Is the hotel industry doing all it can to promote women executives? Katie Taylor, chair of the Board, Royal Bank of Canada and former president and CEO of luxury leader Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts, shares her views on the issue of gender diversity.

Rosanna Caira: Why are there so few women executives in the hotel industry today?

Katie Taylor: The hotel industry, like every industry, began as a man’s business. Women have made some great gains. If you look at the graduation rates in schools and in hotel programs, women are graduating from hotel training in equal numbers as men; they are being taken into the managerial ranks. And then the real heavy lifting starts.

There are a few things: there’s the reality of the uneven work hours. Some of my female friends who have been GMs say perception is quite overblown. In truth, a female GM manages fine and the uncontrollable part of it, they would estimate, is the same as it would be if they were a big senior executive in another industry.

It does strike me that hospitality might be a bit more fragmented as an industry than others.
The geographic spread of the business is also something to consider. In my time in the luxury business, mobility was a big part of the next promotion.

RC: When you look at other fields, like banking as an example, there are a lot of women in the executive rank. Even in the car industry, General Motors has a woman leader.

KT: I was talking to somebody about women leadership and the question came up. When you think about Ursula Burns at Xerox, Ginni Rometty at IBM, Marissa Mayer at Yahoo and then Meg Whitman at Hewlett-Packard, and of course Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook — right there the concentration of female leadership in that one industry at the very top is certainly out of proportion to what you would find in other industries. It probably behooves all of us to go back and ask, what made that happen? What did they do differently? What did they change to make this happen? The financial services in Canada are way ahead, relative to what we see in other industries. But they’ve been at it for a lot of time. Employment equity was introduced federally way back in the ’70s, so that was a focus really early on by management in those organizations. We’re going to have to work at it.

RC: Do you think the hotel industry is flexible enough to attract women?

KT: That goes a little bit to the structure of the workplace and whether more could be done to create work structure that is more conducive to working and having a family. Men of a certain generation have that same challenge. So solving this in the hotel [industry] is important to not only women, but men, as they seek more time with family. In sales organizations, they figured out how to job share clients; are there those sorts of things that could be done in other roles within the hotel? I don’t know, having never run a hotel. But it does strike me that when you continue to do the same things over and over again, and nothing changes, then it’s time to say ‘Oh well, what else can we do then,’ and see if we can drive a different reality.

One common denominator I’ve seen in organizations, where the agenda of gender and non-gender diversity is really vibrant and it works, is that [progress] comes from the leadership of CEOs. You can organize lots of people around it, but the leadership of it is truly at the top of the house, and that means leaders are focused on it, are driving change, and are interested in it.

RC: When you joined Four Seasons in 1989, did you face challenges as a woman in a man’s field?

KT: I wasn’t the first woman vice-president at Four Seasons — that was Susan Helstab. I was the second. I was the first woman to join the executive committee in my role as general counsel. The company was all male at the top other than me: hotel ownership, the investment side of the business, and the operations side of the business was predominantly male, even back then. I tried to understand the businesses that my male counterparts were running. I tried to see how I could be helpful, building alliances with different people across the company and really trying to learn how the business operated on a level that would serve different customers…. I didn’t ever feel [discrimination] overtly; it may have been happening behind the scenes, but it was not something that I physically felt. Back then, there was no replacement for me. When people would say ‘We can’t send a woman to do that,’ [the founder, Isadore Sharp] would say, ‘Well we don’t have anyone else.’ Necessity was the mother of invention, particularly because we were global. But one of the nice things was that I was helping [facilitate] transactions around the world, and you would think there would be more push back, not less. But there was no push back at all, not even globally. You look at Saudi Arabia’s Prince Alwaleed (Four Seasons’ part owner) in a very traditional country, but he is a great promoter of women. I would say the same of my colleagues from around the world…. They were all very respectful, got the job done.

RC: How should the hotel industry address the problem of pay inequities?

KT: It goes back to the rigour and discipline of your internal processes. It should be very clear what the scope of the job is and what you should be paying someone to do it going forward. There’s always pressure in organizations around labour costs, and they are particularly acute in the hotel industry, but that’s no excuse for driving inequities in a business.

RC: How did you juggle a career and a family, especially given your heavy travel schedule?

KT: What I always say to people about life and work is that the only thing you can expect is life/work imbalance. You will spend your entire career and life juggling various things, trying to figure out what choices you are planning to make in order to create that appearance of balance. The choices are intensely personal. There is no recipe: you [can’t] choose these four things and things are going to be great. Life changes every day, and so you have to come to your career with the full understanding that you are going to have to make choices every day about how that all fits together.

I encourage people to think about it because if you say ‘I’m just going to do it this way’ and off you go, the likelihood of that sustaining itself for a lifetime is highly unlikely.
The idea of mentally, physically and emotionally being agile enough to take into account different pressures at different times, and figure out the balance that works for you, is very difficult.

Lucky for me, my husband was advanced in his career and very supportive of mine. We had a great partnership where he was there as much as possible. But there were many times neither of us could be there, and so [we had] caregivers for the children.

There were lots of sacrifices, lots of personal tricks: I kept my computer in a different room so [my children] wouldn’t see me working when I was at home. I would go to it when they were otherwise distracted. When I was not travelling, I’d always drive them to school in the morning, so I had to influence people in the office not to start meetings at 7 a.m. or until 7:30 a.m., because I couldn’t be there. I could be there at 8 a.m. or 8:30 a.m. but not earlier.

