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Bringing Calm to a Crisis

This episode features Liam Brown, Elevate’s CEO and Chairman, and Nicolette Henfrey, EVP, General Counsel and Company Secretary of the Intercontinental Hotels Group. Nicolette reflects on how IHG, a global hospitality company, managed rolling…

Leadership in Tough Times Requires – Resilience, Clarity, and Calmness

This episode features Liam Brown, Elevate’s CEO and Chairman, and Nicolette Henfrey, EVP, General Counsel and Company Secretary of the Intercontinental Hotels Group. Nicolette reflects on how IHG, a global hospitality company, managed rolling closures and the regulatory requirements for reopening.  She talks about the New Normal and how IHG ensures their teams have the energy for the Next Normal.

Nicollette joined IHG in 2001, her role includes overseeing the IHG approach to corporate governance, risk management, insurance, regulatory compliance, internal audit, legal, and hotel standards.

In this episode, Nicolette explains how the right balance between human interests and responsiveness is vital for business during a crisis. IHG has the benefit of a crisis management response team that is decisive in its course of action.  Nicolette describes how they navigated working within different countries adhering to worldwide shutdown management plans and regulations.  She notes that maintaining one’s motivational level and clear communication helps prioritize while working at an unsustainable pace.

Nicolette said – “Don’t do things that you don’t need to do. Work on your priorities”- resilience, trusting your judgment, and collective wisdom helped IHG to get through to where they are today.

Liam and Nicolette agree that the introduction of Recharge days can increase self-awareness.

We covered a lot about how IHG dealing with the crisis; click on the links below to listen:

  • [01:47] – A lawyer trains to deal with uncertainty.
  • [02:33] – The totality of response requires getting the balance right.
  • [04:01] – Decisiveness is Critical – how IHG refreshed crisis management tools.
  • [05:16] – Nicolette explains how their strategies changed due to changing priorities.
  • [08:10] – People need to be extremely flexible to adapt to the New-Normal – How is IHG  ensuring that well-being is at the core of workforce resilience?
  • [10:48] – IHG introduced Recharge days for managing energy.
  • [13:47] – When you don’t have a playbook – trust your judgment – there is no right or wrong.
  • [15:41] – IHG Global approach includes a degree of regional nuance and flexibility.
  • [19:41] – Strong Teamwork is needed to progress through the different phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • [20:36] – Defining your goals & principles can help during uncertain times.
  • [23:47] – “Leadership in tough times requires…”


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Podcast Transcript

Note: This transcript has been adjusted to improve readability. Transcripts are generated using speech recognition software and human transcribers. The context and more than 95% of the actual transcript have been preserved.  We strongly encourage our listeners to listen to the audio.


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.

I think a combination of having that resilience, trusting your judgment, and then also sort of bringing some collective wisdom to it certainly helped us get through to where we are today.

Nicolette Henfrey

And, I think that we are better as a result of that because we’ve got a far more rounded opinion and a far more rounded insight into the response that we’re taking. So, I think a combination of having that resilience, trusting your judgment and then also sort of bringing some collective wisdom to it certainly helped us get through to where we are today.

Liam: For what was a difficult question, that was a fabulous response because, lots of things have come up from here. So, talking about trusting your judgment, well, you talked earlier on about how the importance of being decisive, “Don’t do things that you don’t need to do. Work on your priorities,” being able to trust your judgment, to be decisive, that means that you can be, if I can use this term, “efficient” because you’re not sort of over processing something. So, I can see how valuable building up the muscle of, in yourself and in your team, and trust your judgment. And so, maybe if we have time, we’ll talk about how you actually develop that. But, of course, experience helps with that. The collective wisdom that you bring up is really interesting because you really are a global business. The diversity of points of view that come from very different cultural places to see the same fact pattern differently, or they assess it differently is something that must be tremendously difficult. I imagine you take that for granted because you’ve been in the company for quite some time.

That diversity, which is a challenge from the perspective of the global footprint, you talked about global calls. I know how hard it is to actually have global calls and do that in a way that includes people but doesn’t make people feel like, “Well, everyone kind of works on kind of headquarters’ time.” I mean, how do you feel about this natural global operation leading to diversity from a challenge leading to it being a strength. How do you feel about that inside your department?

Nicolette: The time difference does clearly pose a challenge for us. I think we probably do, to some extent just take for granted that wonderful diversity that we have. But, we’re a global function. But we have global approaches to things and we also localize them. We try to work as one global team, but we recognize that there have to be cultural and country nuances. And so, having a degree of flexibility is also really important. And so, we do try as much as possible to reflect some of that in what we do. But, we also try and learn from each other. There is not one single right way. We are able to learn from different ways of doing things, and nothing should ever standstill. It should always be challenged. You should always be challenging it, looking to find ways that you can improve on it. And within our function, we will often have different parts of the function leading. So, in some of these areas, for example, because China was our team that experienced it first, we’ve taken the tools that the China team have developed. We have built on those. Similarly, our China team have leveraged some of the work done in America’s. We try really hard to build on what others have done, but at the same time, have a degree of that regional nuance and that regional sort of flexibility.

Liam: Where does that come from in you? Because, you know, there are other executives that I have this conversation with that are much more top-down, corporate, “In a time of crisis, I provide direction.” And, that seems to work for them. But, where does this come from for you?

