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Festive Road’s, Sean Melchionno, shares his thoughts, learnings and experiences of the 2023-2024 Global Business Travel Association Ladders Season.

The Ladders program, a unique mentoring and professional development experience, held its 10th season this year and focused on a theme of ‘Radical Collaboration’.

But I had a different take on the program goal. My first impression of Ladders was of competition. I was signing up to a group project, which I’d spend 3-4 months of my life on, in the hope of winning the bragging rights of being this season’s victor.

I certainly learned that this impression was wrong.

Yes, there is a competitive element to Ladders, but it is so much more than reaching that final pitch and being crowned winner. As with anything in life, you get out what you put in. And Ladders is no exception. I realised very quickly that if I wanted to take away more than bragging rights and a crown, I needed to immerse myself in the process and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Here are my 5 learnings from this season:

Being vulnerable

I’ve worked as an analyst in travel for over 10 years. I’ve worked hard to become a subject matter expert and I’m good at what I do.

But Ladders turned that on its head.

I suddenly found myself so out of my depth, discussing sustainability, tax breaks for businesses and government funding on a global level. Nothing like the knowledge I’d amassed over the past decade.

Becoming a ‘newbie’ again is challenging. I’m a confident public speaker, but realised that was when I knew my subject inside out. Now I was having to present on a new subject, all too aware that there were others in my team, and on the program, whose knowledge far surpassed my own.

But do you know what? I did it.

I realised that as long as you deliver with confidence, you’ll be fine. The panel didn’t know I was quaking in my boots. I had all the information, I knew what I was doing and I had a team to support me. I just needed to trust myself and trust that I could step away from my safety subject and lean into a new one.

That level of vulnerability is hard. And it’s not something you get the chance to experience day to day. But it was a huge learning experience for me.

It’s all about balance

I’m not going to sugar coat it – committing to Ladders while working a full time role, as well as having family and personal commitments shouldn’t be taken lightly.

Boundaries are incredibly important to me, and I fiercely protect my personal time, however over the course of Ladders I found myself logging on at weekends to catch up or get a jump on the coming week.

What I realised was that I needed to develop my prioritising skills. Yes, I broke boundaries, but it helped me understand my priorities. I can’t be everything to everyone, so I asked what truly holds value and where do I need to put my energy?

By participating in the balancing act that is work, life and Ladders, you realise what matters in the grand scheme of things.

Freedom to dream

While I work with two incredibly innovative and creative businesses, I have always worked within constraints – be that time, resource, skill set, essentially realistic parameters that every business is constricted by.

But here, those parameters disappeared.

We were encouraged to dream big, limitless dreams. Rather than thinking one step ahead, Ladders challenged us to think 10 steps ahead, to truly innovate without worrying about the practicalities and realities of the ideas you were creating. You were given permission to unlock your brain and think like you’d never thought before.

And it was fun! Work is often black and white – especially in data analytics, but here there was no wrong or right, just the freedom to build a common message that aligned to the Ladders theme. We could go anywhere and dream of anything. It was truly liberating.

Connection with others

The Ladders program is renowned for its networking. It is one of the key drivers for many participants and a huge tangible benefit of completing the program.

However, I think there’s even more to it.

Ladders is designed to help you show yourself to others and drive change. This can be daunting, and sometimes really hard to do. But again – you get out what you put in, and I wanted to grow and develop in this area, so I went all in.

You’re around so many like-minded people, connecting with travel industry stakeholders – all of them honest people doing earnest work.

I met people who I wouldn’t have previously crossed paths with and can honestly say I started the process with seven new teammates and have left with seven new friends. But more than this, I learned that the main point of a team is to build each other up and make things happen.

My teammates, my mentors, the other participants, all of them contributed to my growth and development. I learned to look beyond role and job title, building deeper connections beyond what people were saying, and into what they were doing.

For me, this was the main takeaway. Aligned to the theme of ‘Radical Partnerships’, I saw the distinction between working relationships and radical partnerships, something I will be continuing to cultivate across my work and home life.

Challenging yourself

If you want a challenge as a professional, this is the place to do it. It’s a way to keep evolving and innovating, something which can fall to the wayside day to day.

To truly get the most tangible benefits from your time, you have to fully embrace the challenge. Throughout the project I kept on thinking “This is just a 15-minute presentation. Why is it so hard?”

And that’s the point.

It isn’t just a 15-minute presentation. It’s a journey, a learning and development opportunity and a brand new way to challenge yourself.

Ultimately, it’s all about growth

For me, Ladders is about growth. Growth as an individual, growth of your skill sets and growth of knowledge. I chose to put myself in a new, scary and uncomfortable place and learned so much from that decision.

Ladders re-emphasizes the phrase “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part that counts.”

And it’s true. While I wasn’t part of the final four teams that got to present at the year-end Summit, I still feel that in a personal and professional capacity, I won.

I got out what I put in and I’m a better person for it.

Whether you’re a rookie or a seasoned travel vet, if you want a new challenge, want to grow in ways you never imagined and build some truly remarkable partnerships along the way, I can’t recommend Ladders highly enough. And thank you to Festive Road for sponsoring this season and supporting employees to participate as mentees and mentors.

To find out more about GBTA Ladders and how the program supports the development of people in business travel, click here.