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Interviews

"Give colleagues the space to grow, permission to fail, and opportunity to shine."

On the occasion of the International Women’s Day, interview with Karin Sheppard, Managing Director Europe at IHG. She has more than 20 years of international experience across technology, telecommunications and hospitality. In her current role as Managing Director for Europe, IHG, she is responsible for driving the sustainable long-term growth of IHG and the performance of its European hotels. Karin is a member of IHG’s Global Diversity & Inclusion Board. She was also appointed a Board Member of both Tourism Accommodation Australia (TAA) and the Tourism & Transport Forum (TTF).

Why did you choose the hospitality industry?

After eight years working in various international marketing roles in the IT industry, I felt a pull towards hospitality because it felt like an industry I could truly be passionate about. What attracted me to IHG when I joined over 16 years ago was this strong sense of family culture. There is a real focus on offering employees opportunities to grow and progress, and also a strong emphasis on celebrating diversity and empowering everyone to reach their full potential. I think that’s why our company tends to retain its people for a long time. We pride ourselves on a respectful and diverse culture, which is central to our purpose of providing True Hospitality for everyone.

Are there challenges you had to face as a woman in your career?

Whilst there have been moments where I have had to straighten my back as the only woman in the room, I must say that overwhelmingly I have felt supported by my bosses and peers throughout my career, even when stepping into more male dominated areas like Hotel Operations leadership roles. Even during my time working in the Middle East, I felt that I was respected for the role I was in.

I have had it easier than most working women though, as I have not had to juggle the challenges of a young family with career pressures, and I admire those – both male and female – that manage to do so.

How would you qualify the progress made until now regarding women as authority figures?

There is no doubt that we still have a long way to go on ensuring gender equality in the workforce.

Yet it is well proven that, alongside the moral case, there is a clear business case for inclusion, with diverse teams outperforming those that lack diversity.

At IHG we’ve made good progress over the years, with women now representing 46% of our senior leadership and 36% of our Board. Last year, we also formed our Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) Board, chaired by our CEO, Keith Barr, with members drawn from senior leaders from across our business.  Just this week, for example, we announced the promotion of Willemijn Geels to Vice President of Development, Europe, based in our Paris office and responsible for driving the expansion of our brands across the European Business Unit. We’re also delighted to have one of our female leaders, Madelijn Vervoord in the critical role of Regional General Manager of InterContinental® Hotels & Resorts for Marseille, Bordeaux and Lyon. Madelijn has been working actively with our partners on the June 2019 opening of the luxurious and iconic InterContinental Lyon Hôtel Dieu.

That said, we know our work in this area is never done, especially in growing our female General Manager population. That’s why it’s important that we continue to create new opportunities for women and enable more leaders like Madelijn and myself to manage the operations of our business.

What difference do you think there is between a woman and a man in the same position?

What I generally find is that the difference between colleagues is not whether they are male or female, but instead the unique characteristics, experience and perspective they bring to the role. We often see unconscious but harmful gender stereotypes both in and out of the workplace, which can exacerbate gender inequality and stifle career progression, preventing colleagues from feeling accepted and achieving their full potential.

Please tell us about a man or woman who made an impact on your life.

My parents had a huge influence on instilling strong values in me very early in life and I believe it has shaped my approach as a leader. I came from very humble beginnings, but the door was always open to our home, and my parents welcomed everyone regardless of background and beliefs.

My mother was an inspirational woman. She raised three children whilst running a grocery store – a profession that at the time was dominated by men. In fact, I think she was the only female grocery store owner in town.  It was only later in life that I truly realised what a trailblazer she was.

What advice would you give to young women who want to follow the same path as yours?

The key piece of advice I’d give is that it is what you make of it. Especially in male-dominated environments, we sometimes have to push ourselves a bit harder and take an active lead – that’s the only way we’ll be able to change it.

But crucially, I believe successful leaders – whether female or male – must learn how to inspire others in order to be at their very best. Give colleagues the space to grow, permission to fail, and opportunity to shine. Equally important is to consistently raise your level of ambition. Think of the next mountain to climb and create high enthusiasm for the journey ahead.

It’s energising to see these characteristics already being demonstrated by many young leaders joining and growing within IHG – which is absolutely key to driving our future growth. It makes me incredibly proud to be part of this wonderful family.

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