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As CEO Southern Europe for AccorHotels, responsible for around 1,800 of the group’s hotels, Maud Bailly is the very definition of a “Leading woman” in hospitality. She is also a passionate advocate for equality and diversity, making her the perfect person to headline this special issue of The Insider

The giants of the international hotel business – AccorHotels, Best Western, Hilton, Hyatt, IHG, Marriott – may be fierce competitors with distinct brands and service offerings; but they all share one trait in common: all are led by men.

To sit at the CEO’s desk of a ‘major’ is perhaps the ultimate glass ceiling for women in hospitality. And with no disrespect intended towards any of the current incumbents, it’s a ceiling that must surely be broken in the coming years.

Could Maud Bailly be the one to take a hammer to the glass? If she did, it would be another remarkable development in a career (see panel below) which has defied conventions every step of the way. Most recently, this saw her become CEO for Accor’s Southern Europe region – covering 1,800 hotels – just four years after joining the company following a decade spent in France’s public sector.

The promotion was Maud’s reward for a successful stint as Chief Digital Officer for Accor, during which time she led the transformation of the company’s digital relationship with its customers. This included launching the ALL (Accor Live Limitless) rewards program into the teeth of a global pandemic – a story that would make a gripping feature in its own right.

These roles have also earned Maud a seat on Accor’s executive committee; and it’s from here that she has sought to drive the company towards greater diversity and equality, with the full support and encouragement from CEO Sébastien Bazin.

“I truly believe in the power of diversity – it’s in my gut and I’ve been committed to it long before I took jobs that gave me a public profile,” she says.

“The glass ceiling absolutely still exists, and you can see this in the number of women in ExCom structures, or in charge of business units as opposed to support functions. Everything linked to power, money and business operations is still more likely to belong to a man.”

Another dimension to this issue is the ‘glass cliff’; which is a concept Maud finds intriguing even though – thankfully – she’s never slid down one herself.

“This is about pushing and promoting women to roles which are especially tricky; often matrix or transformation functions. I was stunned to notice how many female Chief Digital Officers there are, and I know from experience how tricky that job is! I was wondering why this is; and I came to the conclusion that maybe we give women more of a chance in today’s times, but we forgive them less?”

It’s all about balance

This should not give the impression that Maud desires a hospitality world in which she is surrounded only by women. Far from it.

Launching Riise at the Fairmont Dubai.

“I want to see diverse profiles – men and women, junior and senior, different cultural backgrounds – because I believe that the best teams are the most diverse ones. This is not just conviction or wishful thinking: when we surveyed this as a business, we clearly proved that the more diverse a hotel team is, the better the results in guest satisfaction and net profitability. Diversity is definitely our best lever of collective performance.”

For Accor, a key initiative to deliver on its diversity commitment is Riise, the company’s international network for gender equality and diversity. Launched in 2018 as an evolution of the company’s women’s network, Riise is very much open to all – indeed the two “i”s of the name are intended to depict a man and a woman standing together to help and support each other.

That support is not just inwardly focused. A key pillar of Riise is to combat violence and discrimination – something which, sadly, has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 crisis in many parts of the world.

A typical initiative in this area is one that’s been developed in collaboration with the Turkish government, in which Accor is supporting women in sheltered housing by providing jobs in the tourism industry. This incorporates the provision of professional training, so that the women can learn the skills to secure a job in hospitality and thus gain their all-important financial independence.

“You can’t tell us ‘oh, we want more diversity but it’s so hard and we can’t find the people’. Yes, you can. These are the targets and these are the systems to track them.”

Maud Bailly

Kind words, hard targets

From an internal perspective, Riise is about backing kind words with measurable, trackable KPIs that leave the organization no place to hide in its quest for diversity and equality.

“It’s a ‘no bullshit’ approach where we track the facts not just the intentions. You can’t tell us ‘oh, we want more diversity but it’s so hard and we can’t find the people’. Yes, you can. These are the targets and these are the systems to track them,” Maud says.

The group-wide Riise targets were validated by the Accor board in January this year. These include, among others, a commitment to having 40% women at the group executive committee level (where today the number sits at 23%, thanks to the arrival of Brune Poirson as Chief Sustainability Officer), 45% women at the ‘hub’ level (i.e. regions like Southern Europe), plus 40% of women in hotel General Manager positions – compared to a level today of 34%.

