Women & Leadership: Simone Wu, Choice Hotels International

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Simone Wu’s first foray into the hospitality industry came in 2012 when she joined Choice Hotels International as SVP, general counsel, corporate secretary and external affairs. In an industry that seeks out executives with a diverse skill-set, Wu’s earlier credentials seem to hit all the sweet spots: She spent time working at a Boston-based law firm before moving to the international legal team at telecommunications company MCI before she was named EVP, general counsel and administration at a national provider of IP communications, managed network and IT infrastructure services.

Today, in addition to her role at Choice, she also serves on the board of directors of the Minority Corporate Counsel Association and the Association of Corporate Counsel-National Capital Region as well as theater-development organization The Inkwell. Her expertise is also in demand—she often serves as a speaker at industry conferences, most recently addressing this week's 2017 NYU Hospitality Investment Conference in New York during “The Path to Leadership” panel, which will examine strategies for developing leadership through diversity.

You’ve spent much of your career as an executive in the telecom and tech industries and at a law firm. How does the hospitality industry stack up as far as how it recognizes women?

Simone Wu

The hospitality industry enjoys significant female representation at the senior management level but there’s clearly room for improvement, and it’s important for leaders to commit to the advancement of women. I’m very proud to be at Choice Hotels where we foster an inclusive culture built on diversity of thought, background and experience. This allows us to make better decisions, and attract and retain talent across demographic profiles. The inclusive culture is driven at the top of the organization, including our board of directors, CEO and COO. 

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We also have to thank our Diversity Advisory Council, which draws leaders from across the company, and our Choice Resource Groups. These organizations drive diverse perspectives to address business objectives, shape the company’s culture, communicate our values, and spur engagement around them throughout the organization.

That said, on an individual level, performance and professionalism are table stakes for advancement. It’s also important to build a path that positions you for growth opportunities. This includes taking on stretch projects, finding good mentors and sponsors, and seeking avenues to continually broaden and build on your skills. Overall, there are many wonderful career opportunities in the hospitality industry that enable both women and men to consider hospitality for great long-term professional success. 

Hospitality is a fairly inclusive industry given its global reach and multitude of employment opportunities—from CEO to housekeeper. But how could the industry become more diverse in its hiring practices?

As individuals, leaders and hiring managers within the industry, we need to own our commitment to diversity and recognize that it’s not someone else’s job to achieve diversity goals. A key tactical step is to commit to having a diverse slate of candidates for open roles. That means networking to get to know more people, ensuring that the recruiting team casts a wide net, and possibly thinking outside the box to find potential candidates.

Retention is equally important and, if you look at the numbers, may be even more important than hiring practices. For example, at Choice Hotels, we focus heavily on associate engagement, talent development and succession planning, and that commitment starts at the top. Our CEO, COO and the entire senior executive team, as well as our extended leadership team, including all vice presidents in the company, work closely with the human resources team and take a very active role. Further, our board of directors has two committees that provide oversight in these areas: the Compensation and Management Development Committee and the Diversity Committee. As an industry, we have to consciously and actively strive for the diverse, inclusive result that we want.

What should women know as they go into a board of directors’ meeting?

It’s not, or shouldn’t be, about your gender. It’s about the value and insights that you bring to the boardroom whether as a presenter or a board member, about being engaged and knowing your audience, about doing your homework ahead of time. You wouldn’t be invited into the boardroom unless others believe you add value to the table. So women (and men) need to have the confidence to share ideas and perspectives.

There’s also nothing that beats being prepared. As a presenter, it goes without saying. If you’re presenting to the board, you better know what you’re talking about. This is true for board members, too. I’ve been on boards where it seems certain members are not as engaged and prepared as they should be on a regular basis, and that, of course, should be avoided. It’s important to read the materials beforehand, reach out to executives and other board members to build relationships, dive more deeply into matters of concern, and seek out background or industry information to gain greater context and insights on relevant issues.     

What experiences have you taken from your work with The Inkwell Theater and applied to your work as a female executive and as an attorney?

I love the theater! My favorite part is watching an ensemble come together to tell a story.

While the talent of the lead performer is important and sets the tone for a production, it is the ensemble cast and crew that make or break the show, and the story is the driving force that can move an entire audience. It’s the same at Choice or any other organization. As a team, we come together to tackle the company’s greatest opportunities and execute on our vision and strategy, which propels the story of the enterprise forward. In addition, the theater fuels the imagination, and I find that creative flow is good for business as well.

At Choice Hotels, I work with a variety of people across the company. In addition to my role as the general counsel, I lead the public relations, government relations, internal communications and procurement functions. There are a number of different hats I put on in any given day, and I definitely draw on sources of creative energy from time to time. I’m also very fortunate to work with some incredible people in my different roles. This underscores how the success of a show, or the business, is rooted in the efforts of the entire team.

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