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How I Lead: James Thornton, CEO Intrepid Travel

The CEO of Intrepid Travel shares his leadership style and insights from almost two decades with the global travel brand.

It didn’t take James Thornton long to realise purpose and passion were deal-breakers when it came to finding the right job. He found a perfect match in Intrepid Travel, where purpose is the driving force of success. Here he reflects on his unique leadership style and his experience at the world’s largest adventure travel company.

Taking the road less travelled

The only thing I was interested in at school was sport. But it turned out I wasn’t good enough to be a professional. So, after university, I joined a private asset management company in London. Because getting a good job in the corporate world was what you were supposed to do, right? That’s what meant you were successful.

Well, that wasn’t the case for me and I realised it pretty quickly. The idea of spending the next 40 years making rich people richer? I just couldn’t face it. I knew I had to find something I was passionate about and wanted to work hard at — that seemed much closer to my idea of being successful. 

So in 2005, when I came across a small Australian travel company called Intrepid, I was immediately curious. At the time, it was turning over about $30 million and mostly taking Australians to Southeast Asia on adventure holidays. But it was growing in the UK, which is where I’m from, and travel was a huge interest for me. An evolving, entrepreneurial travel-focused company conveniently in need of UK-based people? It was a perfect opportunity.  And I had the thought in the back of my mind that I could always return to the corporate world in a few years if I had to. 

I never did. Eighteen years later and now based in Australia, I’m the first non-founding CEO of Intrepid Travel. 

I’ve been back and forth between the UK and Australia over those years and have held roles including EMEA Regional Manager, General Manager Global Sales, and Managing Director. It hasn’t been the career journey I pictured way back when the corporate world seemed like the obvious choice. But I’m loving it.

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‘Casual intensity’ as a leadership style? It’s not as contradictory as it sounds

I’m a marathon runner. So I’m competitive and very driven. But I also try not to take myself too seriously. And it’s these apparently contradictory qualities that feed into my leadership style, which I call one of casual intensity. I’m laid-back and approachable but I’m also determined to make Intrepid the best company it can be by making consistent, incremental improvements. Rather than negating each other, these qualities actually complement each other and lend themselves to another aspect of leadership I think is critical: curiosity.

It’s about listening. Too many leaders tend to lead with their own voice and to avoid doing that I try to spend plenty of time with our teams and with our customers. Our customer service agents are talking to customers every day — no one has a better idea of what customers are interested in and what they want — so getting feedback from them is so valuable. And I head out on trips a couple of times a year because it’s the best way to really understand what we do and get insight into the on-the-ground experience of our customers and our tour leaders.

But then, for all that listening and attentiveness and inquisitiveness, you also have to be prepared to act and make decisions. Sometimes they’re wrong, and I have to own them when they are. But you can’t stop making decisions because paralysis can kill a company. So you keep moving forward, even if it means making mistakes along the way.

This ethos of casual intensity also manifests in the expectations I hold, not just for myself, but for my team as well. It’s a careful balance: our people are given space to be creative, curious and experimental but in return they should also be accountable for their performance and achievements.

Values aren’t just for show — how we walk our talk

Our mission at Intrepid Travel is to create positive change through the joy of travel and our trips are connected with local community groups and nonprofits all around the world. We offer sustainable, experience-rich travel that engages meaningfully with the places and people we visit. 

That sustainable, authentic and meaningful approach isn’t just for the people who travel with us. It’s reflected across all our operations. 

We have a strong climate action plan, for instance, which includes using science-based targets to reduce emissions, investing in green deposits, and offsetting our unavoidable emissions. And we’re working hard on our Reconciliation Action Plan having recently completed the Innovate stage.

Part of my job as a leader is to constantly reinforce these values and sense of purpose through consistent internal communications and connecting with our teams all over the world.

And that can be a real challenge. We have 25 offices around the world which means being on calls from 7am to 11pm and requires careful and close collaboration across departments and regions. 

But it’s also one of the best parts of the job. Just recently I was in our Colombo Office in Sri Lanka where I got to meet just some of the driven and motivated people from across our global business who are living our purpose and delivering impact for their customers, communities and colleagues. It reaffirmed that being a truly purpose driven business is a team effort.

How a strength of purpose can be a powerful driver of productivity

Our sense of purpose drives our employee engagement strategy and has helped us attract top talent, including our legal and general counsels and our CFO, who previously worked at  ASX 100 listed companies and advisory roles. These high-performers have told me that they want to work for us because of what we stand for as a company — that motivation extends across all roles in the business. 

We also align one annual company goal directly to purpose every year. So yes, we measure bookings, revenue, profits, customer NPS, employee NPS and all those other standard commercial metrics. But we also measure the success of our purpose-driven goal and reward employees based on delivery of that goal. This year, for example, our goal is to raise $2 million for our not-for-profit entity, The Intrepid Foundation

In this way, we really embed expectations about purpose and productivity into an employee’s KPIs and job description. 

For example, we offer a number of powerful differentiators. This includes five extra days of leave beyond their annual leave for staff to take a free trip and see up close the impact of the work they do. Or, our employee share scheme which allows employees to actually own part of our business. When the business is productive and successful, they benefit through the payment of dividends and growth in the share price. By the end of May this year, we will have over 500 staff shareholders around the world who collectively own nearly 10% of Intrepid. 

We also have annual engagement surveys, regular pulse checks so we can identify issues and make improvements and review our annual short-term incentives. 

In 2018 we became a certified B Corporation, a designation that verifies that our business has met high standards around performance, accountability and transparency. We were then recertified again in 2021 with an even higher score. In the four years since our certification, we’ve seen record top and bottom line results — powerful proof that being commercially successful and driven by purpose are complementary rather than one being at the cost of the other. We want the best experience for our customers and our employees and our strength of purpose helps us deliver that — especially combined with platforms like Marketing and Service Cloud. When we can offer more personalised and holistic customer service and enable our teams to act faster and with greater confidence, everyone wins.

Intrepid employees are encouraged to take part in our tours. I participate a couple of times a year — it’s a great way to get insight into the on-the-ground experience of our customers and our tour leaders.

Earning a PhD in resilience

These last few years have been tough. But I can confidently say that having a strong purpose has helped see us through the pandemic and put us in a strong position to cope in an uncertain economy. The pandemic was the ultimate test of our purpose-driven business model but with our values as our North Star, we built the resilience we needed to get through. And now, on the other side of it, we’re growing again and have recorded our highest ever sales months in January and February. We’ve found that the more we do good work in the purpose space, the more we grow. And the more we grow, the more we can do good work in the purpose space. 

Research shows that truly purpose-driven companies tend to be more agile, resilient, and innovative — and financially outperform organisations that are not. And Intrepid is a great example of this. Having purpose at the centre of your business doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong culture of performance delivery. I feel this also as a purpose-driven leader who is motivated by wanting to win but also wants to have fun and do good at the same time. It circles back to that leadership style of casual intensity. There is room, and should be room, for both.

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Salesforce Staff

The 360 Blog from Salesforce teaches readers how to improve work outcomes and professional relationships. Our content explores the mindset shifts, organizational hurdles, and people behind business evolution. We also cover the tactics, ethics, products, and thought leadership that make growth a meaningful and positive experience.

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