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“IQ only gets you so far as a leader – EQ gets you all the way”

“IQ only gets you so far as a leader – EQ gets you all the way”

Tourism Australia’s MD Phillipa Harrison on empathy, conflict and choosing discomfort.

BY Lucy Cheek, 8 min READ

Leadership at the best of times isn’t easy. But leading during a global crisis – when you’re Tourism Australia’s new boss, no less – well, it’s enough to make you want to stick your head in the sand … on a beach that no tourists can visit due to travel restrictions.

Despite scoring her dream gig just months just before Australia was engulfed by bushfires and then COVID – leaving her industry shattered – Phillipa Harrison kept her chin up and got on with the job.

In our recent Career Files virtual event (brought to you by our friends at RMIT Online), here’s what Phillipa had to say about leading during tough times. 

It’s OK to fall apart sometimes

This is the worst time the tourism industry has ever seen. For 15 months we’ve worked in crisis mode non-stop, and our team have all had their own moments to fall apart. But because we’re a strong team, there’s always someone to step up when you need to step back. You can’t go 15 months without self-care. I think we’re on the cusp of a great new era of leadership where you can be authentic and genuine and stand up and say, “You know what? Today is a really tough day, and I need you guys to give me a hand.” The world needs that sort of leadership right now. It’s great to see that coming through.

Authenticity is a superpower

For me, the poster child for leadership is Jacinda Ardern – she’s the most authentic, genuine, high-profile leader I’ve seen. That sort of leadership is where I operate. I don’t have a lot of time for being formal and inauthentic, it doesn’t resonate with me – I can’t do my job If I’m not being authentic and that has really resonated with my team.

Conflict is crucial

I strongly believe a collaborative approach is crucial for getting a better result.

But if everyone in our leadership team was the same and we all had groupthink, we wouldn’t have good outcomes. We do have people that have different views and one of the things we’ve had to do as a leadership team – because we’ve been in crisis and have had to make so many decisions – is set guidelines on how to ‘disagree well’. It’s not all ‘kumbaya’ and toasting marshmallows around the fire at work; we do have conflict and it does go too far at times. But we’ve learnt how to disagree so it’s constructive. Disagreement is hugely important.

Don’t be tone deaf when it comes to consumers

As the crisis rolled on, we sat down and asked, what is the tone and timing of the message we want to send to our consumers? Because when everyone is going into lockdown, they’re wondering where the toilet paper is, not where they’re going to go on holidays. Then, when they’re in the middle of lockdown, they might be starting to dream about a holiday, so your messaging can change. You can’t be tone deaf when it comes to your consumer, and you need a framework for making these decisions.

IQ only gets you so far

I fall back on empathy a lot. When I did my MBA we studied emotional intelligence and it was so interesting. IQ only gets you so far as a leader but EQ (emotional intelligence) is what gets you all the way – it’s such an underrated currency. You need to try to understand where people are coming from. Some of our stakeholders aren’t happy with what we’re doing at the moment; we respond by being empathetic but also communicating why we’ve made that hard decision.

Hire ‘25 degrees and sunny’ people

Hard skills also only get you so far; I always look at someone’s outlook and attitude when I’m hiring someone. It’s hard in an interview, so I do that by references – speaking to people who have worked with them. When the honeymoon is over and the chips are down, you want problem solvers, and someone who is going to be ’25 degrees and sunny’ – a positive person can make all the difference!

Go for discomfort

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood outside a room, taken a deep breath, put on a smile and walked into a place where I didn’t know anyone – completely outside of my comfort zone. Often, as females, we won’t put ourselves out there until we’re 99% sure, even though we have the ability. I say go for it – push yourself and be uncomfortable.

There’s always a silver lining

For us at Tourism Australia, the silver lining to COVID is that people are discovering their own backyard. But Aussies travel differently domestically and don’t explore as much – they often ‘fly and flop’! Our marketing campaigns are not so much about the destination but what you can do – we’re encouraging people to go on a walking holiday or swim with whale sharks instead of flopping on a beach. I was diving at the Great Barrier Reef last week and it dawned on me that we have a whole world under the water. It’s something we shouldn’t take for granted here in Australia.


This event was made possible thanks to our friends at RMIT Online. If you’re a next-gen leader who sees themselves at the forefront of new tech, digital, and the evolving future of work, then the RMIT Online’s MBA is for you. It’s 100% online, full of the latest insights, and gives you the flexibility to go deep in areas including Design Thinking, Tech, Innovation, Leadership and Project Management.


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