Apple picking days: Flight Centre’s Graham Turner on his path to leadership

Apple picking days: Flight Centre’s Graham Turner on his path to leadership


“The people around me all believed, and we were in the right place at the right time, and we were all really focused on us growing and becoming a large operation. We were pretty ambitious.”

While some people are content running a small business, Turner always had bigger plans. Flight Centre is now in 11 countries and is led by a team of 12 key people.

“I can’t run it all from here… Now I’m really just there as a bit of a figure head.”

Before being a leader, Turner says you have to “really think about it”.

“A lot of people aspire to leadership without thinking about it much. Some people have the genes to want to lead and have the ability to lead a business, but generally the majority of people weren’t meant to lead.

“You can learn to become better at your strengths and lessen your weaknesses, but that’s really a learning experience over a long period of time. If leadership is stressful for you, then it’s probably not something you should be doing.”

In terms of formal leadership training, Turner says it’s uncommon for Australian business leaders to have completed any tertiary courses like a Masters of Business Administration or equivalent.

“You can never say there are not useful things to be gained by doing a course.

“As far as we know, we don’t have any leaders at Flight Centre with an MBA,” he says.

Leadership, Turner says, is a combination of the right genes, desire, focus and discipline.

“Everyone can make great plans, but keeping focus on the plan and having the discipline to implement them is crucial and it’s something a lot of people don’t have.”

He says leadership in a business is ultimately a team effort: “The really important thing is having the right people in the right roles.

“You’ll never get it right all the time, but we have about 15,000 full-time employees and I certainly can’t manage that on my own. You need other people who can run the business and lead the people.”

In 2002, Turner stood aside from the day-to-day operations of Flight Centre, a move he says was motivated by internal company pressures, but in 2005 he returned as chief executive.

“In a public company you always get harassed about succession and I agreed to move toward succession. Thinking back, I have no idea why now.

“It didn’t work for a variety of reasons, but the board likes to think they have someone up their sleeves that could lead the company should something happen.”

However, Turner says this isn’t how businesses should treat succession planning.

“You should have a dozen people who can take over the business, not one, but you shouldn’t do anything about it until your chief executive is actually run over by a bus.

Turner says Flight Centre has faced many challenges over the years.

“There have been challenges all along the way, but one of the first was getting into shopping centres; now it’s the fact that we’re paying too much rent.

“The industry becoming licensed in the late ‘80s was another challenge, as this wasn’t a good thing. We managed to get rid of it, but it took 25 years to get used to the bureaucracy.”

For the past 30 years, Turner says his role within the business has changed every five or six years.

“You have to adapt and grow. We’re still aiming for reasonable growth, so in five years we’ll be a different organisation. My role as chief executive will be different in five years’ time to what it is now because the company will be maybe double the size and it will be a fair bit more diverse.”

Turner says his best advice to aspiring business leaders is to be “flexible, disciplined and persistent”.

“If you expect too much too soon it will be difficult for you; also realise you have the ability and the desire to be a leader.

“Some people are better as technicians and professionals than leaders. A lot of people think being a leader or starting their own business is everything, but that’s not always the case and if you’re lucky enough to be in a business where your work is valued, there are a lot of great opportunities to grow your capabilities within a business.”


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