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Leader of the Month for July 2006:

Michelle Peluso


Michelle Peluso's story (in her own words): My parents did an incredible job in instilling in me a fierce sense of responsibility and accountability. They were very clear with me, even from a young age, that because I was fortunate and had been given gifts, I owed it to myself and to society to give back and to push myself beyond what I thought my limits might be. It’s simply not enough to do well in life, but rather, to be truly successful and to deserve the title of leader, you have to do right and good by others.

Michelle Peluso is educated (bachelor's degree from Wharton School of Business and master's degree from Pembroke College at Oxford), cultured (has traveled the world many times over), entrepreneurial (created an impressive website--site59--which was purchased by Travelocity in 2003), talented (quickly rose to CEO of Travelocity after Travelocity acquired site59), grounded (recognizes the importance of the people around her) and driven (as evident in her philosophy towards life). This phenomenal leader inspires amazing accomplishments in her organization. For her remarkable leadership, Michelle is the Leader of the Month for July 2006.

About Michelle Peluso

President and CEO of Travelocity

Bio: born and raised in Middletown, New York, USA; father and grandparents were entrepreneurs

Home: Dallas, Texas

Current personal passion: Turning Travelocity into the world’s greatest travel experience company, and making sure all employees enjoy the journey and are proud to be part of the Travelocity family.

Dream: That the world finds a cure for AIDS, a disease I lost my uncle to in 1995.

Place in the world you would most like to visit: South Africa

Favorite quote: “Life is a grand adventure, or it’s nothing” by Helen Keller. I remember reading the biography of Helen Keller when I was a little girl, and it always just stuck with me. It is about taking risk and this notion that it is not acceptable to sit around and be complacent. It is really important to have dreams, follow through and take risks, and try new things. Making the most of life is critical, and you experience life by soaking it up. I remember thinking years ago that here was a girl who had all the odds against her when she was young, yet she accomplished remarkable things.

Tracey Weber, COO of Travelocity and co-founder of Site59, offered the following when asked to comment on Michelle Peluso's leadership: "Michelle’s leadership style is very effective and refreshingly different in today’s business world. She spends more effort than most managers on motivating her teams, getting to know the people on her teams and what motivates them, rewarding people for work well done, and even empathizing with them during difficult times or challenges. She is very human and nurturing in her leadership style – this really brings out the best in people around her and makes people want to go above and beyond to achieve success. She is also a very clear communicator – both externally and internally, she can crisply articulate our company’s strategy and vision and what we need to do to get there. Her ability to set clear direction and to motivate people results in high performing teams and exceptional business results."

Lifetime leadership highlights:

The Travelocity Turnaround

Travelocity revolutionized the travel industry by launching the first online travel website in March of 1996, growing quickly to the third largest ecommerce site behind only Amazon and eBay. Travelocity was and is a company full of passionate, innovative, dedicated employees. But, before long, Travelocity slowed down while other competitors began to attack with the same ferocity that Travelocity once had. Travelocity slipped to a distant second place in online travel and for the better part of two years suffered a steady decline. Employees, as you can imagine, were incredibly demoralized.

It was precisely at this time that Travelocity acquired Site59, and I became part of the larger Travelocity family. Shortly after, I was given increased responsibilities and was later promoted to Chief Executive Officer and President. And, over the course of the past four years, thanks to an extraordinary team of people that I get the privilege of working with side by side each day, we have fully turned around the business – in fact, last year, we grew organically at close to double the growth rate of our competitors, and we’ve gone from losing $55 million to being profitable, with our guidance this year to earn more than $100 million.

Site59 Post 9/11

The importance of compassion was brought home to me firsthand leading site59, the last minute travel website that friends and I started in 1999 and that we sold to Travelocity in 2002. On September 10, 2001, we were an incredibly vibrant startup – growing 50% month over month, knocking on the door of profitability, full of 80 highly passionate, committed team members, and in acquisition conversations with several large online travel players. On September 11, 2001, we were a Ground Zero company, located two blocks from the Towers, 80 horrified witnesses to unimaginable tragedy, with a business model in complete jeopardy. We saw things we never should have seen; we couldn’t find our last employee until late that evening; we desperately tried to help our stranded customers with a crippled operations capability; our revenues dropped by 70% overnight; our investors went from confident to nervous; we halted all acquisition conversations; and most profoundly, we, like so many, lost a part of our collective soul.

