By Amy Bostock and Rosanna Caira

Bonnie Strome
General Manager, Park Hyatt Toronto

Having reached an executive level that is not as common for women as for men, what would you say enabled you to reach such a high level?
I have been extremely fortunate in my pursuit of a career to have had a strong support system at home while raising two daughters and working in the Operations division of hotels. Throughout my early career years, I had always recognized and embraced the higher levels of responsibility that were present in every role and my self-motivation was acknowledged with progressive job titles to follow. I always felt natural performing in a leadership role and, over time, I realized my peers and leaders responded well and my confidence continued to grow. That’s the time I began to think bigger than the next progressive role and really focus on what I wanted the “end goal” to be, which was general manager. I was fortunate to join Hyatt at that time and enjoyed the mentorship of my direct report, who was fully supportive of growing my career and enabled me with his trust in my abilities, but also his ability to be critical, which is needed to grow as a leader.

How can women make themselves known in their company as someone who can perform the next-level job?
Women tend to wait to be noticed for doing exceptionally good work and aren’t always clear on expressing their desire to grow in their roles and careers. Similar to their male counterparts, women need to articulate their aspirations — even if they’re uncertain about what the next step to achieve their goal requires. Communication with their leaders to gain input is so important and establishes the interest to grow, which opens the door for more opportunity. During my first front-desk-agent position, I recall asking my manager for any additional assignment work, which allowed me to challenge myself, but also exhibit my professional drive.

Why is there a lack of women in C-level positions?
The path to a senior-leader role in any profession is an arduous one and takes many years of commitment and, often, sacrifice. Women are equally as prepared to challenge themselves as men, but the tendency has been that leaders often choose leaders that “look like them” — whether it’s a similar career path or relatable personal interests — and until more women hold these senior roles, the ratio of women in C-level positions will remain low.

What needs to change in order to move the needle?
Companies with formalized mentoring programs are on the right track, as long as they’re continuously reviewing the outcomes and measuring success with the number of female leaders on active career-trajectory plans. As a female candidate, I always wanted to be promoted based on the merit of my work, rather than my gender playing a larger role in promotion opportunities, but the end result will be there if women are provided the same opportunity as men to grow as leaders.

Is there a disadvantage for companies that do not have women in top-level positions?
There’s a distinct advantage to having women in the top-level positions when it comes to recruitment. As companies look to attract top talent, there’s significant motivation from women looking to join a company where women are in senior-leadership roles and they can see “themselves” in those leaders. This especially holds true in the hospitality industry, where men have dominated the leadership roles and women haven’t been able to see themselves in the top seats. Female leaders provide a perspective that’s different from male leaders and create a balance for different thinking styles.

What challenges did you encounter on your path to an executive role?
I feel very fortunate when I reflect on my career that challenges were manageable and often were learning opportunities that helped develop stronger leadership skills. I do recall moments of stress in my career that originated from working with leaders that didn’t possess the characteristics I thought were important for leaders to have — the number-1 characteristic on my list being integrity. I always ensured every action I took maintained the integrity of the role I held.

How have you balanced work and family?
Working as a leader in the hospitality industry has always been a 24/7 responsibility, where long hours and long work weeks were typical. When my husband and I welcomed our two daughters, we were thrilled to start and grow our family, but I was a little anxious about my career, as I felt I was going to miss opportunities for advancement while on leave. To ensure that my commitment wasn’t questioned, my husband and I shared the parental leave. In hindsight, I realized my thinking was flawed and I was taking those actions to overcome the stereotype that most women can’t “commit” once they have a family. Instead, I became confident in my contributions to the organization and have always ensured any of my leaders (male or female) enjoying a parental leave felt fully supported. You need to be committed to dedicating your time to balancing work and home and I found success by identifying those things that made me feel I was being effective in both spaces while recognizing the balance was not always going to be 50/50.

