5 questions on women issues for Commune Hotels' CEO Niki Leondakis

(Niki Leondakis)

Niki Leondakis, CEO of Commune Hotels + Resorts, recently sat down with Hotel Management to discuss her thoughts and experiences on being one of the hospitality industry’s few female CEOs. The conversation takes place at a particularly poignant time, as women’s issues are at the forefront of the next presidential election.

Here, Leondakis shares her views on certain women’s issues as well as her perspective on female leadership and women in the workplace.

1) Do you feel that as a female CEO, you have an edge as a visionary? Could more hotel companies benefit from more women in C-Suite leadership?

More women, but also more diversity in general in leadership roles, would help more hotel companies create a diversity of thought at the leadership level, which would enable more differentiation in product. It’s really hard for hotels to differentiate today. As soon as a trend emerges, it seems like every hotel company jumps on it and we see variations on themes like local and authentic and we see a lot of the same things happening. If there were more diversity at the top, it would lead to more innovation; different points of view would enable more hotel companies to think differently.

2) How do you feel about the wage gap and paid family leave?

It’s a complex issue and I think that it’s improving with every generation. The gender wage gap is much smaller among younger workers 25 to 34; women in this age group make about 93 cents on the dollar that men of this age group make and that’s a lot better than it was about 20 years ago. But I think there still needs to be more understanding of why this is happening and there is still a need to address it. Some believe that it’s because women take time out of their career for families and so they can’t dedicate the same time to their careers as men. Some believe that women traditionally don’t ask to earn more because women are socialized differently than men and inherently believe that if they put their head down and do a good job, then the right things will happen, whereas men will simply ask and sometimes it’s the vocalization of wants and needs that gets served.

At the leadership level, it’s imperative that people of different genders with the same responsibility level and same sphere of influence are looked at with parity and that should be proactively managed by senior leadership. It’s going to take more people at the top—more senior executives—taking a proactive stance to insure equality is addressed across genders throughout organizations and not left to people who ask versus people who do not. There’s a lot of research that shows that organizations with more diversity and more gender diversity are more profitable.

3) What types of leadership challenges do you face as a woman in terms of management?

I haven’t had a lot of female mentors. They are few and far between in our industry and in C-level roles; there just aren’t very many women. Keith Kefgen talks in his book about the Loneliness of Leadership in a variety of different ways and I think this is really underscored for women.

I spent the first half of my career thinking that in order to be successful, I needed to be like a man. The challenge that many women face is that that isn’t being true to themselves and they aren’t comfortable in their own skin trying to be someone they’re not. Trying to be someone you’re not limits your abilities to connect with others, to lead, to inspire and to impact behavior. That’s something I faced early in my career and I think a lot of young women face today. There was a time when we thought equality meant sameness, but today we know it means that there’s room for individuality, diversity and inclusion.

4) How does the path to a leadership role in the hospitality industry differ for a woman? Do you believe the Queen Bee Syndrome exists?

I have not personally experienced the Queen Bee syndrome, but there is a saying that there are two kinds of successful women: those who lift a hand up to reach the rung above and those who reach behind to lift another woman up. I’ve experienced that kind of support from other women myself.

While women have made inroads into top leadership positions in corporate America, the progress has been much slower. In tourism and hospitality, women make up nearly 70 percent of our industry. Paradoxically, women hold less than 40 percent of all managerial roles and between five and eight percent of board positions. I think it will be difficult to affect change at that level and this is not just a women’s issue. This is an issue for all leaders, including male leaders, who need to pay attention to that gap and take proactive steps to change that. If we want our organizations to be reflective of our society and our workforce—from a marketing standpoint and an employment standpoint—we want gender diversity.

There needs to be a concerted effort to develop and mentor women. The problem with women balancing their lives as primary caregivers to aging parents and children is that the business world was created by men for men. So women often opt out of senior leadership positions because they don’t see a way to make it work with their home life.

5) The phrase “Play the Woman Card” recently became part of the American lexicon. If this phrase was to have a positive connotation only, what would it be to you?

To me, it would mean that women are comfortable and recognize that the truest route to success is to be your authentic self. ‘Playing the Woman Card’ would mean that we realize that making the best choices for ourselves personally and being true to who we are is the path to success and that we don’t divert off that path because it actually leads us to success. We don’t have to be like men, act like men, look like men or dress like men to be successful.

One value of having women in leadership roles, which I feel is not always understood, is that women are more emotionally aware and connected to how people feel. If we can bring that to the workplace, then we are going to get higher levels of engagement and productivity out of our employees and that emotional connectivity helps us relate to our customers more effectively as well as give us a better understanding at the core level as to what our shareholders and society at large want and need from us most. I don’t think people value emotional intelligence enough as an inherent trait that women bring to leadership roles.