On September 13th, we re-gathered as a full team for the first time in our investors’ offices, and there wasn’t a dry eye there, mine included. I remember feeling the enormous weight of “what are we going to do”, and my response was very human – “I don’t have all the answers,” I said. “Like you, I’m in shock. But I do know one thing – and I believe it to my core – if there ever was a team that can get back up again and succeed on a level even greater than what we thought on September 10th, it is this team, and I will be utterly devoted to you and to proving we can do it. I just need you in the boat with me.”

Well, to cut to the chase, we did succeed. We moved back into our downtown offices; we rebuilt our company; by January, we were the size we were in August; by March, we were double that size and profitable, just ahead of even our pre-9/11 schedule, and we were acquired by Travelocity from a position of strength. We cooked for our neighbors, the local firehouse which had lost 4 of 5 first responders, every Monday for a year after 9/11 as part of our own healing process. And, we taught each other an invaluable lesson – that strength, coupled with compassion and an inordinate belief in each other could pull us through the worst of times.

Michelle Peluso and Leadership

Books recommended for aspiring leaders: Read biographies – figure out people you admire, and read about their lives. It’s incredibly inspiring to see how diverse leaders deal with setbacks and ultimately triumph.

Most admired leader: Eleanor Roosevelt was an extraordinary leader, and she had an acute understanding of the need for visibility. As FDR became increasingly disabled, Eleanor became his eyes and ears, helping him stay connected with what was happening throughout the country and the world. She did what was unheard of for a first lady - holding press conferences, traveling to visit servicemen here and overseas, journeying to the poorest parts of our country to see firsthand the quality of life of our nation’s most impoverished, and making sure that she always deviated from the “arranged trip” to see how people really lived and to ask the hard questions of those she encountered. She returned from these trips full of insight for President Roosevelt. She shaped his ideas and policies through her astute skills of observation and the lessons she learned on her journeys. I could go on and on about the lessons to be learned from Eleanor, but her need to see and experience the world herself and to be present stands out for me.

Advice to aspiring leaders: I think it’s imperative that over the course of your professional life you take risks as individuals. All of us have dreams, but we never get very far unless at some point, we believe, we create and just be fearless. Sometimes, it’s just so easy to stay in the comfort zone – the job we’ve always had – the city we’ve always lived in – the status quo, which while not bad, is just not all we know we can be. But, being a leader – a person that inspires – is also about being willing to crawl out of that really comfortable shell, and move into a new one. It’s taking a high profile job you’ve been offered that nobody wants. It’s starting your own company. It’s moving to a new city and taking a pay cut to work for that person you’ve always admired. Or, it’s as simple as voicing ideas you have when you are in meetings when normally, you stay silent. It’s only when we push ourselves that we even stand a chance of realizing our potential. Don’t live on the sidelines. It’s no place to spend a life.

Traits most important in a leader:

Best training programs for leaders: Go to work for someone you admire, and learn from him or her – there’s no better training ground.

Metaphor, story, or analogy for leadership: I truly believe there is no greater correlation for long-term success of any venture than how passionate the team is about being a team and winning. In the end, it’s always, always, all about people. If you figure this out, the rest will take care of itself. And, so, my leadership team and I think and talk about our people all the time. Have we always gotten it right? Of course not. But, we sure do care a lot, and I think that is transparent throughout the organization. And perhaps foremost, I’ve learned and hold dear that being ‘the boss’ means that it’s my job, at the end of the day, to put other people first and to make sure my organization is full of people who are

How difficult is it for you to find people who meet the aforementioned three criteria? I am a big believer that people really rise to the level of expectations of the organization they are in. It is incumbent on me to make sure that I am hiring smart people with integrity and honesty, and then I need to set an example in the organization that honesty and directness is really important and valued. You find good people, and then--just as importantly--you set a culture. Finally, a bit of self-selection happens as people who do not fit the culture leave. It is a good and healthy process.

Comment on the difference between leaders and managers. Managers are people who can oversee tasks and teams efficiently and effectively. Leaders tend to be people who can create a vision and recruit and retain exceptional people while also achieving and executing tasks. Leaders often employ more of a visionary component, an inspirational component, and a motivational component. You probably need different people for different jobs. On balance, when you can find someone who you think has not only great management potential but great leadership potential, then that person tends to be someone who can grow further in our organization. If all else is equal, when we can find people who have real leadership potential, that is wonderful: Those are the kind of people we want to fill Travelocity with.

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