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Why life outside work matters: Mark Logan, Skyscanner COO interviewed

Chess wisdom, emotional CPU & why life outside work matters; Skyscanner COO, Mark Logan

Mark Logan is known for encouraging staff to ‘take the initiative’. Interviewing him at our Edinburgh HQ on an autumn evening, Logan speaks in a warm, west coast Scottish accent with a gentle delivery. But be warned: Skyscanner’s COO leads like a General during a state of war and is ever mindful that to conquer a global market, you must enable, empower and energise your troops.

1. What attracted you to come and work at Skyscanner in the first place?

I was working for Cisco and wasn’t looking for a change, but I used to meet up regularly with Skyscanner CEO and co-founder Gareth Williams and share thoughts and ideas. I really liked what Gareth had done with Skyscanner, his achievements and foresight, but also his modesty. It was almost contradictory; a very ambitious vision, but a very understated individual. The more I talked to him, the more I wanted to help grow the company. Eventually, I decided to join; it was a difficult decision, but absolutely the right one.

2. Skyscanner has retained its start-up philosophy and feel. How important has this way of working been in Skyscanner’s success so far?

There are lots of models of governance that can work, but I firmly believe that any business is about the people. Everything flows from how fulfilled and engaged people feel. Although everybody knows that, it’s amazing how many businesses manage to screw that up and make people feel disenfranchised and ambivalent.

The problem comes with illusions of control; people think ‘if I control everything, we’ll get better results’. But if you focus on enablement rather than control, you get a lot more energy in a business.

We firmly believe in encouraging people to own their own job. It’s about trust. I want the business to be run by the people in the front line, not from some far off ivory tower. If you get people into the right frame of mind, they’ll take care of the rest. That’s the culture here.

3. How does the international mix of cultures shape the workplace at Skyscanner?

It makes it an inherently interesting place. Some people say you get all sorts of problems when you mix lots of different cultures together, but we get a lot more pluses than minuses. It creates a dynamic energy and we gain from expertise and knowledge from all corners of the planet. That’s a very important thing when you want to be a global player.

4. What advice would you give to people wanting to work at Skyscanner?

We need a blend of people; there’s no one archetype. But, we do need people who are willing to own decisions, assert a direction and make it happen. I like people who have a lot of interests outside of work. The most rounded and successful people tend to have lots of skills and expertise in areas other than their day job. Those kinds of people are never boring.

If you’re fully engaged with life by filling it with things you enjoy and excel at, this tends to be amplified in your work. But if you work all day, then go out with your colleagues, and talk about work all night, small irritations can become major issues and there’s a danger you lose perspective.

In short: try to be excellent at something that isn’t your job. (Read more: The Secret Life of Skyscanner: what we get up to after dark).

5. You’re known for your unorthodox leadership talks, where you have used warfare tactics, chess analogies, film excerpts and political debating as examples. Where do you get your ideas from?

A good business is about the people and the human activity that occurs in the workplace (the conflicts, the confidences and abilities to shape something) are seen in many other fields of human endeavour. For example in literature, film, or political debates (such as George Galloway Vs The US Senate) and games like chess, so you can dramatically increase your experience, faster than time is passing by studying the trials and tribulations of other people, then apply that wisdom to your job.

It’s more interesting to learn from human examples than classic management texts because they sometimes fail to capture the really enabling things: how humans exploit their abilities. It’s all about technique, but in the human, rather than corporate sense. It’s about how to bring about the outcome that you want.

6. What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in your career?

I’ve made thousands of mistakes, but two come to mind. When I was 29 the company I was with was acquired by Cisco where I became a director. As often happens, the situation for the acquired company can become quite challenging, and I found it a difficult environment to move in politically, so I was running at a very high ‘emotional CPU’.

I started to get ill, and it was affecting lots of other things in my life. But I kept doing that job as I didn’t know any better. I just assumed it was the norm for the senior level I was at. I was heading towards burn out and that was a big mistake.

If you find yourself running at 70+% emotional consumption, if you’re often gripped by a sense of stress and panic, you don’t sleep well, and you’re always thinking about work, you’re heading for a crash. At some points we all experience stress, but if that’s your constant running level, it’s ultimately disastrous. I learned that you need to make whatever changes are needed to get yourself out of that situation.