Reetu Gupta
President & CEO, The Gupta Group/Easton’s Group of Hotels

Having reached an executive level that is not as common for women as for men, what would you say enabled you to reach such a high level?
In order to achieve your goals, dreams and ambitions, you need three things to carry with you always — courage, confidence and conviction. It’s these three things that have allowed me to reach my goals.

How can women make themselves known in their company as someone who can perform the next-level job?
It is important for everyone, especially for women, to have the courage to speak up, to voice to their superiors what their goals are, what they want to achieve and ask questions such as, how can I achieve these goals?

Why is there is a lack of women in C-level positions?
Speaking for the hotel industry itself, this is because it’s only been in the past few years that women have started to rise through the ranks. In 2010 and prior, most managerial and supervisor positions were held by men. In addition, GMs and hotel owners were usually men. As more women come into our industry, we’re starting to see this shift.

What needs to change in order to move the needle?
Since the industry was male dominated — and that needle is slowly moving — a few things need to happen. First, antiquated thinking — such as hotels are demanding jobs, which makes them unsuitable for women with children — needs to be thrown out. Two, women can no longer be overlooked for internal promotions. Our hotel managers and leaders need to ensure all positions are open to all suitable candidates.

How have your life experiences made you the leader you are today?
Being a young, Indian woman in an industry that was male oriented and not diverse was challenging at times. However, with challenge comes the opportunity to transform. I used these situations to teach myself to always have courage, confidence and conviction. Most importantly, I learned that I will work hard, not to prove anything to others, but solely to improve myself and to prove to myself I can do it. I have amazing parents, who pushed me to be the strong woman I am and always have and continue to support me.

What challenges did you encounter on your path to an executive role? How did you persevere through these challenges?
There were many challenges I encountered. Usually being the only woman in the room and the youngest person in the room, I would often be talked over in meetings or my ideas would be completely discounted and thrown out. I didn’t let this discourage me, however, and I stayed on my path. I knew what was right. I also knew that what was right would prevail, so I would consistently try to show the team this. I didn’t ever give up or give in.

Who are your role models and how have these role models helped you along your career path?
First and foremost, my parents and my siblings. I’m here today and achieved what I have because of my parents — because of their belief in me, because of all they taught me and all of their love. My siblings have also always supported and loved me unconditionally. They are my rock, my listening ear, my helping hand and, more often than not, my lawyer.

What is your leadership style and how did you have to alter it amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
I’ve always wanted my entire team, from the head office to our hotels, to feel as though they’re a part of the family. During the pandemic, this did not change. I wanted our extended family — the hotels — to feel the love and support, so we kept most of our hotels open. In addition, over Easter weekend, as a small gesture, we provided meals for all of our hotel staff’s families as a small token of love.

What inspires you most about the women you meet in the industry?
When I was very small, maybe five years old, we checked into the Marriott Orlando World Center. The front-desk agent was this beautiful woman, who treated me like I was so special — she came around the desk just to give me crayons and paper. Normally, at that age, the check-in process was only for the adults. She was so sincere and her energy was contagious and sparkly. I find this and see this in every woman in our industry.

How have you balanced work and family?

One must always do what they are passionate about. I’m passionate about spending time with my family and about work, so I ensure all my family takes time for both. Being a family business, we all fall into the trap of sitting down for dinner and inevitably speaking about business, so we all try to keep talks and family time separate.

Susie Grynol
President, Hotel Association of Canada

Why is there is a lack of women in C-level positions?
Because executive positions were built for men, they don’t accommodate the requirements of a woman who often has to balance family or parental needs with a demanding work schedule. Women will get the job done, but they will do it differently and the leadership and structure of an organization has to be willing to accommodate a different style and schedule. Without this built into the culture, most women won’t take the chance.

What needs to change in order to move the needle?
Women need the confidence to know they can have the next big job and still manage their home obligations. If she has to choose between her career and her family, she will choose her family and that’s what prevents millions of women from taking that next step. If the work culture allows her flexibility and support, and she won’t be forced to choose one over the other, more women will take that chance.

