Tara Russell hit the jackpot in 2013. The CEO of Carnival Cruises asked her to lead a new brand, Fathom, for the largest cruise line in the world. He wanted her to build the first "social impact" cruise experience where travelers could go ashore and volunteer in local communities to work on projects like planting trees, making chocolate, and creating life-saving water filters.
Coming from landlocked Idaho, Russell had never worked in travel, much less on board a ship. As a passenger on board Fathom’s inaugural cruise in April, I was struck by how she introduces colleagues by sharing their superpower. She prides herself on being able to quickly identify the superpowers in other people—then to challenge and empower them to embrace them. It is, in fact, her superpower, and it became the de facto purpose of Fathom—waking up the superhero powers in their travelers. Since its founding, the cruise line has taken 700 travelers per week from Miami to two destinations in the Caribbean: first to the Dominican Republic and then to Cuba, in April 2016, after President Obama eased some of the travel restrictions to Cuba.
Russell was a natural athlete and played on multiple teams growing up. "I was always sort of the person on the team who became the team captain, whether designated or not." She would be the first to encourage other team members. She would "notice what their unique skill set was, on the field or off court or whatever the sport may have been."
Her first job was in her small-town sporting goods store, where she found herself taking a different approach to selling shoes and sports gear than the rest of the team. As an athlete who used the products herself, she married "the technical knowledge with really listening to the needs of a customer coming in and talking about their narrow feet problems or how every shoe they wear their heel slips."
This is the same approach she applied when she took on the Fathom role. She took six months with her team interviewing potential customers around the country to gain the insights needed to design the Fathom experience. "We spent a lot of time understanding the stories of people. Trying to gather the themes and points of tension. Really hunt for the right insight and opportunities and turn those into development concepts."
As a veteran social entrepreneur and founder of Create Common Good, she could see "that the world was hungering for meaningful opportunities to improve themselves, and improve the world around them by being part of a like-minded community." What she found while conducting her listening tour, however, was an insight that no other mainstream travel business had tapped.
They began their interviews by asking people to tell a travel-related story about a trip they had done to an unfamiliar place. "What we found is that many people talked kind of victoriously about situations where they were making differences that others might find pretty horrific. After they’d come through them." She recalls stories about amazing experiences people had where they did things like not sleep for four days straight. Rather than seeing them as horror stories, they instead spoke of their incredible value, and how such impact-oriented trips stood out from the typical trips to Hawaii. Upon reflection, they all shared how they had grown from these tough experiences.
In Marvel’s X-Men comic book series, Professor X runs a school for the gifted, a school for emerging superheroes. He trains them to get in touch with their powers, harness them for good, and connect with people who share their gifts. Russell has recreated this at sea with her ship becoming a school for purpose-driven people and casting herself as Professor X.
The Fathom trip from Miami to the Dominican Republic is roughly two days of travel each way. Russell and her team want travelers to return home having connected with their superpowers and with the courage and direction to think a little bit differently about their lives within their own family, their own community, their own workplace. The days are packed with sessions for travelers that "teach people basics of design thinking and how it can then improve all kinds of areas of their life."
On shore, travelers pack their days with challenging volunteer projects. On the inaugural cruise, my daughter and I helped manufacture chocolate bars and process recycled paper for women’s co-ops and create water filters to fight water-borne disease. Other travelers taught English in schools and reforested the hills. They are small contributions but connect travelers to real-world issues and awaken a sense of purpose in people.
As the head of Fathom, Russell not only challenges and celebrates her travelers, she applies the same human-centered approach to her management. She has built the culture around authentic human connection and understanding the strengths and challenges of everyone working to support the Fathom experience. It begins with her view of work and its role in our lives.
Since the age of eight, Russell recalls seeing work as so much more than a job or paycheck. Attending a family friend’s summer camp that aimed to empower young people to become leaders, Russell remembers seeing her parent’s friends "pouring into these young people. This was their work, this was their job. They always poured into me." She began to see "work as more of living our own kind of gifts, talents, abilities, and purpose."
To build a human-centered culture, she has set the norm that all meetings begin with everyone sharing a win of the week. "It can be personal and it can be professional. Sharing a moment. It provides experiences for our team to build and understand the lives and worlds of each other." Every week they send around a baby photo of an employee and everyone has to guess the employee. The employee then gets to share their story, their context and origin story as superheroes.
I saw her on board the ship crying publicly on multiple occasions. Not out of the frustration, but out of the joy and inspiration of hearing the transformation of the people around her and their commitment to her vision for Fathom. Every time she talked about the efforts of her team to launch Fathom, she teared up. She shared a story about a Dominican woman who worked at one of the sites Fathom’s travelers served and how it had given her economic independence. Her eyes welled up again as she told the story. She is investing all of herself in the business but is getting so much more in return in the incredible purpose she gains for the work.
One of the most important insights gained by listening to her cast of superheroes in training was that the greatest potential for Fathom is, as she says, acting as a "software rather than hardware" operation. In other words, it isn’t the ship that defines the product, it is the experience.
This makes Fathom much more than a cruise line to Russell. It is a vision for unleashing 11 million superheroes on the world to be conscious parents, leaders, employees, and citizens. It helps them discover and love what is special within them and see opportunities for impact in every direction. She has done something few leaders have done successfully. She has fallen in love with her customers instead of her product.
Aaron Hurst is a globally recognized entrepreneur and authority on social innovation. He is the CEO of Imperative and founder of the Taproot Foundation. His book, The Purpose Economy, is now available as a paperback.
[Photos: via Fathom]