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CMO to CEO: How Intrepid Travel’s Sarah Clark is balancing sustainability, diversity and personality in the pursuit of growth

Sarah Clark


Tweaking your leadership style to suit diverse personalities across an organisation and being ok with people not liking you are vital attributes marketers must develop if they’re to become successful leaders.

That’s the view of Intrepid Travel A/NZ managing director, Sarah Clarke, who caught up with CMO to discuss the shift from marketing leader to general management, what it’s going to take to lead people in the next phase of Covid-normal, and how sustainable growth can be achieved by leveraging the ability to say no.

Last month, Intrepid Travel confirmed Clark was back in the role of local MD after a one-year secondment building the group’s global accommodation strategy. She’s part of an all-female leadership team for Intrepid in A/NZ that includes GM marketing, Louise Laing; GM of inside sales and customer experience, Julie Ristevski: and GM of commerce and finance, Lauren McCormick.

Clark first took up the MD reins in 2018 after spending a year as Intrepid’s APAC GM of marketing. She’s built her career in the tourism trade, working her way up from Top Deck tour guide to reservations and sales, product marketing locally then globally and general management both in A/NZ as well as the northern hemisphere.

Along the way, a key leadership learning has been that you simply can’t worry about other people liking you.

“A quote on a coffee cup at one of my first international conferences said: The key to failure is trying to please everyone. I’ve kept that in the back of my mind the whole way through,” Clark says. “While you need to ensure you’re not being bullish, if you focus too much on trying to make people like you, you’ll lose focus on the job you are doing. Putting time into your relationships and making sure you’re being fair and a good person is one thing, but also there are personalities that will clash. You’re not going to be best mates with everyone at work. And that’s ok.”  

Understanding the wide assortment of personalities existing across an organisation can also be a big learning curve for those who have only been in marketing before, Clark says.

“Typically, the type of person in marketing is energetic, driven, extroverted. Whereas when you lead other areas like operations or functions, they may think differently. It’s about tweaking your leadership so you can work with lots of different types of personalities,” she advises. “It’s really important to have those different ways of thinking so you can operate as a business. If you all have ‘yellow’ personalities, a lot of which tend to be in marketing, you’ll miss potentially some attention to detail. You need to make sure in leadership style you are catering to all different personalities.”  

However, given the diversity of skills now existing in modern marketing teams, Clark sees this ability also becoming more important to the CMO. By way of example, she points out Intrepid’s structure of a global marketing support team, then regional marketing, reflects very different characteristics. The regional marketing focus is on digital, PR and partnerships, while global focuses on the website and owned channels, content and SEO and technical skills.

“Put those teams together and they’re vastly different. So I completely agree there are so many different teams within marketing now compared to 20 years ago,” Clark says. “It’s therefore the responsibility of marketing leaders to be giving your upcoming team members cross-skills. Because they are potentially being pigeonholed too much currently. You want to give them generalist skills so they can move up to the next level of leadership if they wish to.

“It’s awesome that we have specialisations. But understanding the whole ecosystem from a market perspective so our marketers are prepared to move up to the next level and lead a team that’s multi-faceted is critical. If we don’t do that, we will have major issues in marketing leadership in the future.”  

The 360-degree experience of travel

Clark has always been in the travel industry and she credits this 360-degree view as vital to her position today. She commenced as a tour guide with Top Deck while studying business tourism and marketing at university, before relocating to New Zealand for six months. That led to Europe, guiding for Top Deck then at HQ working on reservations and sales.

“One of the important things in tourism is understanding the business from all levels and doing all of these different roles,” Clark says. “I’m not someone who learns academically either, but more on the job; I gather new skills that way.”