Listen, demonstrate, be authentic: IHG CEO's top diversity and inclusion tips

Lara O'Reilly
Executive Producer
IHG's CEO Keith Barr. Photo: Marcus Lyon

InterContinental Hotels Group CEO Keith Barr was awarded third place in this year’s 2019 HERoes Advocates list. The list, released by diversity and inclusion network INvolve and supported by Yahoo Finance, celebrates 40 senior leaders who are advocates for women in business and dedicated to creating a more diverse and inclusive business environment for women. View the full 2019 HERoes Top 40 Advocates list here.

Keith Barr recalls a conversation early on into his career that hit home how different the playing fields can be for women and men working in the hospitality industry.

“I remember this great debate of the head of sales and marketing not wanting the women to be able to wear pantsuits — it was a real thing,” Barr told Yahoo Finance UK, saying of the sprawling list of sartorial requirements for women, the only rule for men was that they had to wear a suit.

“It’s a small thing but it talked about both the dual standard that existed early on in business and also a focus on appearance. It just didn’t apply to the men to the same degree,” Barr said.

Barr’s career in the hospitality industry has now spanned more than 25 years, across a variety of international roles in sales, operations and management.

In 2017, Barr became chief executive of InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG.L) which operates almost 6,000 hotels in 100 countries. Shortly after his CEO appointment, Barr set up the company’s diversity and inclusion (D&I) board, which tackles broad issues from the lack of women in leadership positions to its parental leave policies.

Small things send a big message

Barr recognised that many women leaders had given him a leg up throughout his career — including his mother who, as a single parent, worked three jobs so that he could attend university — and he felt a responsibility to give back. The main catalyst for setting up the D&I board, however, was a recognition that the company was not as diverse as it needed to be, particularly in upper management.

“The business reason for diversity and inclusion, fundamentally, is: It is an incredibly competitive employment market today around the world. Our team members expect more and how do I ensure we are an appealing place to work for a diverse group of individuals?” Barr said.

IHG says nearly 40% of its executive team and their direct reports are women. Just over a third (36%) of its board are women.

Barr said even small changes have sent a big message to IHG’s colleagues and customers. He points towards receiving positive feedback after switching the IHG logo to the Pride flag across all its global digital channels around the world.

IHG employees celebrating Atlanta Pride. Photo: IHG

The company has also sponsored Pride events around the world and has been recognised as a “best place to work for LGBTQ equality” by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation’s Corporate Equality Index.

Progress in this area hasn’t always advanced without challenges. Barr said that as a global company, there are certain geographies where IHG has to be more sensitive on the advocacy front.

“Some markets you can’t go into that level because you are going run into real political challenges, so you try to figure out: How do you do the right thing and keep nudging things forward to make them better off tomorrow than they are today, but recognising that it’s going to be tough to drive massive change overnight,” Barr said.

Meanwhile, Barr said he also received a handful of “nasty comments” on his social media pages after posting about IHG’s Pride activations.

“I don’t mind losing those customers, at the end of the day,” Barr said. “People who think like that, I don’t mind them not staying in our Holiday Inns or our InterContinentals someplace around the world. They’re not the people we want to have around.”

‘Inputs’ over outcomes

As IHG progresses with its D&I strategy, Barr said he prefers to focus on “inputs” rather than targets.

Instead of concentrating on how many women should be in certain roles by a specific date, for example, Barr said he encourages the team to think about how to get to that outcome — such as monitoring how many women are on the company’s RISE development programme, which helps employees progress into general manager roles.

Barr recalls the adage that what gets measured gets managed.

“If you just do the ‘outcome’ target sometimes it can drive the wrong behaviour,” such as promoting someone into a role just because they are diverse, rather than because they are the best candidate for the job, Barr said. “If you don’t promote the best talent into the role you do a disservice to the people you’re trying to help.”

IHG CEO Keith Barr puts forward a business case for D&I. Photo: Marcus Lyon

Barr advises other CEOs implementing D&I strategies to “spend time to listen” and recognise their own unconscious biases rather than immediately springing into action mode and attempting to solve issues straight away.

“As a white, almost 50-year-old male, I have not had the experiences that have challenged much of our employee population who are LGBTQ, women, [or from an] ethnic background — I haven’t faced that. To think I really understand the issues is arrogant,” Barr said.

Ultimately, an effective D&I strategy requires senior leaders publicly walking the talk.

“If you fundamentally aren’t showing proof points and progress, people won’t think you’re serious about it and you’ll probably do more damage to it than not,” Barr said.

“People have to know you really care and that it’s not a tick-the-box exercise for you, that, ‘he’s just doing it because it’s seen as being important for the board,’ or that, ‘it’s a public company and has to go do it’.”

Barr’s top three D&I tips? “Listen and understand; demonstrate through action that you’re serious about it; and be authentic,” he said.

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Yahoo Finance is supporting diversity and inclusion network INvolve’s executive role model lists across EMpower, HERoes, and OUTstanding. Nominations for the 2019 OUTstanding role models lists are open.