Women in Business Q&A: Shelley Cline, President, TCS World Travel

Shelley Cline, President of TCS World Travel, joined the Seattle-based private jet travel company in 1993. For more than 20 years, Cline has contributed to the company's exceptional growth and establishing TCS World Travel as the world leader in private jet travel.

Cline started with the company in 1993 as a receptionist, her first career job after graduating college. Soon after, she served as the assistant to the former president where she assisted with trip planning, research, working with the sales team and hiring field staff. Cline also held management positions in operations and product development before becoming the president in 2007.

As president, Cline is responsible for hiring the best staff in the industry, upholding TCS World Travel's commitment to exceptional service and operational excellence. She ensures having the talent, resources and processes as top priority will lead to ongoing success. Cline's career accomplishments with TCS World Travel include the growth of the business, the company's rebranding, established key partnerships with National Geographic and Four Seasons, and successfully launching new products and trips.

Cline holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Colorado, Boulder. When she is not planning private jet trips around the world, Cline enjoys being outside, traveling and being with her two kids and husband.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I think growing up in Alaska had a big influence on the person I became. For one it's where I developed my love of the outdoors and adventure. But, it's also a state of extremes, where there are a lot of conflicting interests. I learned that to be successful in that environment, you really need to be able to hear and understand all perspectives and learn to compromise.

I learned a lot of this first hand from my Dad who was the head of the Audubon Society and World Wildlife Fund in Alaska. As an environmentalist, his goal was to help protect the natural spaces and wildlife that make Alaska so unique and special. His approach though was to build bridges with what might typically be seen as the "opposing" interests of oil companies, sporting industries, tourism and the local native corporations. He believed he would be more successful working together - and he was.

It had a lasting impression on me. You have to be open to different viewpoints, ideas and solutions. It really comes down to listening. It helped me to be successful in the travel industry where you're working with people who speak different languages and come from different cultural backgrounds with different values and perspectives. To achieve success, you must find common ground and work together.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at TCS World Travel?
I have a unique employment experience, in that I have worked for the same company for my entire career. I started at TCS right out of college. I have been lucky to serve in a variety of roles throughout the years, which has given me a varied background and a unique level of experience. This has helped me tremendously in my current role, which requires a deep understanding of the business, the work we do and how it impacts our travelers' experiences.

I started as the receptionist, which gives you the view of the things guests are calling and asking about--you are that first line of connection. Then I was the assistant to [founder and former president] T.C. Swartz for four years, which really gave me a great view of the overall business, especially as it relates to sales and marketing.

I was also responsible for hiring our field staff for a period of time, and I served as an operations program manager, then spent a big chunk of time in product development, helping design our itineraries and research new destinations and understanding what people want to do and where they want to go.

Having had such a long tenure at one business has given me a unique perspective. I have seen the company go through so many changes over the past 22 years and have experienced both the highs and lows. Not much fazes me anymore. I know that there will be future challenges, but that we will continue to navigate them successfully. A lot of that confidence comes from knowing that we have such an experienced, dedicated team.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at TCS World Travel?
I would probably start with the challenges - as successfully navigating them often leads to the highlights. Challenges are not in short supply in the travel industry. We operate programs all around the world to many remote destinations, so each year provides a new set of challenges.
There are the normal business challenges of being acquired by other companies, mergers, acquisitions, economic downturns and growth. Those can be tough times for any organization and require tough choices which often have an impact on valued members of your team. While we could always do things better, I think our unusually long tenure of employees, and the fact that many employees who have been laid off have re-joined the company, speak to what a great company we have -and that for me is a highlight.

The travel industry is also particularly impacted by global events like 9/11, political upheavals, natural disasters and medical emergencies like SARS and Ebola--all these things present unique challenges.

TCS has a particular advantage in this area as we have our own private jet and can re-route our programs - even at the last moment. Highlights come when you have to make a last minute change, for instance from visiting Egypt to Jordan, and the guests are surprised and delighted by the experience and awed by how you pulled it off. It takes a team effort to pull that off and it's extremely rewarding.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your industry?
You have to like change. Things are always changing, and it's often unpredictable so you need to be flexible, adaptable and quick on your feet.

It is a service industry and very much a people-focused industry, two areas in which women naturally excel. You have to listen to what people want and help them attain that. It's very simple. You're really helping people have the experiences that are important to them. The high- end travel market is highly customized and highly personal - so you really get an opportunity to connect with all kinds of people.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Be flexible and embrace change! Things are always changing. The quicker you accept it and adapt the more successful you will be. There is always more to learn. I've worked at the same company for 22 years, and I am still learning new things every day. I would also put "be a good listener" right at the top. You have to be open to listening and hearing a variety of perspectives to make truly good decisions.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
This is always a struggle, but a really important one. I make it a priority. For me, that means I actually schedule my personal/family time into my calendar. All the things I need and want to do are in one place. I plan it out and then do my best to stick to it.

I'm also working on putting away my phone and ipad away in the evenings when the family is together. It's become such a habit to be constantly connected - especially when you're working with people in all different time zones. Technology is so helpful in so many ways - but it's equally important to take a break from it be present in what's going on around you.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
This is hard because all women are different and we all have our own issues. In general, I think women are great communicators, but we tend to soften things so we don't hurt people's feelings and we might not be as direct as we can. It's been a struggle for me, but I've learned that it's important for people hear the honest truth- even if it's difficult - so they have an opportunity to do something about it.

I also think that women tend to take on too much. They want to be able to do everything and help everyone. You have to be able to say no and set limits for yourself. Being able to focus on doing few things really well is important.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
I think advice from mentors, is kind of like advice from your parents - you don't always want to listen to it when it's given to you - but you hear it and it actually gets in there and makes an impression and comes out later in life.

When I think about some of the key lessons I've learned and advice that I often give to my own team today, most of them are things I learned from my mentors, like TC. For example, hire people with the right attitude, you can teach/train skills but not attitude; challenge keeps people engaged; treat our guests like we would want to be treated; be sure that everything you do adds value--if it doesn't--don't do it; good now is better than perfect later; always be looking ahead at what's next, make time to be innovative and creative.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
I have always admired my Mom and her natural ability to connect with people. She's the type of person who makes those around her feel at ease and important. It doesn't matter if she's talking to the parking garage attendant or the mayor of Seattle, she has the same level of energy and enthusiasm with all kinds of people and is comfortable in all settings.

I was also lucky enough to meet marine biologist and National Geographic Explorer in Residence, Sylvia Earle. She has had such a long and successful career and I remember being struck by the level of enthusiasm, commitment and passion she still maintained for her field. Working to preserve the oceans could to some seem an ominous task and an uphill battle - but she seemed like such a positive person who celebrated the successes big and small and who is determined to "win" in the end. It was really inspiring to hear her talk and see her energy.

What do you want TCS World Travel to accomplish in the next year?
It is a big year for us as we launch our new TCS-branded 757 that we've been able to make many upgrades to, including Wi-Fi, improved onboard service and a more upscale design.

We have long said that we have the greatest product that no one has ever heard of. My goal for our business is to succeed in building greater awareness of our brand and our products, as well as of private jet travel in general. For those with the resources, there is truly no other way to see so much of the world than by private jet expedition.