight Centre UK, 2003-2006
  • Corporate Traveller account manager, Flight Centre UK, 2002-2003

A day in your life

Tell us about your job and organisation

Flight Centre UK is part of a global group founded in Australia by Graham ‘Skroo’ Turner in the early 1980s. We have since enjoyed remarkable growth as a business and now employ more than 15,000 people across more than 30 different brands in 11 countries. Our brands cover all options across retail and corporate, including specialist divisions such as Flight Centre, Flight Centre Business Travel, Corporate Traveller, Round the World Experts, First and Business, FCm Travel Solutions, Gap Year Travel and Travelclub.

I look after 26 people across eight departments and am responsible for ensuring that we live and breathe our number one philosophy – our people.

Who do you report into?

The managing director, Chris Galanty.

Tell us about your team

The eight departments I look after are recruitment, learning centre, leadership academy, Peopleworks support & paymatters and core benefits departments called Healthwise, Moneywise and Travelwise. I also have a marketer who takes care of all our recruitment marketing, careers website and any marketing involving these other internal Peopleworks departments. They are a set of passionate individuals, many of whom have been consultants in one of our brands before moving to Peopleworks.

What is the most rewarding part of your role?

Seeing people join and progress through the company, be successful in their own right and become leaders of the business. It proves that we got it right from a recruitment perspective. Also, the variety of the role is fulfilling and gives me the drive and passion to make Peopleworks a successful support business to Flight Centre. To be achieving our growth targets and, year after year, maintaining our position in the Sunday Times Top 100 Companies to Work For and the Great Places to Work listings shows we are doing things right. That is hugely satisfying.

What is the most challenging part of the role?

The downside to such a varied role is the challenge of giving equal attention to every department and all the people within them. Also, we always need to be supporting and delivering to the rest of the company. It’s a delicate balancing act that requires the ability to switch focus quickly, depending on where the needs are greater.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I don’t think ‘typical’ exists. Some days I run senior leader training sessions, other days I am working with the executive team on company-wide initiatives that aren’t necessarily directly related to Peopleworks. When I’m in the office, my focus is to ensure that my departments are delivering and helping them to overcome any challenges that may surface. This involves sitting in on team meetings, having one-to-ones with team leaders and planning days to ensure continual improvement. Regular communication is central to all of this.

Why did you choose your current organisation to work for?

My wife was already an employee of Flight Centre while I was working for a competitor. Over a four-year period I saw and heard first-hand examples of the company culture and the reward and recognition on offer. I was also aware that the company was growing fast and I wanted to be part of that. I joined Flight Centre on the corporate side, which was a natural step for me given that my experience had been purely leisure. This gave me a platform to learn new skills, progress further and become part of a global company. It was a no-brainer and a decision I will never regret.

Perks and downsides of your role?

I get all the benefits of working in the travel industry, from discounts on holidays to attending conferences across the globe. Being part of the team driving the company strategy is incredibly rewarding when we get the continued growth that we are targeting. Within Peopleworks, I get to bring people in and watch them develop, become successful and turn into key leaders within the business. There are no real downsides, other than there are sometimes difficult situations to manage. These are few and far between, however, and certainly don’t detract from all the exciting elements of the role.

What skills are essential for the role you’re in?

Great leadership skills and the ability to trust and delegate to your teams. As the role is very varied, covering a multitude of very different disciplines, patience and good organisational and time management skills are also important. Above all, being the Peopleworks leader requires strong people skills and the ability to communicate effectively to bring everyone together.

Career path

How did you get to where you are now?

I have always been ultra-competitive in every aspect, so studied hard at school to get decent qualifications (I also had little choice as my parents were teachers!). I always focussed hard on trying to be the best at my various jobs and achieve reward and recognition. I have always been motivated to achieve and be recognised for those achievements, and the culture at Flight Centre enables that to happen.

What were your best subjects in school? What and where did you study?

I was always interested in geography and the world – I’m sure it is from this that my passion for travel was born. I also enjoyed ancient history and classics and did geography, classics and Latin at A-level. I then went to Nottingham University to do a degree in ancient history, followed by an MA in tourism management at the University of Derby.

What was your first job? How did you get it and why did you choose to work there?