When I was in Toronto, I had to [host] hotel owners and managers, but when the kids were young, I had to be home to put them to bed. So I could stay for dinner but might not stay beyond that…. That created a routine for me where they knew they could count on me in the morning and they could count on me at night.… It was consistency.

Now, remember that’s life in a corporate environment; it’s more difficult with all the moving parts in a hotel. You have to make different choices. That’s why I say my choices aren’t the right choices because [when] you transport them to another office, to a hotel, to a restaurant, all of a sudden they don’t fit right. You’ve got to create your own recipe.

RC: How should the hotel industry change the way it promotes women?

KT: People are attracted to careers where a few things happen. They want to know they’re going to have a fulfilled career with lots of opportunities for advancement and personal fulfillment. They want to be compensated fairly. Generally, everyone wants to work in an environment that embraces diversity and inclusion. It’s not enough to count the number of non-gender diverse employees. It’s really about harnessing the value of thought-diversity that comes with those people and making everyone feel that they’re empowered to make a contribution to the business. It’s like every high-performing culture.

RC: Should diversity be legislated?

KT: I do believe that dialogue and transparency are great change agents. It causes people to sit around and talk about the whys and why nots. It forces a transparency and dialogue and encourages people to re-evaluate their approaches. There are a lot of European countries that have legislated diversity, but it’s the dialogue around it that is the most important. The whole diversity agenda is really incredible for a country like Canada. If we are going to reach this country’s full potential, it has to be because everybody is making a contribution at a very high level — newcomers and people who have been here for many generations. But getting to that level takes discussion. I’m in favour of asking people to explain their approaches to gender and non-gender diversity in their organizations: how they think about it, what processes they have in place, or if they have none, to then explain why that’s good. The dialogue is a huge leap.

RC: Do women have enough role models, and do they network effectively?

KT: There is evidence, my own anecdotal, to show that women don’t network to the same extent as men. I’m not sure what drives it. They might be less inclined to it, but the order of priorities they give to networking is too far down the list. I always thought time spent networking with other men and other women is an investment in your career, in your knowledge, in your relationships, in your understanding of how another person is thinking. It’s not a nothing; it’s a very valuable something.

The mentoring piece is better. There are more overt programs around mentoring. I had lots of mentors. Everybody needs one early in their career. More women are doing more of it for other women leaders. More men are doing more of it for women and men leaders. It’s becoming more important to everyone that the experience be transferred. The more overt it is, the better off everybody is…. Sometimes a company will give women mentors, and it’s really important for the women to make sure [it’s] the right fit, because it is so critical. If it’s not the right person, if it’s not the right chemistry, you spend a lot of time and don’t get a lot of great benefit. We have to be individually responsible for getting that right for our career. We can’t wait for somebody else to figure it out for us.

RC: Why don’t women network as well as men?

KT: It’s the list of priorities, and where does this one fit? Maybe we need to put it higher on the list. When we stack it up against visiting a sick mom or attending a piano recital or whatever else we may have that week, it might be pushed down, because we don’t directly relate it to an investment in our careers. We don’t call it work.

If we’re going to order our lives like guys we need to reorder some of our other priorities. That’s what I said around conscious choices. It is a conscious choice not to invest in that game of golf. But you’ve got to do something else to make up for the fact that you didn’t invest in your career that way. So what do you replace it with? Active management of career development and constant learning and constant relationship building is personal.

RC: How do you make tough decisions?

KT: [I’m a] very open, very transparent, collaborative leader. Sometimes it’s a strength overused; you can collaborate too much. My tendency was to default to communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s not about talking a lot about whatever it is you’re facing. It’s about communicating with the right people. It’s strategic around timing. There’s no substitute in leadership for employees feeling like they know what the leader is thinking. It’s a powerful motivator for people, because they think they know what’s going on. It puts control even in the hands of the most junior people in terms of how they think the future might unfold. Communication and messaging is always going to be a big help to the alignment and inspiration behind the mission of the business.

RC: What strengths do women bring to the table?

KT: We’re all going to be better off when diversity and inclusion drive the thought-diversity in our decision-making, and women can help to do that because they bring a different way of thinking, generally speaking. Bringing more thought-power to the table makes sense.
The other thing that is clear about the hotel industry is that 70 to 80 per cent of purchasing decisions in travel are made by women. If that, in fact, is the case, particularly in the leisure side of the business, they are the most vocal customers, the people that make the decision, the people who communicate the satisfaction. Making sure you have employees who understand how those people will react is very important.

RC: What’s your advice for women who want to enter the sector at the GM or executive level?

KT: Get on with it. There’s much made about all of the obstacles for people in different businesses, and it’s true. But now it’s our job to get over them and figure out how to either push them aside or surmount them or overcome them in a way that allows us to grow. It may be different obstacles in the hotel business than in the tech business or telecom biz. Who knows? It’s trite to say there are obstacles in every industry in some form or another. Part of the power of leadership comes from the experience of getting over those elegantly, with a strong sense of purpose in a way that builds learning. I don’t think we can start from a premise that says ‘I can have everything in my life. Can I have it all?’ No, you can’t have it all, but you can have your all. Sit down and figure out what you want. If you want to be a top hotel GM, then put that on the list. If you want to be a mother or a sister or a caregiver, put that on the list, and figure out how to manage them together as opposed to setting them as mutually exclusive. It comes back to conscious choices every day.

Volume 27, Number 2


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