TJ interviews: IHG’s Stefan Nemecek

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Written by Conor Gilligan on 16 March 2022 in Interviews
Interviews

Degreed’s Conor Gilligan talks to IHG’s manager of global leadership development, Stefan Nemecek on his career in hospitality and how the Great Opportunity is accelerating the development of leaders

Tell me more about your background and how you ended up in learning with IHG?

I have always been curious and still [I] am curious like a toddler today. Growing up in a city at a lake in Austria – my first job when I was ten years old was to welcome tourists and be a guide to help them get to know their boats (electric boats and sailing boats) and the lake at the same time. I learned so much about other people at that age that I knew that I wanted to continue working in hospitality and did so in hotel operations internationally for many years. 

Then came the time where curiosity kicked in again from another angle and I wanted to learn about other industries and more about business in general and hence, while still working full-time in hotel operations, I completed my Executive MBA studies at Ashridge Business School and quickly realised that topics like coaching, training and mentoring spark a fire in my belly.

I then went on to work in other industries as a freelance consultant and trainer until one day I received a call with an offer too good to resist: Rejoining the industry I love and embarking on the journey of learning and development in it; one of the fastest decisions ever… Since 2015 IHG has given me what we call “Room to Grow” and therefore I held different roles in learning and development in Europe, EMEA and global functions. I am currently part of the Global Leadership development team where we focus on supporting the continuous development of both our senior leaders in hotels as well as the corporate leaders.
 
How do you see the Future of Work and the Great Resignation impacting the skills your leaders need at IHG?

I heard Simon Sinek say the other day that he sees the great resignation as a great opportunity and I believe that the developments now are acting as accelerators of understanding the urgency that we, as leaders, need to be even more curious. Curiosity, for me is the most important skill that applies to all the topics that are currently being discussed: Whether it is about the attractiveness of the industry, the colleague’s journey, wellbeing, DE&I, making a positive difference in a changing world – the list goes on.

At the core of all these topics and the conversations around them lies curiosity. And we can do that by being a little bit more coach-like (here is a massive nod to Michael Bungay Stanier who has been an inspiration for me for many years now…), asking questions to gain a deeper understanding of situations and on how we can serve the team best.
 
What's your plan or vision to develop these skills?

It starts with making sure leaders are confident to have those conversations!

I have spoken to a friend working in the oil and gas industry recently, and he shared that the organisation has a website dedicated to wellbeing, has posters everywhere stating that “It’s ok to be not ok” and all material encouraged colleagues to approach their senior leaders if they feel support is needed when it comes to their physical and mental wellbeing. He was shocked to see his own leader not really listening and brushing the topic aside when he said that he was overwhelmed with the tasks at work – the leader was completely unable to handle the conversation.

Developing those skills could be as straight-forward as offering questions that leaders could ask to open conversations on any of the mentioned topics while still making sure leaders are authentic. How many times have you been asked “How are you?” and you knew it was more a phrase than a question where the person who asked was genuinely interested in the answer?

And the next part of curiosity is listening. If you don’t listen to someone; it’s telling them they don’t exist is a statement that guides me. And both skills can be developed by supporting leaders in being more coach-like in every conversation.
 
What challenges do you see along the way, what’s your plan to bridge these?

The same challenges that have always been there – as leaders we might feel that we have to have the answer to everything and therefore are rushing to giving advice and moving into action.

How to bridge that? Curiosity needs to be embedded in the organisational culture: At IHG Hotels & Resorts, one of our key behaviours is “build one team” and that truly supports the idea of leaders being more coach-like and curiosity-led.

Satya Nadella leading the cultural transformation at Microsoft and changing the culture to move Microsoft from a ‘know-it-all’ to a ‘learn-it-all’ organisation is a great case study here as well.
 
Have you seen other best practices in the L&D community that you are looking to adopt or would recommend to the readers?

I recently learned a technique from Pamay Bassey, chief learning and diversity officer at The Kraft Heinz Company that they call DEAL. The entire company is committed to learning so every colleague has DEAL appointments in the calendar. DEAL stands for “drop everything and learn”.

Colleagues decide what they want to learn; it could be reading a book, listening to a podcast, having a conversation with a colleague or improving their guitar playing. I have adopted this for myself now and am impressed how much 30 minutes of DEAL give me more focus for the rest of my working day and how often my recent learning is connected to the business in some shape or form. For example, yesterday I took 30 minutes to meditate with the following question in mind: What would be the question if the answer is “my life”? And the beauty then lies in sharing what you have learnt to inspire each other again and drive curiosity. And what Pamay Bassey shared reminded me of James Clear’s words: “Goals can provide direction and even push you forward in the short-term, but eventually a well-designed system will always win. Committing to the process is what makes the difference.”

 

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