After lots of holiday/uni jobs to help boost my spending money, my first ‘real’ job after completing a 12-month round-the-world trip was at a company called Quest Travel in Kingston upon Thames, southwest London. It competed against the likes of Trailfinders and STA Travel and was a long-haul, tailor-made specialist. My goal was to get into the travel industry, so I applied to various companies expecting to start at the bottom, become a travel consultant and learn the trade. I was attracted to Quest’s long-haul specialism, the location and the fun environment/camaraderie that I witnessed during the interview process.

Have you followed the career path you set out to?

I would not change the path I’ve taken. Joining a company that has allowed to me to develop skills and grow personally and professionally to where I am now is something that I am very grateful for.

What challenges have you faced along the way? How did you overcome them?

When I applied for jobs and was not successful first time around, I just worked harder on my weaknesses to ensure I would be better positioned when the chance came around next time. In any job, success involves being aware of the challenges when they happen, acting on them quickly and using the resources around you to help. Surrounding yourself with a team of experts puts you in the best possible position to help you overcome any challenges.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to land a job?

Nothing too crazy other than having to ‘sell a pineapple’ over the phone at the first interview stage! Before working at Quest, I had had one or two knockbacks with other companies and was not going to let another one slip away. I pretty much hounded the recruiter and begged for a job!

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?

It was probably winning my first global award as an area leader at the end of my first full financial year in the role. Competing against all areas across Flight Centre worldwide, my area won the ‘most improved’ and ‘most productive’ awards. A year later I won ‘most profitable area’ and similar accolades over the course of the next three years. My dream was to win a global area award, which I managed to do in my first full year in the role and in subsequent years. Once you get that recognition, it is something you want to maintain.

Do you have any career regrets?

None at all, other than wishing I had done a stint working overseas. I’ve always moved at the right time and into new challenges that have given me further skills and developed me personally and professionally.

What advice would you offer to others who are looking to get to where you are now?

You must be passionate about the industry you are working in and have clear aspirations about what you want to achieve and how you are going to get there. You will need to learn from your mistakes and the mistakes of leaders before you, without reinventing the wheel unnecessarily. Clearly, hard work is critical but realistic goal setting helps with that and it is through achieving these goals that you will gain the respect of the people below, above and around you. This will help you progress up the ladder.

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self?

Put off work for a bit longer and see some of the world! There is plenty of time to settle down and carve out a career. Also, always rely on your gut instinct – it’s pretty much always right.

Either/or

  • Coffee or tea? Tea, although I do like both
  • Jam or marmalade? Marmalade. I love the spiciness of the ones with bits in
  • The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? I like both but would listen to The Beatles more often
  • Mac or PC? PC. I’ve never owned a Mac
  • The Guardian or The Times? The Guardian – it’s easier to read and contains a bit of a family tradition
  • BBC or ITV? BBC. I don’t like too many adverts
  • M&S or Waitrose? Waitrose – I have a loyalty card and you get free coffee
  • Morning or night? Night – I like fine dining, nice wine and sleep, none of which I would normally do in the morning
  • Rain or snow? Snow – it’s much more fun! You want to be outside when it snows but not when it rains
  • Sweet or savoury? Sweet – I have a ridiculously sweet tooth and am unable to turn down anything cake, biscuit, chocolate or sweet-related

Favourites

  • App: Candy Crush Saga – very sad, I know, but it’s great for switching off and very addictive
  • TV show: 8 out of 10 Cats (preferably doing Countdown). It is genius and hilarious at the same time
  • Band: Keane. Their music, melodies and live performances are quality
  • Song: The Only One I Know by The Charlatans. It takes me back to my college days in the amazing indie era of the 1990s
  • Book: Angels & Demons by Dan Brown. I love all the historic references, which took me back to my classics background and Italian roots. Plus, it’s a great whodunnit
  • Sports team: Blackburn Rovers FC – I can’t help it, it’s where I grew up
  • Thing to do on a Friday night: Before having three kids it would have been going out to a comedy show and nice meal or staying in with a bottle of wine, a good film and a curry
  • Place to eat: Wahaca for Mexican tapas from a former MasterChef winner. I’m desperately trying to get into Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck but it’s seemingly impossible to get a place
  • Holiday spot: Ulusaba Private Game Reserve, Kruger National Park, South Africa. You can’t beat staying in the middle of the savannah in the height of luxury and seeing animals in the wild
  • Piece of advice you’ve been given: Take knockbacks on the chin and learn from them. Often they create opportunities that you wouldn’t otherwise consider, which has worked to my advantage more than once in my career

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