“Get comfortable being uncomfortable”: IHG’s Leanne Harwood on creating a sustainable work culture

Christian Fleetwood

Christian Fleetwood

The regional boss of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG) believes business leaders must encourage staff to make bold decisions in the face of “an unprecedented period of growth” across the industry.

Speaking at Travel DAZE 2019 in Sydney last week, Leanne Harwood said the best can be brought out of teams when they are given the opportunity to take risks and make “uncomfortable choices”.

“I have a bit of a mantra that I drive my team’s absolutely crazy with. It’s get comfortable being uncomfortable, because that is when absolute magic happens,” she told attendees.

Leaders must look for passion over experience, nurture diversity and inclusion, and encourage staff at all levels to be bold and to stand up for their beliefs, if they are to be sustainable into the future, according to Harwood.

“Let’s face it, hotels have traditionally been the domain of white, middle-aged men. And I’m on a mission to change that, because quite frankly it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

“We have to have a diverse landscape and a diverse organisation.”

Leanne Harwood, regional managing director Intercontinental Hotel Group, speaking at Travel DAZE 2019
Leanne Harwood, regional managing director of IHG, speaking at Travel DAZE 2019

Citing “an unprecedented period of growth” currently being felt across the industry, Harwood said IHG, and hospitality more widely, must think about things differently, to “attract, develop and retain” talent.

Fast-tracking young professionals to leadership roles, helping women to rise by mentoring and embracing passion, and seeking counsel from diversity and inclusion councils, in order to nurture equitable workplaces, are some of the ways that IHG is ensuring this, according to the group’s Australasia and Japan MD.

But Harwood, who is championing Millennials and gender equality in her workforce, revealed she doesn’t believe in quotas or numbers to facilitate diversity. Instead, she favours a broader culture of inclusion.

“Diversity is about asking people to the party. Inclusion is about asking people to dance,” she said.

Harwood also revealed why IHG incorporated the innovative concept of a “shadow board” – a group of 12 young, non-executive employees who work with senior executives on strategic initiatives.

The shadow board are there to “keep my leadership team uncomfortable,” she said. “They are there to challenge us… ask us difficult questions … to turn around and make sure we’re not a bunch of old dinosaurs.”

Although the initiative was only brought into the organisation last month, Harwood said she has seen enormous enthusiasm from employees to be part of it and within hotels.

Outside of creating sustainable work cultures, IHG recently announced it will remove all single-use plastic amenities from its hotels. Harwood revealed this will occur across 5,700 properties worldwide by 2021.

The company currently has an average of 200 million bathroom miniatures in use across its entire hotel estate every year, and expects to see a significant reduction in plastic waste as the new brand standard is adopted.

This commitment builds on IHG’s pledge to remove plastic straws from its hotels by the end of 2019, and several broader waste reduction initiatives already in place.

On top of that, staff at IHG will no longer have to wear high heels at work.

“It’s a start,” Harwood said. “We know we’ve got more to do, but it’s a start.”

Leanne Harwood joined a line-up of speakers at Travel DAZE 2019, last week, in speaking about sustainability in travel that included the likes of former-Greens leader and environmentalist Bob Brown and Gardening Australia presenter Costa Georgiadis

To relive Travel DAZE 2019 through all the happy snaps taken on the day, click here

Travel DAZE 2019 was supported by the following companies…