Nicolette: Oh, I don’t know. I’ve never really thought about that. I suspect growing up in South Africa in the sort of late 1980s, a time of change for South Africa. And I suspect that there is something of that in me. That cultural heritage, those roots, it’s a way that I’ve always looked at the world. I believe it’s really important to be able to see a perspective from somebody else’s side because I think that you end up with a far richer perspective as a consequence. I honestly believe that there isn’t a single right way about doing something. It’s important to not expect everybody to always have the same high standards that I’ve got.

Liam: You do learn to let go, and that goes also a little bit to resilience. One of the lessons I think that we have, and I think it’s an important lesson to kind of share with the people who work on our teams, is that the sun rises tomorrow there are very few things that you do that really do define the orbit of your whole life.

Nicolette: Absolutely. There is always another day. So many times, in my career, an event has happened, and I thought, “Oh! This is the one!” And, if I have those feelings, it very quickly gets eclipsed by another event. Also, you talk about your team. And, I think that one of the things that has been particularly pertinent through the last three months is that teamwork is really, really crucial. You can’t do what we need to do, and I can’t do what I need to do in my role without a fantastic team. Giving my team, my leadership team and their teams the space to be able to do what they need to do has been really critical. I rely on my team day in and day out. And, I think it’s really, really important to be able to give them that opportunity to know that they’re accountable for something but know that I’ve also got their backs. If this period has taught me anything, I can’t do it all myself. I can’t be across everything. I’ve got to rely on my team to be there and for them to be able to do their jobs. And I think that’s been really important to have that strong teamwork as we’ve progressed through the different phases of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Liam: That’s so important – giving our people space, and a level of accountability that perhaps we haven’t really provided or to the same degree, or maybe even so, deepens the organization. Have you had anything like this experience? With a team, particularly now, we need people to pull in the same direction. We also need to give people space to experiment and not always be successful, and we also have to give people space to disagree with us. You’ve got people on the team, some of them disagree, and some aren’t really on the bus.

We need to give people space to experiment and not always be successful, and we also have to give people space to disagree with us.

liam brown

In the past, you might work this out. Right now, if you pass the ball to someone and then they actually run back towards your own goal, that’s really difficult right now. And in fact, it can be critical right now. Even while we say that we have these fabulous teams, we have some people where this is not the right place for them. How are you thinking about navigating that?

Nicolette: It’s a really good question, Liam, because, there has been so much that has been coming at us. And people respond differently because we are in such uncertain times. And I think one of the things that I have found helpful over the last few months is being really clear and actually, asking the question a number of times. And so, “What is it that we’re trying to achieve?” And if I’m feeling that we’re not getting to a place where we’ve got agreement, I’ll bring ourselves back to, “What is it that we’re wanting to achieve, whatever it is we’re trying to solve for?” And invariably, we end up having alignment. The question then becomes, “Well, how do you get there?” You can get there any number of ways. And, I will often say, “It doesn’t really matter how we get there as long as we get to the place that we’re trying to get to.” It goes back to the legal training. What’s the end point that you want to get and how do you bring all the arguments together to get to the conclusion. I have found myself asking that question a number of times. “What is it that we want to achieve here? How are we going to get there?” And as long as we’re clear on where we want to go to, it’s almost inconsequential.

Liam: That’s really good advice for any leader. The conversation that leads to, “What do we want to achieve?” is really valuable. The decision about what we want to achieve often is not a distributable democratic decision. The distinction of what we’re trying to achieve, informed by conversation, but ultimately one person makes that decision, ultimately, then, you can allow or be freer about there are different ways to get there. And to your point, you’re not wed, then, in the management or the micromanagement of people getting there, which I can see is a really important discipline – focusing on the what and making sure that people come back to that and understand that.

Nicolette: And one of the other things that we have done through each of these stages is been really clear on our principles. So, whether it’s the conversation that we’ve had with the board or even as an EC, we’ve been really clear around the principles, and that has provided us a framework that we’re then able to move relatively quickly, you know, sort of have fast decision-making because we’ve had clear alignment on those principles up front. And so, that has provided us with a bit more more of a framework around decision-making.

Liam: Principles cause me to think about frameworks, lessons learned from others. So, here’s my last question. You’ve developed your own style of leadership. So, I’d like you finish a sentence that is around that. And the sentence that I’d like you to finish is, “Leadership in tough times requires…”

Nicolette: Resilience, clarity, remaining calm, and I think also challenging your assumptions. It’s being able to go with things, but also being flexible enough to adapt as things change. Because, it’s absolutely clear that in tough times, things are not going to go the way you expect them to. So, you need to be able to challenge yourself and be flexible and have that resilience.

Liam: Nicolette, there are many things that I would love to explore further. This has been a great conversation about your leadership style. Other leaders in law will be interested in learning about you and your thoughts. So, thank you very, very much.

Nicolette: Liam, thank you so much. Thank you.

Nicole: Tune in to the next episode of the Elevate. Together. Podcast. Available on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, Stitcher and

About the Author(s)

Nicolette Henfrey is an Executive Vice President, General Counsel & Company Secretary of the Intercontinental Hotels Group. This interview was conducted by Liam Brown, Chairman, and CEO of Elevate.

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