Women & Leadership: The Highland Group’s Peggy Berg

In January, Peggy Berg, founder of The Highland Group, announced the newly formed Castell Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to accelerating the careers of women in hospitality through a series of leadership workshops, the first of which is set for May. Women are nominated into the yearlong Castell Leadership Program by someone at their company before embarking on a sequence of individual career plans, assessments, workshops and executive coaching focused on enhancing negotiation and communication skills and participating in the organization’s networking group, WILL (Women in Lodging Leadership). Here, Berg, Castell Project’s director, tells HOTEL MANAGEMENT how the project came to be, what she expects it to achieve and how exactly its participants will benefit.

HOTEL MANAGEMENT: How have your own experiences as the founder of The Highland Group influenced your decision to launch the Castell Project?

Peggy Berg: For all of us who have built careers in the industry, we reach an inflection point in our careers and wonder if we could’ve done it better. Usually the answer is "yes." There are a lot of things that I could’ve done better in my own career, and done a better job for those I worked for if I’d had better negotiating and communications skills as well as a stronger support network. The way in which women succeed in negotiating and presenting is different from the way men do best, and a woman who tries to model after a man is going to get some negative reactions as she’ll likely be perceived as pushy or aggressive in an undesirable way. We don’t have enough women role models who can offer these alternate skill sets to other women. Sometimes, we as women try to figure it out on our own and we get it right and sometimes we don’t. But if we’re training women and offering them access to role models, we’ll get it right more often and be better employees. I could’ve been a better employee if I had better training for a few hours. I’ve learned that you can go a long way on drive, intelligence, determination and luck. But more of us could give more to our companies and build stronger careers if all of those things were supplemented with the kind of training that this program provides.

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HM: With women representing just 7 percent of speakers at major industry conferences, is challenging hospitality’s glass ceiling an attainable goal?

PB: Our goal is to build women up to the highest levels in our industry and I think that’s a very attainable goal. Although 7 percent may seem a very low number, it’s higher than it used to be and once we start publishing metrics and counting our representation both in visible leadership roles as well as the highest levels of companies we’ll start seeing that number grow. I also think the sheer number of talented women coming into the industry will eventually change that number in a significant way, and what we’re doing is facilitating that by helping companies to streamline the process and get more value from their workforce.

HM: Could you talk about the specific skills training that the program will offer participants? Why do you feel women need to bolster these particular skills?

PB: Almost all women, no matter where we are in the hierarchy, could do a better job at negotiating and not just in the sense of negotiating a deal, but also negotiating a place in the hierarchy. Men negotiate hierarchies automatically; it’s how they function in groups. Men are constantly negotiating a place in a hierarchy. Women don’t do it in the same way, and how women negotiate their place in groups of men has a lot to do with how they are promoted and how visible they are. We’ve hired one of the best trainers in the country to bring these skills to women in hospitality and although it would be very expensive for an individual company to put this type of program together, as an industry we can put a high-caliber program together.

HM: How valuable will the program’s networking opportunities be to participants who work for competing organizations?

PB: I’m often asked if a company sends its high potential women to this program, will someone else in the program hire her away from our company. But if you have a group of women who have pretty varied skill sets—one with a strong finance background, one, an analytic background, another with sales experience and another with a management/human resources background—that is a group of people who will be useful resources for each other, both directly and indirectly. Women also tend to be loyal and if a company tells a high potential woman employee that you believe in her and are willing to invest in her in order to make it possible for her to grow with the company, that’s a message that engenders loyalty that can’t be achieved any other way. It also creates a unique desire on the part of the employee to succeed.

HM: How will the Castell Project translate its leadership learnings into career advancement for participants?

PB: Ask me in three years and I’ll know the answer to that question. Georgia State University is doing a longitudinal study of our cohorts. We want to be able to report back to women participating in the program and to their Champions on how they are progressing. We will also use information from the study to make sure program improves over time and to see how it turns out for our women. I know in other industries this kind of program has worked.