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‘I’m on a crusade’: This multi-national hotel director will make you want to change careers

Is the hotel business for you? Source: Getty

How does the Intercontinental Hotel Group’s managing director begin her busy day overseeing 80 hotels?

“With strong coffee.”

IHG’s managing director of Australasia and Japan, Leanne Harwood is three things: passionate, busy and a diversity vigilante.

Leanne Harwood. Source: IHG

She’s pushed boundaries her whole career, tackling naysayers and elitists along the way.

“I am a female, I don't have a degree, and yet here I am, running this plethora of hotels across a very expansive region,” she told Yahoo Finance.

From bartender to boss

Harwood was a skiing fanatic, and around 30 years ago she went to live in Queenstown, taking up bartending to support her passion.

But rather than building on her skiing passion, she recalls: “what actually ended up happening was I got a passion for the hospitality industry.”

Since then, Harwood’s worked her way up through multiple areas of the hotel business. In fact, she was the first female concierge in the country.

“I've worked in 14 cities and seven countries now all due to this amazing business that is hospitality.”

But her rise to success wasn’t without a few obstacles along the way.

“I had put my hands up many, many years ago to go on to one of the future leader programs back in the day,” she explained.

“I got rejected because I was told that, being a woman, I was likely to go off and have babies, so I absolutely wasn't going to go ahead in this industry.”

But that just lit Harwood’s “fire in the belly”.

“I went, ‘right, I'll show you’.

“Every opportunity that came to me, I threw myself in with great gusto, so when the opportunity came up to come and try something in concierge, I thought ‘wow’ – I'll give it a go.”

Now, Harwood manages over 70 hotels in Australasia and Japan, looks at new opportunities for hotels, discusses performance, and heads overseas to spend time with various teams.

You don’t need a degree to succeed

Harwood admits she might not have necessarily gone to the right school, and never went to uni at all, but that’s not something she’s ever let get in her way of success.

But while she doesn’t suggest everybody follow in her footsteps, she wants you to know that not having a degree won’t hold you back.

“The only person that holds you back is you.”

And Harwood is the best spruiker for the hospitality industry, modestly crediting her opportunities to the industry itself rather than her own go-getting attitude.

“We really do promote, all people and all opportunities.”

Changing the industry from the inside out

Diversity is at the heart of everything Harwood does.

“I was very lucky; years ago, a great female mentor to me actually said to me, ‘Leanne, if you want to change the industry you need to do it from the inside, right?’”

And so she did.

She’s introduced mentoring programs to support and help females undertake their own leadership journeys and become general managers.

Now, around 77 per cent of line staff at IHG are females, 70 per cent of managers are female and there’s a 50/50 gender split at director level.

On top of that, Harwood is tackling uniforms.

“I'm on a bit of a mission at the moment to make sure that we abolish any processes or policies that require a gender specific uniform in our hotels.”

And she’s not far away from completing that mission, having already abolished gender specific uniforms in Australia and New Zealand.

She admits it’s a little bit more of a slow burn in Japan, but it will continue to be her mission.

Why the hospitality industry could be for you

Fancy setting up a hotel in French Polynesia? What about Tunisia, or Hayman Island?

Intercontinental Hotel Fiji. Source: IHG

If that doesn’t sound like a dream, I don’t know what does.

“It's completely different every single day.”

And she admits she’s “certainly not complaining”.

While Harwood admits it’s unfortunate that hospitality gets a bad rap, with MasterChef judge George Calombaris’ underpayment scandal the latest cog in the wheel, she says she’s trying to offset that by promoting it as a good place to work.

“What I'm seeing at the moment is just breaking my heart. It is giving us a bad rep and it's a few outliers that are creating such a storm in what is an amazing industry.”

Outside of the travel, Harwood boasts of the opportunities available in the industry – and none of them include waiting or serving.

“I'm trying to ban the word serve or the title ‘service industry’,” she says.

“Actually we've got architects, we've got lawyers, we've got developers, we've got financiers, we've got sales and marketing people as well as the frontline staff.”

“The opportunity to come in and grow your career inside this industry, I don't know any other industry that is like it, and delivers that much opportunity for the young talent coming through.”

“I'm on a crusade.”

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