How have your life experiences made you the leader you are today?
I grew up as a high-performance gymnast and trampolinist. I developed grit and a work ethic that shaped my character, taught me how to persevere, how to believe in myself and how to support my team in their pursuit of excellence. I learned there was a direct correlation between working hard and top performance. Those years were formative and prepared me for the many challenges I would undertake in the years ahead.

Is there a disadvantage for companies that don’t have women in top-level positions?

Absolutely, women bring a different dynamic and a varied way of thinking to the table — usually more empathy, an excellent level of emotional intelligence, an impeccable ability to read a room, interpret body language and find the hidden meaning when no words are exchanged. Women have less blindspots, they can multi-task and excel in managing multiple projects and time. These are important contributions to a decision-making table and these skills tend to complement and enrich the pragmatic, riskier, yet straight-forward thinking in a male-only scenario.

What challenges did you encounter on your path to an executive role?
I’m vertically challenged, blond and look a lot younger than I am. In my youth…I was often/always underestimated and rarely taken seriously by my usually male higher-ups. I had to work twice as hard to earn the respect I knew I deserved. I was usually the youngest person in the room and, as I moved up the ladder, I also became the most senior. This created an awkward dynamic when managing staff that were inevitably older than me. Ageism is a real thing and it was a hurdle along my path.

I overcame these challenges by being gracious in the face of ignorance and assumptions; by rising to the occasion and proving people wrong when they discounted me because of my age or looks. I respected the views of all my colleagues, regardless of their age, and never let my position or title dictate how I interacted with or treated other people. It also helped that I was humbled by the fact that I was young and aware that I needed the input and support of more experienced colleagues.

What strategies can help women achieve a more prominent role in their organizations?
Apply for that next big job and have the confidence that you can do the job differently. Workplaces are far more accommodating today than they’ve ever been. COVID-19 has taught us that a flexible, work-from-home scenario can be effective. This may help pave the way for women to take on that next big opportunity because businesses now know working from home can be productive and possibly even more functional for those with commitments at home.

Who are your role models and how have they helped you along your career path?
My parents are at the top of that list. They are selfless, generous, motivated, hard-working and deeply dedicated to our family and their faith. They can find the silver lining in the worst possible situations and have taught me so much about resiliency, positivity and thankfulness. My first real boss is second on the list and he remains one of my closest advisors to this day. He encouraged me to reach for the planets in my young working days and gave me the most incredible opportunities to thrive.

What advice would you offer women who want to reach the C-suite level?
Be purposeful in your next career move. Figure out what your goal is and then track a path to get there. Imagine that you are interviewing yourself in five years for your next big job. What kind of skills and experience will you need by then in order to position yourself as a top candidate? Identify these gaps and build a plan to get that experience through training, volunteering or project work.

How did you have to alter your leadership style amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
I am a communicator and I value face-to-face interactions with my team. This is how we make plans, build projects, solve problems and work collaboratively. This is a lot harder to do over Zoom, but we’ve managed to make it work and embrace the remote work environment. In fact, I’m not sure we’ll ever go back to a full nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday scenario. Finding the balance will be key, but we’ll have a mix of both in
our future.

How have you balanced work and family?
With great difficulty. There will never be enough hours in the day to balance it all perfectly. I think of it as more of a tilting exercise than a balancing act. I lean into work heavily during peak periods and then purposefully lean into my family when the load lightens. Rinse and repeat. COVID-19 has been a blessing that way, though. Working from home, pulling insane hours in the middle of a pandemic has been intense, but it’s so sweet that I get to kiss my baby before her afternoon nap or play a quick game of checkers with my son during lunch. It’s been so nice to take in some precious moments that I would otherwise miss if I was at the office or on the road.