As an ambassador for Riise since it was established, Maud is proud of the progress made while being aware of the challenge that lies ahead. “We had 27% of female GMs at the start of the program and now we’re at 34% and already 41% in my region; plus we are almost at equal pay between men and women in the group. In my own hub, I’m about to reach my target of 45% women in my ExCom this month (April).

“But if you dig a little deeper you can find areas where we have work to do. For example, women are still under-represented as GMs of our luxury and premium segment hotels. I have some amazing women in charge of great properties, for example Béatrice Schopflin at Hotel Scribe Paris Opera. However, in general we have a higher weighting of women GMs at midscale brands such as Novotel and Mercure, with fewer as GMs of Fairmont, Raffles, etc.

“Things are steadily changing, but we want to ensure that we don’t wait another two decades for parity and equality; so that’s why we are using initiatives like Riise to nudge things along.

“We also have to be constantly aware and cautious; because it can be easy to slide back from the improvements already made. We need to be the guardians of our diversity philosophy, and to remember that this is not about ignoring or excluding anybody; it’s about being inclusive not exclusive – keeping everyone in the tent.”

The art of the non-linear career

As part of her passionate commitment to coaching and teaching tomorrow’s talents, Maud agreed to become ‘Godmother’ to our 2020 cohort of Master’s in Hospitality, Entrepreneurship & Innovation students.

In her first, online get-together with ‘her’ cohort, she entertained our students with a breeze through her extraordinary career to date: one that takes in finance, trains, digital education and cultural transformation; and which has seen her undertake international assignments and earn a desk in the heart of the French government.

“I was truly fortunate to enjoy a fantastic education, which began in Paris at the École Normale Supérieure and concluded at the École Nationale d’Administration. The payback for this was that I owed 10 years of service to the French state,” she explains.

“I started out in public service as a finance auditor; but I was always fascinated by the poetry and romance of railway stations. So, I jumped across career paths and joined SNCF (France’s state-owned railway operator) to become station manager at Gare Montparnasse (pictured).

People looked at me like I was crazy: ‘you’re supposed to work for the French finance department, what are you doing here?’ But I loved that operational side – even little things like putting a piano in the station concourse so music could echo around the building.”

As well as directing trains at Gare Montparnasse, Maud also served as SNCF’s Director of Trains, with responsibility for the company’s 10,000 on-board train controllers. And to this highly operational experience can be added strategic and financial audit missions for the IMF and World Bank, plus almost two years working in the offices of France’s then Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, in charge of economics as well as fiscal, digital and industry affairs.

It was only after this extraordinarily varied time – which paid off her 10-year public service ‘debt’ – that Sébastien Bazin offered Maud the opportunity to enter the private sector with Accor.

Hers is thus the very essence of a non-linear career; and even for one so confident and charismatic, Maud admits there have been challenges on a psychological level.

“I definitely faced ‘stranger syndrome’ along the way. It was the case when I arrived at Gare Montparnasse; and again when I entered the Prime Minister’s service – people said ‘why do you think you can do this, you’re just a station manager’. Even when I joined Accor I heard ‘you’re just a civil servant, you don’t know anything about hospitality’.

“I have felt these doubts myself; but with the feedback from my boss, my team, my husband and family, I’ve steadily healed myself. The doubts never completely go away, of course, but I’m fine with that, because it’s the school of humility and how you move forward and prove yourself. Each time I’ve taken a step in my career I’ve experienced this suspicion; so, I can appreciate how it is for other women or people from diverse profiles.

“And this is really what I am trying to do today, both through Riise and my own actions: to make people more aware of our own bias, how we are our own censor, and the limitations we set for ourselves. ‘I can’t do it, no I’m just a woman so I’m not going to be able…’. No way!

“Never make decisions by fear; because fear is your worst enemy.”

Photo credits:
Gare Montparnasse aerial view – Philipp Chistyakov/Getty
All other images courtesy Accor, with special thanks to Virginie Sido

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We’re so proud to have Maud Bailly as ‘Godmother’ to our Master’s in Hospitality, Entrepreneurship & Innovation students. Find out more about the Master’s by clicking the link below.

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