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Nicole: Hello. This is Nicole Giantonio, the head of global marketing at Elevate. The podcast episode you are about to hear launches our Next Normal Leadership Series featuring Elevate’s Chairman and CEO, Liam Brown, talking with general counsel from leading organizations, law firm managing partners, and law company leaders about leading during this time of change. Today’s guest is Nicolette Henfrey, EVP, General Counsel and Company Secretary of the Intercontinental Hotels Group. Nicolette provides context as to how a global company in the hospitality business managed rolling closures as well as the regulatory requirements for reopening. Nicolette talks about the new normal and how IHG is ensuring their teams have the energy for the Next Normal.
Liam: Tell me a bit about the arc of how your career ended up landing you in the role that you have today. That would be a good way to get started.
Nicolette: Great. Thanks very much, Liam. Great to be speaking to you. So, I have been General Counsel and Company Secretary at IHG for about 18 months. I’ve been with IHG for coming up to 20 years. Not quite 20 years yet, but always in a legal role. Before that, I was in private practice in London. I did corporate M&A. And before coming to London, I grew up in South Africa. So, I studied, and I trained in South Africa, and I worked in a law firm in South Africa in Cape Town for a number of years before coming to London. So, I have been born and bred a lawyer.
Liam: Would you say that with the statement about being born and bred a lawyer, how would you say that prepared you for what we’ve all been living through in the last six month or so?
Nicolette: I think that we have been living with such unbelievable uncertainty and incredible ambiguity. And I think that as a lawyer, you’re trained to think about all sides of everything that you’re having to look at. You are trained to deal with uncertainty. The law is never black and white. And I think that’s been incredibly useful as we’ve tried to navigate our way through responding to this crisis as we’ve seen it coming in waves, coming in different stages across the globe. And I think just being able to deal with that ambiguity and being able to navigate through it has been incredibly helpful.
Liam: How has that experience, and mindset contributed to your executive team’s thinking about this?
Nicolette: We, as an executive team, I think like most executive teams, used to meet fairly regularly across the year. But we’re now meeting weekly. We’re still meeting on a weekly basis. And, we alternate between having a fairly sort of structured agenda and then an unstructured agenda. We’re able to just talk about the issues and what we’re facing. And so, I think that balance between the sort of the structure and the unstructure has really helped us to work through the issues that we’re facing. It’s not just about a legal response. It’s very much around the totality of the response. The human element, bearing in mind a corporation’s reputational impact has been really important for us. So, we’ve looked at the totality of the actions that we’ve been taking, trying to make sure that we get that balance right. And I think getting that balance has been incredibly important to us – balancing all of the different interests and everything that we’ve had to take into account. In our business, safety and the well-being of our colleagues, of our guests has been really important.
The hospitality industry has been hit particularly hard through this pandemic. And so, for us, that safety and well-being has been very much top of mind. And so, we’ve tried to focus on that at all times, both internally in the sort of the way that we are responding in it for our colleagues, but also, what we’re doing for our guests to ensure that we maintain that focus on safety and well-being.
Liam: At a time like this, the ability to navigate through all of the ambiguities is really important. How have you found that in your role?
Nicolette: At this point, when you’re dealing with a crisis, you’ve got to be really definitive. And you’ve got to be decisive about the cause of action that you want to take. It’s not to say that you can’t course correct. Decisiveness is really critical. And so, in my team, we also lead crisis management and the crisis management response. And we had refreshed our crisis management tools and our training last year. So, last year, we’d taken each of our leadership teams through crisis management training. We’ve established response teams across different parts of the business. And then, there has been a member of the legal and sort of the risk team on each of those response teams. They are our duty directors. And, by having a duty director in each of those work streams, we’ve been able to make sure that we’ve got both the legal view, but also, that broader business view. It’s also meant that I’ve been able to stay connected with everything that we’re doing across the business. Because to your point, Liam, this has touched every single part of our business. We started talking about safety, but safety is just one element. And so, we have seen that we have been involved in pretty much every conversation and at the heart of everything that we have been doing as a response to the pandemic.