The other thing I learned was to never play a losing position for too long. If things aren’t working, you need to make a change. I had a tendency when I was younger to not regulate my emotional attachment to my role properly. I love working at Skyscanner; I have emotional attachment to my role and I very much enjoy it and care for the people I work with, but sometimes people cross over and it becomes a crusade and you lose the ability to step back.

Sometimes you have to change something big; your position, your job, your relationships perhaps. Sometimes we get into a situation where we can’t succeed, but we keep going down that path rather than changing it. I’ve made that mistake.

7. You’re known for your love of chess; in business, how many moves are you thinking ahead?

In chess there is what’s called the ‘tree of variations’. This is the many paths you could take, from any one point in the game. The famous Danish grandmaster Bent Larson once said ‘long variation, wrong variation’. People often think chess players calculate far ahead, but what Larson is saying is that in chess, as in life, the further you try and plan down the line, the more wrong you’re going to be because there is too much complexity to make an accurate prediction.

What a good chess player actually does is look for immediate to medium term ways to gain positional improvement, from where victory is more likely. So, how far do I calculate ahead? Not very far. I spend time constantly trying to get Skyscanner into a better position, step by step.

And I also want to maintain a certain level of entropy in the organisation, an overly regimented company usually stops innovating.

8. What are the biggest challenges for Skyscanner?

Belief. In this context, it’s the belief that a technology company outside of Silicon Valley can be globally very successful. When I joined Skyscanner, my first observation was, ‘this company is much, much better than it thinks it is’ and I think that we believe a little more in ourselves with every day that passes.

The second is the need to act. It’s good to believe, but you also have to act. The biggest risk is not acting; not doing. People can sometimes feel out of their depth and that can make you apprehensive about taking the big decisions. But it’s ok to be out of your depth if you remember that you can float. My experience is that people’s actual abilities are far greater than they think they are. I like the example of Winston Churchill. He was made of the same flesh and bone as all of us, but he just believed that he had a right to lead, and he was able to act and make decisions. Not every decision he made was right, but he acted when it was vital to do so.

At Skyscanner we’ve got people who are really smart, highly competent and have great experience and skills. We just have to enable people to act and encourage doing, and not worry that not every decision will always be the right one, 100% of the time.

Third is complacency. There’s a contradictory risk that, as we’re growing so quickly, we could make the mistake of taking growth for granted. Every year we see our revenue go up, but anything can happen; an ash cloud could ground flights for weeks; a new competitor could steal market share. So one of the areas that I’ll be concentrating on is ensuring that the company is very robust in the face of surprises.

9. Are you a beach bum, mountain man, or city slicker?

I don’t like lying on beaches, but I do like walking on them. There’s something about the energy of the sea and the smell of the salt air that attracts me.

10. Is there one place in the world that you’ve fallen in love with and keep returning to?

As a child, we used to regularly go to St Andrews in Scotland, as we couldn’t really afford to go abroad. I went back there recently and went for a walk on the beach and found myself going through so many lives; when my parents were young, when my sister was only two years old, when my brother was still alive and when I first had my own children. It brought back so many memories; I found it an extremely emotional experience. I’ve since been to lots of places abroad on holiday, but if I had to pick one place, it would be St Andrews as I have such a strong emotional response to it. When I go back there, I see all those lives.

11. What item do you never travel without?

I would really struggle without a book to read. I’m paperback all the way. Reading is an aesthetic experience, and kindles aren’t. I prefer the longevity and the three dimensional nature of the book. Also, my book is not going to run out of power after a zombie apocalypse strikes.

12. Have you ever experienced a ‘Holiday from Hell’?

Yes – I have had a couple, in the same location! I took my three boys out to Majorca, and the Icelandic ash cloud struck. At the time, the papers were saying it could be around for a year and there were no flights, which was worrying as there’s only so long a credit card will last. On top of that, one of my sons was then hit by a car whilst on his bicycle and had to go to hospital. It was just me with my boys so it was pretty stressful.

The second time was when I took my boys back to Majorca, because other than the ash cloud and car incident, we’d had a good time! But each of my boys got severe vomiting and diarrhoea. For the littlest one, it kicked in just as we were heading back to the airport in the hire car. Between checking in and getting to security he was sick four times. He managed to stabilise just before we got on the plane, but it was a fairly hellish experience and I was totally drained from that trip.

Would I go back to Majorca? Perhaps it will be a case of third time lucky…

CxO,, People