Come summer, Gary Whitney will be sitting in a 16-foot fishing boat waiting out halibut on a remote, quiet body of water in Alaska.
It will be the exact opposite of how the vice president of learning spends most of his days: collaborating, discussing, strategizing and leading learning and development for the InterContinental Hotels Group, an organization whose business is steeped in the quality and breadth of service its employees deliver to customers.
His boss might not care too much about his penchant for fishing in obscure habitats, the 42-year-old said. But Whitney’s emphasis on service likely won’t be an issue. At IHG, where the business strategy is “winning through people,” Whitney’s vision for learning and all that it touches align seamlessly. The way people think and feel, their knowledge and skills, these things are what will set the company apart from the competition, he said.
Learning at IHG exists to enable hotels to drive performance in revenue and service. It exists to help people deliver on company priorities and help employees learn and grow. This team, Whitney said, is among his greatest successes. “They’re diverse in their interests, in background and passions, but when we all come together, the things that we’ve accomplished have been fantastic.”
Where It All Began
Whitney had just finished up a Purdue University master’s program in hospitality management with every intention of transitioning into a doctoral program when a short inquiry into operations at IHG evolved into a career. Initially brought in on the revenue systems side of the business, Whitney helped hotels look at their revenue management systems tools and practices, introduced new technology and then, brought all the pieces back together. He’s spent the past 15 years in the learning space managing learning design, delivery and range of regional responsibilities, and has been a vice president at IHG since 2008.
He speaks with appreciation about IHG and the work he gets to do. “Most people are always searching out what’s the meaning and purpose of their work and how that connects to their lives,” he said. “We’re really fortunate — all of us in the learning field — we get to make a difference every day.”
During his tenure, Whitney has observed and helped to guide the evolution of IHG’s learning function. Once a handful of basic classes, it now contains a robust pipeline of courses to meet operational and certification needs for more than 5,000 hotels across the group’s 12 brands, which include Crowne Plaza, Holiday Inn, Holiday Inn Express, Hotel Indigo and InterContinental Hotels and Resorts.
Whitney, a self-professed farm kid from southern Minnesota, said his early experiences influenced the path he followed into the hospitality sector, and his mother helped to create his passion for learning.
“Mom has always been very curious. She’s very analytical, and she really instilled a sense of, ‘You should always learn something new,’ ” Whitney said. He said he gets his attitude on working together as a family and helping others from his father.
Growing up on a multigenerational farm, Whitney worked alongside his brothers, parents, and, early on, his grandfather baling hay, fixing farm equipment and working with livestock. Other children got to sleep in as long as they could before going to school, but the Whitney boys were up early taking care of chores. “It was just one of those things you did,” hesaid.
He knew hard work, he had responsibilities, he collaborated with his family members to get things done and worked independently when necessary. “The thing I appreciated the most from that upbringing was that it’s a joy to work,” Whitney said. “And if you do — working hard and working with people you care about — then it doesn’t seem like work.”
IHG’s Learning Family
Whitney’s work family is roughly 75 people strong. While much of Whitney’s energy and time is spent on about a quarter of IHG’s workforce, his team members work together to drive line-level initiatives that touch all of the company’s 300,000 employees in one way or another. “Probably the thing I’m most proud of at IHG has been how I was able to build and empower a great team,” he said.
He said he has learned to give his team members guardrails and parameters — outcomes to reach but also room to develop — to use their unique approaches and take ownership of what they’re doing. The team is also commercially relevant. Whether it’s a new inventory strategy, a quality initiative or a need for different tools and resources to ensure hotels are clean, the team is there with learning to help support business needs. “We focus learning and training on what matters most to the business.”
He said the team has spent several years building out and offering targeted programming to specific audiences through appropriate channels at just the right time. Now, with a substantial set of programs available, IHG’s learning function is agile and able to adapt to market conditions. For example, if one region needs to focus on group sales and another region needs to focus on guest feedback, the team can tweak its delivery strategy to maximize the effect, relevance and learning offered to different hotels.
Whitney said balancing the needs of so many different stakeholders is a continuous challenge for him and his team. “If Holiday Inn wants one thing and Crowne Plaza wants another, how many resources will it take? What commitment can I make to meet the range of needs? Or, something that works great in Iowa might not work great in Mexico.”
The team considers a variety of inputs when deciding how to best prioritize and sequence its activities and commitments, including hotel performance trends, regional and global priorities, brand needs, and hotel owner interests. It assesses the effect and effort for each element and looks across stakeholders for common themes and needs. “By going through this analysis, we know how to best apply our training effort to enable hotels to better drive guest satisfaction, quality and revenue,” Whitney said.
