Name: Leanne Harwood
Position title: Managing Director, Australasia & Japan
Company name: InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)
When and why did you join the industry?
My journey into hospitality started with food and beverage. As a twenty-something growing up in New Zealand I was obsessed with skiing so, in order to fuel that passion, I started working in a bar in the evenings so I could ski all day.
At the time the job was a means to an end, and the end was one I hadn’t expected.
It turns I loved working in the bar almost as much as I enjoyed the slopes, and before I knew it I had taken the leap to hotel F&B. The rest is history. I have worked my way up through the hotel industry ever since, moving into sales, commercial, operations and now in my role as IHG’s Managing Director for Australasia and Japan.
It just goes to show how amazing this industry is: where else can arrive without a formal education, start in the kitchen and work your way up to become a Managing Director at one of the world’s leading hotel companies?
What do you like most about your job?
I have worked in hospitality my entire career, and one of the things that fills me with the most joy is the diversity of people, attitudes and thinking.
Hospitality is a great leveller: everyone is welcomed equally. The people who deliver that hospitality reflect the communities in which they operate and the guests who stay in it – a rainbow of nationalities, cultures, ages, qualifications, sexualities and creeds, where each has an equal voice and opportunity.
Hotel teams make magic happen – whether it’s helping a guest to have an amazing stay, or a colleague to have an awesome day.
My own journey has enabled me to be able to connect with people by working across the world and getting to know what brings everyone together, despite their differences.
What’s one of the biggest achievements of your career so far?
Nearly every day of my career has been filled with amazing experiences, but there are a few that stand out specifically, such as being part of a hotel opening team in Tahiti, setting up IHG’s first global sales office in India, and opening Asia’s first Hotel Indigo in Bangkok.
But the icing on the cake has been stepping into the role I am in now, and I am so thrilled and honoured to take on the challenge. Taking yourself out of your comfort zone of expertise to rely solely on your leadership skills is a huge leap of faith and, for me, it’s been a phenomenal experience and the rewards far outweigh any challenging days!
I’m so blessed to work with a brilliant team, and proud that we’ve just had our best year ever in Australia, including the first deal globally for IHG’s new upscale brand, voco.
What’s the best advice ever given to you and who gave it?
Take every opportunity that is presented to you – even if it might be completely different to the direction you thought you were going. And when you do, embrace it with every bit of gusto you have.
Who do you admire and see as a role model in the industry?
Throughout your life there are many people who play a role in influencing your journey. One person who has done that for me on many occasions over recent years is Karin Sheppard, my friend, colleague and predecessor. Karin is the person who challenged me to challenge myself. She never let me settle, never let me take an easy way out, and I thank her for pushing me to get me to where I am today.
What can people expect from your company and what sets it apart from the rest?
IHG may be one of the world’s leading hotel management companies, but we’re not just about delivering great results, we are underpinned by an unshakable culture of doing the right thing. That means responsible business first – diversity, sustainability and community engagement, without the lip service.
We value trusted partnerships with people at the heart – whether it’s with our clients, property owners, or hotel colleagues. We spend the time to build long term, successful relationships.
What destinations are on your travel bucket list?
I’m incredibly lucky to have lived in some amazing places such as Tahiti, Dubai, and sometimes feel like to travel to a different destination every other week. It might sound a bit like a first world problem, but my bucket list is spending more time at home!
What’s a memorable travel experience you’ve had (good or bad)?
I’ve moved 14 cities in twenty years, so I’m getting pretty good at upping sticks and settling into new environments.
But it wasn’t always a breeze – an early move was in 2001 when my husband and I headed for Saigon. For us it was particularly adventurous as South East Asia was a bit of an unknown, and neither of us had even visited Vietnam. At the time the country was just starting to open up to foreigners, and what we encountered upon arrival could only have been described as absolute chaos.
I wish someone could have photographed the look of terror my face as I stepped into a world of noise, smells, millions of motorbikes stacked with passengers, and no traffic lights. I admit that I almost ran for the airport, but I took a leap of faith and it turned out to be one of my most cherished experiences.
Since then I’ve lived in French Polynesia, Dubai, Bangkok and Singapore. All have given me endless stories and wonderful experiences, and now I’m very much enjoying being able to call Sydney home.
What are three things you always take with you when travelling?
1. My iPad, prepped and ready with my favourite Netflix series downloaded
2. My Bose noise-masking sleepbuds to help with the overnight flights
3. My Grippy Yoga Mat Towel – a towel and yoga mat in one, perfect for morning sun salutations!
Name someone famous you’d like to travel with and a destination you’d like to go with them.
I’d love to travel the Rugby World Cup in Japan (I’m an avid All Black follower) with Jacinda Ardern.
What direction do you see the industry heading in over the next five to ten years?
We need to reposition the industry for the next generation, and I believe one of the easiest ways we can start doing that is to kill the term ‘service industry’ and refer to ourselves as hospitality.
We risk alienating the next generation workforce by creating the idea of servitude, but as Millennials focus increasingly on experiences over things, let’s show them how they can bring life’s best experiences to life through True Hospitality – which is what IHG is famous for!
Diversity and inclusion is key to embracing the workforce of the future. We hear so many companies talking about D&I in broad, sweeping, feel-good terms, but it has to be more than lip service. For us in hotels, it means: structured mentoring initiatives for female colleagues who aspire to be GMs; embedding flexible workplace practices; rethinking old-school dress code requirements, celebrating Pride month across every part of our business, and recognising that the leader of five years’ time is possibly not someone who’s on our radar today.
The current generation already demands this from their employer. They have an aversion to the phoney, will call out inequality, and will make their voices heard. It’s our job to inspire, encourage and foster those voices and traits.