Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

Green - who would fire her first work emails at 5.30am - told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
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The Independent Online

When Harriet Green was announced as the new chief executive of Thomas Cook, shares in the struggling holiday firm fell. They did so again this week, when her abrupt departure from the helm was disclosed.

In between times, Thomas Cook was revived, refocused and refinanced – and, for the City and the wider world, Green transformed from being an unknown quantity to a whirlwind yoga fanatic who was quick to dispense modern management truths.

In less than two years, she became a poster girl for women business leaders: less homespun and dry-witted than Dame Marjorie Scardino, once at education group Pearson, and more accepting of the glare of publicity than cigar-puffing Alison Cooper at Imperial Tobacco.

She stood out because she told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on, that getting hired required "us to get off our bottoms and not wait for someone to call us".

Green practised what she preached at Thomas Cook, writing to Frank Meysman, the chairman, telling him she had the skills he was looking for. "I felt I had enough experience, that I would be pacy, resilient and be able to generate belief," she told me.

She was similarly decisive in choosing her husband of 10 years, Graham, with whom she has two 20-something step-children.

When I first met Green, which must have been four years earlier, it was clear she was going somewhere, if not specifically into the travel industry.

At the time, she was in charge at Premier Farnell, trying to sprinkle some dotcom magic on to a dusty distributor of just-in-time electronic components such as microchips and batteries. She had served a hard apprenticeship to get this far, working on four continents, often taking the jobs "that the Goldenballs didn't want to do".

 

There was a sense that she offered something different, down to the staff motivation techniques such as judging the kids' fancy dress contest on family days.

All this was before I knew the truth: that the hard-driving Green could get by on a Thatcher-like four hours sleep a night, and well before she came up with such management gems as describing herself as a "landa", a cross between a lion and a panda. "I can roar, make things happen, (be) incredibly aggressive and assertive. But I can also be a big panda – big eyes, big hugs."

Green achieved something similar at Thomas Cook, restoring confidence in an organisation that still booked 25 million customers a holiday when it was in the depths of a financial crisis.

When I interviewed her about this latest turnaround, she sat coiled like a cat, sipping green tea, with her leg going 19 to the dozen as if she had been mainlining espressos, before describing to me new shops that looked "a lot more Apple than travel".

That women have to act like men to get on in Corporate Britain is a nonsense. That we are still fascinated by those that break through the glass ceiling is a function of them still being the exception, not the rule.

The Green model was to work faster and harder than anyone else. Those 5.30am emails were not to everyone's tastes internally, it seems. But there is no doubt that her phone will have been ringing with new opportunities.

Green has fierce ambitions for her own career. Some read that last Thomas Cook press interview, when she invited a journalist to join her in the early hours one morning on the yoga mat, as a glossy job application for an as-yet-unknown role.

But she was also keen to inspire the next generation of female business leaders who are still in the classroom. If Green's rise to prominence has encouraged schoolgirls to dream about life beyond becoming a pop star, she will be secretly pleased.

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