Martina Maly-Gärtner, COO der UBM Development AG, mit Karin Sheppard, Managing Director Europe der InterContinental Hotels Group.

Do women have a different leadership style to men?

The Boston Consulting Group named UBM among its “Diversity Champions 2023”, honouring the company’s efforts in the area of gender equality. Nevertheless, there is still room for improvement regarding the role of women in leadership positions. Martina Maly-Gärtner, COO of UBM Development AG, discussed this with Karin Sheppard, Managing Director for Europe of the
InterContinental Hotels Group.

Both pursued international careers early on in life and now occupy top positions in their companies. And they are also both fervent supporters of equality for women and men in all positions throughout enterprises. These are perfect reasons for these two powerful women to get together to discuss female leadership.

Female leadership is not just a term for women in leadership positions – it also represents gender equality between women and men in top roles. Do women have a different leadership style to men?

Karin Sheppard: I think it is important to consider the traits that women and men can learn from each other and therefore bring to their leadership styles. Vulnerability and authenticity are things that should be displayed by effective leaders – no matter their gender. Perhaps historically we have associated this with female leadership, and it is true I have seen many female peers do this well, but this is not exclusive to them. Society and workplaces are making more space for different types of leaders and ultimately for people to be themselves in doing so, no matter how those traits have been traditionally labelled.

It is said that female leadership emphasises positive qualities such as foresight and cooperation. Women are considered communicative and empathetic, capable of compromise and prudent in their actions with a more participative leadership style. Would you agree?

Martina Maly-Gärtner: A female leadership style is more inclusive, encourages greater participation and focuses more on sharing information and including employees in decision-making. Women contribute different types of experiences and perspectives to men. And by examining and discussing these different perspectives, you can find the ideal solution.

Karin Sheppard: With my current leadership team, the ratio of women to men is 50:50 and I have no doubt that you get the best out of everyone when you bring diversity to the table. Some people prefer to initially listen and reflect, and then only respond afterwards. Others put forward an idea that hasn’t been fully thought through. I find a combination of the two works best, drawing on a wealth of different styles and different views. I’m not saying that one is better than the other – rather, it’s a question of learning from each other.

Some studies have found that women are often the better choice for leadership positions, particularly in times of crisis. They suggest that a caring outlook, strong communication skills and a willingness to prioritise the common good over personal interests will help lead a company through a crisis with calm and composure. Do you see it that way as well?

Martina Maly-Gärtner: Particularly in times of crisis, it is enormously important to move together, work together and communicate with one another. Clear and transparent communication is definitely a key factor here. Female leaders generally tend to express this a little more than men.

Karin Sheppard: No one of us demonstrates a unilateral style, and I think this comes back to my point that there is value in a wealth of different styles and approaches. For me, clarity and empathy were my mantra in all communications during the Covid-19 crisis, especially in new virtual environment. I learned very quickly how important it is to be able to read emotion on a screen during video conferences and to take the time to call someone and ask them if they are OK. I also know that as a leader, I have to be able to balance that out with decisiveness and assertiveness which are traits that are perhaps seen as traditionally male. My point being is that we have to be a mix of styles to be at our most effective.

Martina Maly-Gärtner
She joined the Management Board of UBM Development AG as COO on 1 September 2021 and is responsible for the operational hotel business and human resources. As part of her international career, she was responsible as COO for the hotel portfolio and strategy development of Munich-based Arabella Hospitality from 2018. Prior to that, she led the Europe-focused tourism consulting and hotel development company Michaeler & Partner in Vienna as Managing Director for eight years. In addition, Maly-Gärtner has ten years of operational hotel management experience in America, the Middle East and Europe with internationally renowned hotel chains.

Gender equality in leadership positions still seems to be a long way off. Why is it so important?

Karin Sheppard: It is difficult to fully perceive why this may be the case, and the reality is that there are so many barriers facing women in the workplace – even today. It is important that we focus on policies and practices that will advance opportunities and development for women. For example, our RISE programme enables female colleagues seeking hotel leadership roles with mentoring and networking. This is going from strength to strength with cohorts in all of our regions globally, with more than 200 graduates. Our Lean In employee network membership has also grown, providing a voice to female colleagues and their allies who consult the business on meas-ures that support a diverse and inclusive workplace. This can range from how we encourage gender and ethnically diverse recruitment shortlists, to ensuring our market-specific leave policies are regularly evaluated to support women and their families through life changes. Most recently, our UK partnership with Busy Bees provides our corporate and managed hotel colleagues a 20% discount on childcare fees.

What do you think of having a quota for women for certain leadership positions, for example on supervisory, executive or management boards?

