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Embracing the value of diversity & inclusion

Linda Giebing, General Manager Hilton Colombo Residences in Sri Lanka, has thrived in the tourism industry for 20 years. She shares with us how her sense of justice and awareness of privilege were awakened early in her career and how these are embedded into her role as a leader today.

Q: What does having a sense of meaning and purpose mean to you? And how does it apply to your leadership?

Preparing for our interview today has helped me reflect on what drives me and brings me joy. Establishing opportunities for other people to develop their unique skills set motivates me. I harness my position as a leader in a corporate environment to create platforms for my team members and our community to step on. Alongside the direct impacts these platforms create, contributing to discussions provides another opportunity to challenge inequalities or injustices and increase awareness. I enjoy being open and sharing my experiences. Receiving feedback that such conversations help somebody think differently about their opportunities, or their career, really inspires me. 

As a business we are constantly evaluating risks, opportunities and making contingency plans. So the challenges posed by climate change, and other sustainability concerns, have been on the radar. One big concern is the oceans’ health. If this is deteriorating, then that detracts from why people visit beach resorts. Tourists don’t want to sit on a beach strewn with plastic waste, or go snorkelling and diving if the coral reef is dying. Some holiday destinations are already battling the negative side effects of unsustainable mass tourism. We must take responsibility for attracting tourists without destroying the reason that they wanted to visit. We need to be leaders and advocates for sustainable tourism to protect our long-term livelihood and that of our community.

My part in helping to tackle the challenges of climate change is as Hilton’s champion for our corporate responsibility strategy in South East Asia. I am involved in translating the company and regional strategy into the operations of each of our hotels in SE Asia. The pandemic has increased a general consciousness that we must build back better, and there has been a substantial increase in interest on sustainability issues recently. There is a buzz, and the realisation that we must do something is definitely there.

Q: Who or what has been pivotal in your personal story and how has this impacted your leadership?

I grew up with a strong sense of justice which has become clearer as I learn more, and working in diverse environments has given me many opportunities to challenge my own confirmation biases. One time, very early in my career we welcomed a trainee in our department. She explained to me, that out of her class, she was the only student with a “foreign sounding” name that had secured a traineeship. I was really shocked when confronted with this reality and I lobbied my employer to take on another person from her class with a “foreign sounding” name. 

It’s become easier to take action to right injustices as my career has developed. I am now in a position to not only ask why we do things, but also to influence and create change. As I’ve gotten older I realise that I had access to privileges such as education and good health care, that, at the time, I took for granted. Time, age and experience have taught me that these basic needs are not available to everybody in this world. Living in a variety of countries and adapting to their different cultures has reinforced how lucky I was growing up in a country where life’s basic necessities were readily available. I believe that the wisdom available to us from other cultures and their sometimes ancient practises is very meaningful too, and a beautiful opportunity to learn from. 

Stepping out of my comfort zone has helped me embrace the value that diversity and inclusion offer. This has fuelled my desire to be adopt a servant leadership style, and as my career has developed, the opportunities to serve other people have expanded. I support the development of my team members to perform at their best by sharing my knowledge and resources, and by creating platforms for them to step on and shine. I have committed to serve my team members in a broader context by providing healthy meals at our team member restaurant, a properly functioning team member gym, and education on managing their finances and health.

Recognising the influences of a country’s past, including colonisation, on the current society, makes me feel humble and motivates me to celebrate local culture. I have become aware that what I was taught about history in school is one sided and that my perspective has changed through experience and exploring different cultures. 

Q: How have you made the difficult choices in your career?

Together with my team, I made a conscious decision to add differently abled colleagues to our workforce, even though this might be uncommon in some companies in Sri Lanka. We provided an employment platform for a few talented students with hearing difficulties when they graduated from the local deaf school. The introduction of sign language classes has proven popular and enough team members have picked up on it enough for our non-hearing colleagues to integrate smoothly, be at ease and become successful.

We’ve developed a good relationship with the deaf school beyond providing career opportunities. Working with the students, we’ve created an organic vegetable garden at the school and shown them how to grow their own produce. The hotel buys the vegetables grown which generates some income for the school, and students are able to share what they’ve learnt with their families and communities. I look forward to this project restarting once the school reopens following its closure during the pandemic.

