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Executives on the Move - CHRO Helen Cunningham Travel Stories - Part 1

Updated: Sep 26, 2023

Navigating the Corporate World: A CHRO's Travel Stories with Her Trusted TMC

In the fast-paced world of business, few roles demand as much versatility and adaptability as that of a Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO), working for Inchcape, a multinational automotive distribution, retail and services company headquartered in London.

Recently, we had the privilege of sitting down with their exceptional CHRO, Helen Cunningham who not only oversees her company's HR strategies but also brings a combination of deep functional expertise and strong operational leadership to her role.

Helen Cunningham

Join us as we delve into her inspiring travel stories, the challenges she's encountered, and the strategies she's developed to maintain her equilibrium amidst her globetrotting adventures.

Q.1 As a frequent traveller across many regions and time-zones, you must have many stories to tell. You have a long-haul trip coming up tonight I believe?

I have and as we speak Blue Cube have just been liaising with me as there's a super typhoon about to hit Hong Kong. My team in HKG are liaising with yours on WhatsApp right now, as the BA flight has had to be cancelled tonight. I've got an app that takes me straight through to the HKG Observatory, that monitors the weather and it's not looking good. This is a big trip, as I'm visiting our markets in APAC and agendas will need to be moved - so, we have to now prioritise what's really critical and what can be pushed back. So, my thoughts are how do we adapt and what's really critical from the market visit point of view.
travel management

Q.2 You certainly seem to be taking it in your stride and this brings me to my next question. What is life like for a CHRO who has to travel so frequently to other offices across the world?

When you're working for an international company it's really important to get out to your markets. We may take these visits for granted at the Group Exec Level but for our 20,000 plus colleagues, they want to see the the most senior leadership on the ground. It's easy to say, it's such a long way away, do they really want someone from group coming out? But they do - it's very much part of our culture. They want us to spend time listening and understanding what their problems are and equally the opportunities open to them. There's a real sense of pride in each case, people really own their agenda and want to share it. We work transparently across our markets and this is driven right from the top from our CEO. Any problems they have we will work through them together as a team. So, going out to our markets is a very important part of my job.

Q.3 So, travel is key in terms of facilitating teamwork and networking within the organisation?

Yes, and during the pandemic it was really difficult, as it would have been for many industries with an international framework. We couldn't do these visits as much as we needed to. So, towards the end of 2022 we were playing quite a bit of catch up. Many of our markets, particularly in APAC, didn't come out of full lockdown for many months after other markets had opened. So, we've had a flurry of market activity in that region. Now that's settling down, I now need to look at our re-visiting our other markets - The Americas, Chile, Barbados, Columbia - but, as we said earlier, I have to go out to APAC tomorrow and meet with senior leaders in Hong Kong first. A lot of our markets are widely spread and very far away but it's very much part of our culture to be on the ground. So, travel is the norm.

travel management

Q.4 With all your diary commitments and travelling, how do you juggle everything and how do you prepare for a trip? Do you have help?

I have my brilliant Executive Assistant Fiona, who manages my diary very tightly, to the point where she will reprimand me if I try to squeeze something else in! Her and I communicate frequently every day, we email, WhatsApp, SMS, every few hours if we need to. So, diary management is very much co-ordinated through Fi. She understands the big meetings that can't be moved - board or executive, financial reviews. From the point of view of my own agenda, the people or HR priorities, I will know the markets where I want to get a bit closer to the detail. That may be that we are about to make an acquisition, or we've made an acquisition and we're now at the on-boarding or integration phase. Then, it will be about prioritising my diary dates. We try to plan at least a quarter in advance as some meetings are fixed monthly throughout the whole year. So diary management is a big one for me.

Q.5 It sounds like you have a lot of meetings and, a lot of logistics to manage once you arrive at your destination. So, typically - if there is anything typical - how long would a trip last and, once you arrive, do you have a lot of other flights planned to other markets?

Well, if I go to Europe, that's just like me going next door, it's just a quick-hop flight. I went to Greece in May which was just under a 3 hour flight, so for a trip like that I would typically go for 3 days. That's enough to do a deep dive market visit, to maybe have a Town Hall, where I'm talking about some people priorities, maybe a breakfast with some of the high-potential early careers teams. On the other hand, I can do a big trip like I did in February - which was Singapore, Australia, New Zealand - then, it's likely I will be away for 2 weeks.
From a work-life balance point of view, my mind-set is if you're going to do a long-haul trip with multiple stops, then it's best to get it out of the way. Then, I can just focus - I know I'm away for a certain amount of time and so do my family. You just have to manage time zones and jet-lag. Luckily, I don't suffer with jet-lag but some people do and would rather do a trip to say North America, come back and then go out to Japan. Personally, I would do that in one trip.

This extract from our recent interview with the CHRO of Inchcape gives us a glimpse into the dynamic world of corporate leadership, where international travel is a fundamental aspect of driving global HR strategies. It showcases the adaptability and resilience that leaders like Helen must possess to succeed in a rapidly evolving business landscape.

Stay tuned for more stories from Helen Cunningham, where we continue to explore her world of business, her journeys and the insights they offer.

Phone: +44(0) 208 948 8188

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