When the COVID-19 pandemic first swept the world in early 2020, many chief executives were desperately looking for ways to cut costs. Panic was particularly acute in the travel sector, where global travel bans and stay at home orders led to plummeting revenues.
“This is the dark days: we’re talking revenues are off 75%, 80%, hotels are closed, people can’t travel, everyone’s feeling a bit end of days,” recalls Keith Barr, chief executive of InterContinental Hotel Group (IHG.L).
It would be understandable, then, for IHG to have cut back on non-operational or business-critical areas, such as diversity and inclusion programmes. In fact, the opposite happened.
“I think our commitment level probably rose during COVID more than anything else,” Keith Barr, IHG’s chief executive, told Yahoo Finance UK.
“We could have not spent some money last year around these important things and then maybe had a little bit more profit, a little bit more cash flow but we have a long term vision. We talk about our purpose as: true hospitality for good. And that’s for our people, for our planet, for our communities. You can’t put that on hiatus for a year. You can’t have a major problem and go: oh I just can’t afford to fix that right now.”
Barr’s steadfast commitment to diversity and inclusion — and particularly the needs of women in the workplace — explains why he has been named the HERoes Advocate Executive 2021. The annual ranking, compiled by diversity and inclusion organization INvolve with help from Yahoo Finance UK, celebrates male executives who are advocating for their female colleagues and pushing for improvements. Barr rose from ninth place last year to top the list.
“On a personal level it’s rewarding and it's humbling more than anything,” Barr said. “I think it’s a reflection of the team here more than anything else."
During the pandemic, Barr began hosting company-wide video calls with IHG’s staff to reassure them and hear concerns. It was this forum that helped give Barr an insight into just how badly the pandemic was affecting women.
“You could see some of the staff, some of the women leaders in our company saying: this is really hard,” he recalled. “It was clear to me that COVID had a materially more significant impact on women and the diverse colleagues that we have than on the male population, to be very blunt.
“The primary caregivers often were the ones that were trying to do home schooling, career, look after kids — it just exacerbated the issue and I saw the impact it had on people personally and professionally and the stress.”
To address the problem, IHG put in place flexible working policies and announced “recharge days” for staff who needed time to recover from particularly challenging periods.
“People needed it too,” Barr said. “I remember talking to one of our senior female leaders who has two young kids and she was like: this has been really empowering because I can adjust my time now around what my kids need.”
IHG, which owns a range of hotel brands including Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn, also overhauled its maternity leave policies to even out international disparities.
“While they were competitive, they weren’t as good as they needed to be," Barr said. "So we said, well, it’s going to cost us money but it’s the right thing to do so let’s just go ahead and do it.
“I always say: people hear what you say but they see what you do. You have to just deliver. It can’t be just platitudes.”
Barr, who has run IHG since 2017, is passionate about diversity and inclusion. He stresses the importance of creating an inclusive company culture that can foster diversity.
“Culture comes from a number of things,” Barr said. “It comes from what you say but more importantly what you do, what policies you put in place, how you make decisions, and how people see you reacting.”
IHG is permanently adopting many of the pandemic-era innovations around flexible working and Barr is now looking for new ways to improve opportunities for women. A recent spur to action was a job opening that went to a man after two women turned down the role because their partners wouldn’t relocate.
“It reinforced to me how we need to think about giving those individuals career opportunities that still develop them,” he said. “Because their partners wouldn’t relocate doesn’t mean they don’t still have that potential. I talked to my executive team and said: we gotta find a way now, these women should be over in one of these senior jobs in the future.”
Barr believes delivering improvements for women in the workplace is the right thing to do but it also has the added benefit of helping the company stand out in an increasingly competitive labour market.
“There was a shortage of talent and a competition for the best and brightest pre-COVID, it’s even more acute now,” he said. “Our focus on being an attractive employer for a diverse set of individuals is even more important today than it was beforehand.
“I’m only the steward of this company for a period of time and I have a responsibility to hand it off to the next person in a better shape than I found it. That sometimes means not maximizing profit for this moment or this year, it’s about building things for the long-term.”
Barr’s advice to other executives looking to follow his example is: “Listen, create the opportunities for really open and honest conversations, and then lean into the issues when they’re there to help create advocates in the business and help build the culture that drives this level of commitment to diversity.”
Finding an issue to be passionate about is crucial to the success of any modern business, Barr believes.
“Historically society has looked to governments to drive change around big issues, whether it’s environment or diversity, equity and inclusion — it’s been a government agenda,” he said. “I think more so today, our colleagues and our customers are expecting us as executives to be a force for good, to be a force for change. If collectively we do it, we move the needle.”