For instance, problem-handling and problem-resolution training was a priority last year, and it received extra emphasis in variety of ways including department head certifications and skill-building programs for executive housekeepers and guest service managers. Whitney said navigating requests and resulting solutions requires a delicate conversation, so he and his team are careful to be transparent about their process.
It helps that the team is already deeply engaged with partners across the organization. IHG learning leaders not only have substantial learning expertise but also understand the brands. It is not uncommon for different divisions to ask if a particular learning team member can sit in on early discussions about a new project.
“Sometimes we’re contributing to things well beyond the normal learning contribution,” Whitney said. “It takes time and effort, but it is well worth it because when you get to the learning part of the conversation, it’s not a surprise. We already understand … what we’re trying to solve for, and we can give good advice on how to enable people to deliver what they’re working on. We’ve been very fortunate that way.”
The learning team stays connected through relationships like this, as well as through things like Whitney’s regular attendance at IHG’s chief operating officer meetings. Being part of early decision-making processes adds to the effectiveness of the company’s learning function and creates a smooth, transparent pathway to build and deliver learning.
When leaders determined that hotels needed a basic and shared understanding of general principles in revenue management, Whitney’s team worked with Patty Larsen, director of revenue management training and implementation at IHG, to create the Revenue Management Essentials Certification program. No two collaboration processes look the same, but once the learning team and the client have a good understanding of the need and the goal, Whitney said, “We kind of divide and conquer.”
Of course, project delivery is largely dependent upon stakeholder preferences, and the IHG learning team uses a variation of ADDIE — analysis, design, development, implementation and evaluation — model for instructional design. To address revenue system needs, the team created a combination of e-learning that managers could complete at their leisure with a certification class where they could come together to discuss best practices, challenges and paths to solutions.
Larsen said at least 3,000 people have gone through the program since its start last year. She counts it as a success for herself and for Whitney. With this base understanding established at the hotels, their teams now continue collaborating on offering new programs on advanced commercial topics related to segmentation, forecasting and inventory management strategies.
Larsen said she has a lot of respect for Whitney and his team. In front of the hotels, she said the team knows what’s effective and what’s not, what training works best, and what’s relevant. She attributes the quality of the team’s work to Whitney’s leadership. “He’s very thoughtful about the way he approaches all of the work that he and his team does. And he’s hired some really good people that work on his team — not only hired but retained. He does a really good job at keeping his team motivated and engaged.”
Whitney said it takes a few things to foster an environment where people feel comfortable learning, experimenting, failing, collaborating and growing: trust, honesty with compassion and a goal.
“Whether it’s a revenue trend or service quality, everything we do has a connection back to the business,” he said. “If you’re honest and direct, if they can see how what they’re doing is part of something bigger, if you can create that culture of trust within the team, those things come together to create that family atmosphere. It also creates a high-performing team that can create great results.”
He recalled a time in Las Vegas when the team trained 1,500 Holiday Inn and Holiday Inn Express general managers in “one swipe” to become brand managers. It wasn’t a team-building activity exactly, but it took everything the team had to deliver a high-quality event. They knocked it out of the park, Whitney said. He said he was amazed to watch how everybody helped each other out, whether it was content or learning techniques or strategy.
But first one must build the right team. A leader can have the greatest strategy, but without the right people executing it, that strategy could be impossible. Fortunately, Keith Goudy, managing partner at Vantage Leadership Consulting, said people are socialized for teamwork at an early age. It has value; it is a means to an end.
“For companies, it can mean: better or faster go-to market strategies, better customer backed innovation, or simply a more engaged and cohesive workforce,” Goudy said.
Whitney said it’s also how you win. He said he takes great care to show it is OK to have a little fun while working. “I’m a little goofy, and I can turn a very serious situation into something rather silly — whether that’s appropriate or not can be debatable.”
He said he makes sure his team knows the work that they are doing matters, and he gives members room to do things themselves. Too often, he said leaders — himself included — micromanage. Now he gives his leaders a lot of room to truly own their work.
“We miss that too often, and there’s plenty of projects you can … give them space to succeed, and they take an extra amount of engagement, and an extra amount of joy because they did it themselves.”
That extra discretionary effort, empowered by leadership support, all rallying for a shared goal and given some autonomy to reach it can separate a good team from a great team. Discretionary effort, Whitney said, is the secret sauce.
“If you want to have a great learning organization, it’s got to come from your team,” he said. “Are they willing to reach back in those key moments and give that extra effort for something that matters? I’m pretty lucky that my team will.”