Liam: You know, I was thinking as I was preparing yesterday for our call today, I thought, “What of all of the General Counsel that I’m speaking with right now, your business fundamentally has been impacted.” When your executive team gathered for work and your legal team gathered for work the first week of January this year, and then, I’ll say, first week of April this year, I mean, three months or so later, how different did the priorities look?
Nicolette: Leading a global team and being a global business, in January, we saw this in China. Our focus very much was on our colleagues and our guests in China. And the role that we were playing as a leadership team was supporting our team in China. But, the rest of the world was very much sort of business as usual. As a leadership team, you’d expect us to be focusing on priorities for the year and what our strategy was going to be with a mind to what may happen, what may come at us. But at that point in time, it was very much sort of focused elsewhere. Then, as the pandemic and this COVID-19 had spread, it has clearly meant that we have had to pivot really quickly into crisis response mode. As a team, we’ve had to support hotels as they have had to close, and then, as they’ve had to reopen. We’ve also had to navigate through different countries how they are looking at responding, the shutdown plans they’ve put in place, the regulations that they have introduced, and also, just the sort of measures that they’ve put in place to support businesses has been really different.
We, as an exec team, have rallied around responding in our functional roles, coming together on a weekly call as an exec team, looking at the response that we’re taking. And it has shifted sort of as things have progressed. We have been struck by the pace of things. And we’ve had to change.
So, what we were talking about what we were thinking about as a high priority back in March has now become business as usual. Things which the exec team were top of our radar, their business as usual, they’re being dealt with in a different way, and we’ve got other priorities, which have taken over. We’re looking very much at hotels closing, and now we’re looking at them reopening. We were looking at what we do around cancellation policies, all of the measures that companies have been taking in order to respond to COVID-19 were sort of very much high up on our agenda.
Liam: I feel like we are in this, what I’ve typically described as a decade of shift from the pace of law to the pace of business. In six months, not only has the law department had to run alongside the rest of the executive team, but the whole business – the pace of the whole team has actually had to pick up. And I think that’s something that is quite shocking or surprising. But, I also think it’s quite fatiguing. It’s not that people are tired, because it seems interesting that sleep habits or fears have subsided. But, there is this everyone is running a much faster pace for longer than we expected. How are you and your team trying to look ahead to be able to sustain the sustainable pace?
Nicolette: The team has had to work at an unsustainable pace, and also dealing with things where there hasn’t been a playbook. Regulations have been coming out and we’ve been having to stay on top of those regulations, which are new. It’s in an area that nobody’s had to deal with before. People have had to be incredibly flexible to adapt to what has been coming at them. We’ve been particularly mindful about making sure that we have got really clear communications, that clarity of where we need to be prioritizing and what we should be doing, and trying to make sure that we leverage as much as possible what we’ve done elsewhere. And I talked earlier about the support that we had given to our colleagues in China. Then we were able to take what our colleagues have done in China and leverage that as we then started responding in the same way across other regions. So, it’s been really important for us to make sure that all of those things that we’ve been trying to do previously about removing duplication, having that clarity of focus and that ruthless prioritization, we really lived and breathed over the past three months.
Two things that have been very much top of mind for me leading the function have been making sure that people are clear on what it is they should be prioritizing, because at the moment, it’s got to be top priority only. So, clear communication has been really important. But then, it’s also making sure that we don’t have burnout and we maintain motivation. Like all companies, we’re now in a, for the most part across the organization, we’re in a remote working environment. And so, you don’t have that day-to-day human connection and can’t see what people are doing every day. The only interactions that I have are very deliberate interactions because they are set up either through a call or something like that. You don’t bump into somebody. So, making sure that we maintain those motivation levels has been really, really important for me.