Nancy Munzar Kelly
General Manager, Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto

Having reached an executive level that is not as common for women as for men, what would you say enabled you to reach such a high level?
I’ve always had a sense of purpose and a competitive spirit. Education combined with hard work, mentorship and perseverance goes a long way. I have an Economics degree and started my career in advertising, but it didn’t energize me, so I chose a different path. I rowed and swam competitively in university and, at the time, I was training to row at the national level. With my passion for sport, I was intrigued by an ad for the Four Seasons to manage its Pool and Health Club and that was the beginning of my now 35-year career in hospitality.

How can women make themselves known in their company as someone who can perform the next-level job?
Be vocal about your ideas and opinions, be engaged in your work and don’t be afraid to let your career ambitions be known to leadership. Have a constant hunger for learning new skills and show an interest in learning other foundational parts of the business, beyond your current role and responsibilities. Show your peers and managers your enthusiasm and passion for growth in your career.

Why is there a lack of women in C-level positions?
In the majority of companies and industries in North America, there are inherent cultural norms and gender biases that are taking a long time to shift. Traditionally, hoteliers and hospitality executive positions have been male-dominated, making women in leadership positions hard to come by.

Another big reason, in my opinion, is motherhood. In the hotel industry, promotion to higher-level positions often requires picking up and moving to a new city or country. Motherhood is a role that requires women with demanding careers to often make choices between childcare and career advancement. Many women with young children naturally put their children’s needs before their own and can’t pick up and move.

What needs to change in order to move the needle?

Company boards and CEOs of top companies need to incorporate diversity in race and gender as part of their leadership goals. They need to recognize having a more-diverse leadership team equals better value for the company. I admire that Shangri-La Group has Chairman and executive director Hui Kuok leading the company alongside our CEO.

How have your life experiences made you the leader you are today?
I was the youngest of seven children, so from a young age that made me very appreciative of others’ views. As I built my career, I was able to take insights from each of the different companies I worked for and apply them to my next role. Prior to Shangri-La Hotel, Toronto I was the COO and general manager of an independent hotel brand. We had to be creative in the way we won new business, as we didn’t have a global brand presence.

As a GM, my sales and marketing experience stands out compared to many GMs who’ve had solely operational roles. It’s made me more versatile and given me valuable knowledge on how to drive the revenue side of the business.

What challenges did you encounter on your path to an executive role?
There were small every-day challenges. One of the things I realized early on is you can’t have it all and, realistically, sacrifices have to be made. My schedule is sometimes out of my control, which requires me to be flexible and sometimes make quick decisions. With experience comes confidence and I became more comfortable vocalizing my ideas.

What strategies can help women achieve a more prominentrole in their organizations?
I strongly recommend mentorship — multiple mentors if possible. Having mentors from different industries and varied roles provides different perspectives. As you advance in your role, it’s important to mentor younger colleagues because there are always new things to learn and sometimes you gain a fresh perspective from someone new in the industry.

What advice would you offer women who want to reach the C-suite level?
I would encourage women to network and not to be afraid to reach out and ask to meet with someone whose career you admire. In general, women are very good connectors and are happy to connect you with their contacts and introduce you to others.

Be confident in what you can offer a company and don’t be afraid to put your name forward for a new position or promotion. You’re also better equipped for advancement if you continue to educate yourself about what’s new in your industry; make yourself the naturally better choice for a position because you’re well informed and educated on industry trends and news.

How did your leadership style have to change amidst the COVID-19 pandemic?
I have a very collaborative leadership style. I try to bring out the best in people to build high-performing teams. With the onset of COVID-19 and the vast uncertainty surrounding the hospitality sector, I tried to be as communicative as possible and focus on the positive. We were agile and creative in finding new ways to do business. With business in a rapid decline, we focused on building a strong foundation for when recovery comes.

We used the downtime to encourage online learning and professional development. We increased our use of technology as a vehicle for clarity and communication.

How have you balanced work and family?
There’s no perfect solution. Every day you have to make choices and make sure they’re right for you. It’s always push-pull. You need a strong sense of who you are, to be well grounded and to know that sometimes you can’t have it all. Before my sons were adults, my husband shared the the household duties with me. Finding a true partner helps when having both a demanding career and young children.


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