The tourism industry is one that has been severely impacted by the Covid pandemic, and unfortunately the year before, Sri Lanka was victim to the disastrous Easter Sunday attacks. These events have brought home that we need to take care of each other and those in our care in difficult times. I value more now that what you put in when times are tough will result in stronger commitment and engagement when times are better. We have had to ask team members to make sacrifices but we haven’t made any of our team members redundant. Instead we have started multi-skilling programmes so that we have more flexible team members when guests return. 

My role as a leader has been in having honest conversations, explaining that we are all working towards a common purpose and that we are in this together. Creating a vision, providing understanding and listening to peoples’ hopes and fears has been important during these volatile times.

Q: What have you learned about inspiring people? What is challenging?

I am very aware that I should be doing most of the listening, so I create opportunities to ask questions and consciously practice active listening. Additionally, I host ‘Linda Listens’ sessions every two weeks. These sessions comprise of a group of 6-8 team members and everyone in the hotel gets an opportunity to join a session over a period of time. During the sessions I ask questions and I learn what is happening on the ground. I see patterns which helps me to make changes and set priorities which positively impact team members. I encourage participants in these sessions to address concerns they may have, and ensure they understand that we all contribute equally. Although we have different titles, we can only achieve our goals when we all work together. Linda Listens sessions give team members the courage to speak to me separately which otherwise they may not have been comfortable to do.

Q: When leading change in large, complex systems, how do you know you are leading into the right direction?

By staying true to my purpose and upholding my values. For me, contributing to the Corporate Responsibility Programme supports that. Environmental, Social and Governance responsibility is a very wide field and it can be a challenge to know and measure that we are moving in the right direction. Life below water, responsible consumption and production, waste management, affordable and clean energy, clean water and sanitation are just a few topics. It’s impossible to know everything about every topic, so we work with reliable partners such as WWF to guide us when we need specialist expertise. The overall strategy comes from our corporate office, and this has to be translated into what is relevant to each region and reflect the biggest regional issues. 

In SE Asia, ocean health is of huge importance to the communities we operate in. We brainstorm with key internal stakeholders with diverse backgrounds to make sure that we translate Hilton’s corporate responsibility strategy, which is a commitment to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, into concrete actions for each hotel. Part of my role is to help create a greater impact by making sure what each hotel chooses to do is aligned with our overarching goals. We define priorities to focus on each year, and the same topic may recur over a number of years. 

One of our focuses in SE Asia now is responsible sourcing, this involves different supply chains in each country. It may be that some hotels are able to procure certified sustainable seafood but some hotels in different locations may not have access to this option. So we need to work towards our goal by defining milestones, such as ensuring that no endangered species are on the menu, and evaluating the supply chain of the fish we serve to our guests to ensure we only purchase from suppliers with good environmental and labour practices. It’s about focusing on what we can do now. The solutions are very diverse to reflect each country’s particular issues and the available local solutions we can work with, or create.

Q: How do you stay the course and know you are doing the right thing?

I am continuously learning from the world and people around me, educating myself and making attempts to improve. One thing I’ve learned recently is that, unfortunately, resilience cannot be taught, it can only be experienced. A few days after the Easter Sunday attacks that impacted several hotels and churches in Sri Lanka, we had a senior person from Hilton Global Security visit us. We were not targeted, but at that moment, we were operating on a very high security threat level and no one was allowed in or out of the hotel. He explained to me, ‘I am here to help you see how we can operate fully and safely again.' For the first few days I was focused on managing the emergency and supporting my team coping with the raw emotions as a result of the attack. But when he said ‘I am here to help you see how we can operate again’, that’s when I grasped the power of providing a vision in volatile times.

That memory helped me during 2020 to create an atmosphere of creativity and agility. Focusing on what we can do, rather than what we cannot. Even in difficult situations we need to look forward. Doing that as a team, and making sure that all members of my team have the energy and agility to do things differently, is what has helped me to continuously support my team members and community throughout challenging periods. That to me, is doing the right thing.

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