So, I’ve done it through a number of mechanisms. We’ve got regular team talks where we have a global call with everybody across the function, keeping them up to date with things that are happening across the business as well as those priorities that we’ve got within the function, and some of the great work that we’ve been doing to demonstrate the value that we’re adding to the business. I’ve also been having a number of sorts of skip-level check ins with smaller group peoples that I can stay connected with what’s challenging them what they’re seeing on a day-to-day basis. But, as an executive committee, we’ve also been really focused on ensuring that we don’t have the burnout, that we do what we can to ensure the business and the people within our business are able to keep going at this pace because, we’re not through it yet. And so, we need to make sure that we maintain that.
So, we, as an executive committee, we introduced recharge days. So, through June, July and August, we’ve had three days and one in each month which is a no email, no meetings, just to try and deliver some quiet across the organization to give people the opportunity to do some recharging. And those have been incredibly well-received.
Liam: It’s very deliberate, organization wide, where people just largely catch up.
Nicolette: The purpose is just to deliver a little bit of quiet because we’ve been so conscious of the pace at which everybody has been working. And, it’s to try and make sure that we can do what we can, knowing that we need people to continue to deliver at a time when everybody is relatively tired – just to try and provide that calm when you’re in the crisis mode. It’s incredibly important to have that sense of calm, and that’s something that we can bring to the organization, both in our role, but then also by sort of the actions and the behaviors that we demonstrate.
Liam: On a recharge day for you, what do you do with that day? How do you feel at the end of that day? What does that make you think about the team around you?
Nicolette: We do lead as we expect our teams to continue. So, I spend the time with my family. You have seen not as much of me as they would’ve liked, despite the fact that I’ve been at home. So, I use it to reflect. I use it to spend time with the family and to also make sure that the team has a bit of a respite from me – the asking them questions and demands from them.
Liam: As I think about this as a conversation about leadership, and we spend a lot of time thinking about leading others. Often, we don’t spend very much time thinking about ourselves and how other people observe us. We talk about managing time, but I’m also a great believer in managing energy. I really like this idea of recharge days. I’ve just come through something where I completed some very big projects, and it just so happens that today is my first day for a very long time where I just don’t have more email in my inbox when I wake up, or stacked up meetings. And I’m aware how I’m actually slightly lighter. And, I was thinking about that in myself. I was thinking, “Well, the same way if I’m feeling this way, then, what about all the people that I work with?” And a little bit to your point about how you give people a respite from you, I think that’s actually quite important, isn’t it, as well?
Nicolette: Oh, it’s hugely important. And, I think that often in leadership roles, people don’t recognize, as you say, the impact that they had. What’s in your mind is a relatively innocent question and you expect it’s just going to be a quick, one-minute response. You can see the impact that you’ve had when somebody sends you a really lengthy email. I think it’s really important recognizing that impact that you have on others, particularly at this point in time where people are so busy, and they’ve got so many demands on them.
Liam: I think there is something unique about your business because it is so people centric. Many of us look to your industry, especially when we’re looking to seed an enhanced customer experience. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that the muscles that you’ve been exercising in the past including, for example, your crisis management response training, et cetera, those really do show up as differentiators. Looking aside from the business overall and just thinking about your law department, what are the muscles that you didn’t necessarily know that you had needed to invest in that are not only right now maybe think to the future or you think about your own career path, what are those muscles that you’ve noticed as really good to build up?
Nicolette: I think first and foremost, resilience has been critical. And, it’s not just resilience in the sense of stamina and being able to work the long hours. But, it’s the resilience of being able to deal with something of this nature because it’s so unprecedented. The human impact has also been incredible. And I think that’s still something that we haven’t quite seen the totality of yet. The resilience in the broadest possible definition – trusting your judgment, there is no right or wrong. There has not been a playbook for this. Nobody has been through this before. And so, I think that instinctively, the years of experience that you’ve had and being able to sort of trust your judgment, it’s also knowing that there is no playbook and that there is no right or wrong answer. And I think collective wisdom has also played a really big role. We as a leadership team are now also meeting weekly. We are sharing our own experiences. We’re sharing our insights that we’re getting, whether it’s an insight from Singapore, from Shanghai to the US. We’re sharing what we’re seeing. We’re sharing what we’re hearing. And collectively, we’re coming up with an opinion or a view.