Martina Maly-Gärtner: Fundamentally speaking, a woman should get the job if she is qualified for it. Unfortunately, we still need quotas to help speed up this process. UN Sustainable Development Goal Number 5 says that gender equality is not only a fundamental human right but also a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. We know the qualities and the potential of diverse teams, and we need to work hard to achieve gender equality. This change is only possible if the top level of a company is on board and if a suitable corporate culture exists and is put into practice.

Karin Sheppard: I think targets can provide a positive ambition, but to me the main focus should be focusing on diverse slates and how we are supporting women in the organisation to further their career. The challenge is that I would never want anyone to think that women are in a certain position just to make up the numbers.

Do you think it is possible for women in leadership positions to work part-time to balance their career with family commitments? Or maybe to job-share? For example, two female general managers working part-time to ensure a general manager is on-site seven days a week?

Karin Sheppard: Yes, flexible working, part-time working and job-sharing are all good ways to remove at least some of the obstacles for women. Generally speaking, women are very suitable for models like these, as they are a little less concerned with ego and more focused on the practical considerations.

Martina Maly-Gärtner: In my experience, women coming back from maternity leave to work part-time are extremely motivated. They have been looking forward to returning to a business environment, work very efficiently and try to make things happen.

What has been your personal experience with female leadership? Have you ever encountered obstacles in your career path?

Martina Maly-Gärtner: I’d like to answer this question by giving advice to my younger self: Be more self-confident – because women tend to doubt themselves even though they deliver results! Don’t let it get to you when you make mistakes. Learn from them and move on. Speak your mind. You need to find the right time and the right tone, but contribute your thoughts.

Karin Sheppard: I have had the same self-doubt, but I’ve been very fortunate in that I have always had people supporting me. Self-doubt has its positive benefits as well, though. Humility is a great trait to have if it’s used in the right way.

In 2023, the InterContinental Hotels Group was ranked second out of 850 companies around the world among the Financial Times Diversity Leaders – beaten only by the Finnish-Swedish Stora Enso Group. What were the key points where you outperformed your peers?

Karin Sheppard: It was an absolute delight to get an award like that, particularly as it’s based on an employee survey. I have no doubt that this is a direct result of the initiatives that we have implemented over the last few years. But I imagine what tipped the balance in our favour was the cultural shift that we have initiated in our company. It’s not just about female leadership, but about diversity, inclusion and equal opportunities in all areas and for all people. For instance, we march loudly and proudly in the pride marches in more and more countries. We take on interns from diverse ethnic backgrounds and of all abilities. At IHG, there is genuine intent in bringing about this cultural shift and enough impatience to make sure that it happens. We have achieved a lot already but there is a lot more to do.

Karin Sheppard
She has worked for IHG Hotels & Resorts for over 21 years. She is currently Managing Director for Europe, responsible for almost 800 hotels and based at the IHG headquarters in Denham (near London). Sheppard is a member of the IHG Senior Leadership Team for Europe, Middle East, Asia and Africa, and also sits on IHG’s global Diversity & Inclusion Board. She was previously Chief Operating Officer (COO) of IHG’s Sydney-based Australasia & Japan Division, Chief Commercial Officer (CCO) for Asia, Middle East and Africa (AMEA) based in Singapore, and Vice President, Brand Management for the Europe, Middle East and Africa region.

Are women’s networks a means of strengthening women in leadership positions?

Martina Maly-Gärtner: Mentors are important, they have shaped my career. And there’s no need to be scared of networking events – because at first, it’s just a question of stepping out of your comfort zone. For example, there’s a women’s real estate network in Austria called Salon Real. This network has really helped me because sometimes I reach for my phone and ask one of my female colleagues for advice – and sometimes other women call me.

Does female leadership need the support of men too? Do men have to support women for there to be a greater number of women in leadership positions?

Karin Sheppard: Any cause must have allies to be successful and the support given to women by men is very important. When we first launched our initiative to have more women general managers in Australia, we had to make sure it wasn’t seen as something that was excluding the men. Instead, we needed to communicate why there was a need for this initiative. And suddenly our area general managers in this region – who were all men back then – became sponsors and mentors and spoke about why this was important for them personally. For example: “I have a daughter and I want the world to be different when she enters the workforce.” Or: “I have a sister and I know what she’s been struggling with.” So they had their own very personal reasons and were wonderful support for the young women coming through. Female leadership should never be seen as a kind of divisive movement – it’s about ensuring the best for everyone.

Martina Maly-Gärtner: An important message to men is: don’t think women want
to take over the world. Recognise the leadership qualities of women and be aware that diverse teams are more successful.

Moderation: Tanja Milner
Pictures: Philipp Horak, IHG