IHG HRD: Employer brand is secret to success

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InterContinental Hotels Group’s Tracy Robbins tells us about her vision of an employer brand and how it has transformed the sprawling company into a cohesive unit whose staff, wherever they are, deliver excellence and consistency

Few industries in the world rely so much on consistency as the hotels business. After all, who hasn’t travelled to a luxury hotel in one country and compared it to a sister hotel in another?

Hotels are about creating a memorable experience regardless of location, which makes getting a high level of consistency paramount. Consistency in service, facilities, cleanliness, food, ambiance, you name it – a hotel’s brand and success hinge on being able to deliver uniformity. But trying to maintain that across a global empire of 4,600 hotels in more than 100 countries is a challenging prospect.

For starters, as is the case at the InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG), you have an army of 350,000 people from vastly different cultures to manage. Then there are the different brand offerings – IHG has the upmarket InterContinental Hotels, the mid-market Holiday Inn chain and the boutique ‘wellness’ EVEN Hotels, to name but a few.

How do you go about delivering consistency and success with so many variables at play?

The answer, according to Tracy Robbins, IHG’s EVP, global HR and group operations support, and a HR magazine Most Influential practitioner, is one of the best-kept secrets in HR: employer brand. “I believe HR’s role at IHG is to bring our brands to life through people,” she says. “The biggest challenge for us is to make sure that, as we grow, we can attract the right people with the right behaviours. We train, we motivate them – we create the right environment for them to succeed.

“With any brand, you look at who your consumers are. You do insight, then you create an experience consumers will love. It’s the same for an employer brand. If employees love what they do, they are going to love serving the guests, and the guests are going to love their experience. It’s a simple equation.”

Humble beginnings

Robbins should know. She started out on the hospitality front line and has worked in service industries for most of her career. One of five girls from a working-class family in Lancaster, she credits her father, a policeman, for her strong work ethic. “He would always try to help people because it was a rural beat,” she recalls. “I learnt a strong sense of fairness from him, and to always do the right thing. He worked incredibly hard and we didn’t have a lot of money, so we all went out to work.”

Robbins began her career at a hotel and was a graduate trainee at BHS. She moved into HR at Tesco in 1987, where she led personnel training in London, before becoming HR director at hotel group Forte in the mid-90s. In 2001, she moved to catering company Compass, where she first studied and then implemented employer branding. She joined IHG in 2005. At the time, the group was looking to expand rapidly and needed to become a “magnet for talent”.

“From a consumer perspective, we had very strong brands that were very popular, but from an employment perspective, there was a view that it was hard work,” she says. “There was a perception that hospitality wasn’t a great place for a career – it meant long hours, low pay and few promotional opportunities.”

There were also problems with the way the group operated; it was “global and disparate”. Recruitment, for example, was “all about what suited [hotels] locally, even at management level”.

“It wasn’t a disaster, more like a collection of different companies, but they were all there to do the same thing, to deliver a distinct guest experience, which had to be globally consistent with some local tailoring,” Robbins explains.

How IHG developed employer brand

One of her first tasks was to assess how the company was positioned – its vision, purpose and values – and then devise an employer brand. To do this, IHG reached out to staff in 20 countries, asking them what drove their engagement and motivation. “There were two main responses across all levels and countries: treat me as an individual and recognise and value what I contribute,” Robbins says.

On the back of the research, IHG developed an employer brand that had three elements. First, a creative look. In internal communications, for example, employees are always photographed carrying out a hobby or interest, rather than in hotel uniforms. Second, four standards on recruiting people, growing their career, involving them in the business and recognising and rewarding their efforts. Finally, bespoke surveys measuring how the company is doing and targeting every line manager with initiatives to help them improve engagement.

On the creative look, Robbins says the aim was to present staff, internally and externally, as individuals rather than as chefs, cleaners, porters and other stereotypical hotel roles. “If you look at what a lot of other companies do in the hospitality business, they use stock shots of people and it tends to be quite traditional,” says Robbins, who is photographed for corporate communications in her horse-riding kit.

Although now widely popular, Robbins recalls a time when photographing staff interests threw up some hairy moments. “The first photoshoot we did had a whole food chain of hobbies and interests,” she says. “We had a guy with his falcon, another with a goat and somebody else with some other animal – all on a minibus going to this photoshoot. Somebody asked me what was going on, but I didn’t want to say in case it all kicked off and the animals started eating each other.”

She adds that although there was some resistance to the concept at first, that soon began to decline. “A lot of people take home these pictures and the families are so proud of them,” she says.

Soaring engagement scores

And though it may sound like fun, there is a serious side to IHG’s employer brand – it drives engagement and performance, and Robbins swears by it. “Introducing the employer brand made us more efficient overnight,” she says. “Our engagement scores were going up and we are linking it to guest satisfaction and financial results.”

Since the employer brand was introduced five years ago, engagement has risen 21 percentage points to 81%. Company pride is 94%, (20% above the industry average), job satisfaction is 89% (13% above average) and 90% of staff would recommend IHG as a place to work (19% above average).

High engagement scores are critically important in the hospitality industry, Robbins adds. “We have managed to prove the relationship between engagement and operating profit,” she says.

The difference in operating profit between hotels with highly engaged staff and those without can be as much as 7%. IHG has worked out that a 5% percentage point rise in engagement equals 70 cents of increased revenue per available room per night. This means a 200-bed hotel could make more than $50,000 in additional revenue a year by improving staff engagement.

Another benefit of employer branding has been to ensure consistency across the group. After its introduction, the company set up centres of excellence on leadership, talent, employer branding and resourcing, in addition to the existing compensation and benefits centres. “Those centres of excellence develop the core principles of our employer brand, but then you can locally tailor it. That has made us much more consistent around the world,” Robbins says.

The employer brand has also helped the company attract and retain top talent. Robbins claims it helps IHG stand out from its rivals, which is important for a company that plans to employ 90,000 additional staff in the next few years and is expanding rapidly into emerging markets such as China, India and Russia.

“One of our biggest challenges, because we are growing so fast, is about the volume of people we actually have, so bringing people through internally at pace and bringing people in from outside,” Robbins says.

“When we go into emerging markets, we need to make sure we can put experienced management in there while we bring local management through. For us, being able to move people around the world is critically important for our success.”

To ensure mobility is smooth, IHG looks at what the company is trying to accomplish in a country and the infrastructure required – succession and talent mapping. There is a strong emphasis on appointing local people because developing local talent is the “right thing to do from a business perspective”, Robbins says, and is also more cost-effective.

One source of new talent is IHG’s 150 academy programmes in 37 countries. More than 10,000 students have graduated from these programmes, which were initially set up in China to solve a recruitment shortfall.

“If you bring people through the academy, they get to experience the company and we get to experience them,” Robbins says. “Sometimes when you interview people you base it on a snapshot in time, but through the academies they learn about the business and you can see if they are passionate about it.

“The biggest thing about service delivery is you’ve got to have people who behave in the right way in accordance with your values. Our brands are a promise brought to life by our people.” And it is IHG’s employer brand that helps bring its people to life.

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