View from the top: Jan Smits

He continues to rise at IHG, with Middle East/Africa under his wings aside from Asia/Australasia since last July. Smits does it through being competitive but, more importantly, with humility and by being intuitive of people and diverse cultures. Raini Hamdi gives insights into the CEO

Jan Smits
CEO, Asia, Middle East, Africa
InterContinental Hotels Group (IHG)


What’s it like having a bigger role covering AMEA smack in an Arab Spring?
The region has its volatility. Political or natural catastrophes happen. Last year, we had two earthquakes, in New Zealand and Japan, the Arab Spring, floods in Thailand…but that’s business. Things will happen but it’s how you react to these things that is important.

You hold a Dutch passport, grew up in Zimbabwe, Borneo, Singapore, lived all over the world – how does this diverse background shape you as a leader?
Living all over the world gives you cultural sensitivity, so you’re very ‘aware’ how individuals behave, what’s acceptable to them, even if you don’t know sometimes that you are aware.

It makes you respectful of people and different cultures, so you don’t, for example, ask for a conference call with the team on Friday/Saturday (weekend in the Middle East) or Saturday/Sunday (weekend in Asia) – there are enough days to meet between Monday and Thursday instead.

Then there’s that whole piece about coaching and mentoring people. In my early days, I watched how elders in the village take the time to teach the kids, how one generation passes on the mantle to the next generation. Intuitively as a leader you know that that is a responsibility. You’re only as good as the people you have and driving the right people in the right jobs with a clear strategy is how you get an outcome.

Leaders need to articulate and communicate the outcome they want, which will be clear if they take the time to think about it. This is why I actually have ‘think days’ in my calendar. Then, once you’ve articulated the objective, step back and help people achieve the outcome but don’t tell them how to do it. It’s not about making the decisions for them, but helping them find the answers for themselves – so the old theory on teaching them to fish rather than giving them fish.

As the region gets bigger, it has become more important that we ensure everyone has the space to grow and run the business.

Tell me about your ‘think days’.
I lock out a day in a month at least, where I don’t take appointments and spend time looking at where are we are and what’s happening. For that full day, no one comes near me and I don’t even turn on the email. The problem with email is you turn it on at 8am and your blood pressure goes up (chuckles), so I turn it on at 4pm on my ‘think day’.

What do you think about?
I don’t have an agenda, but I jot down a couple of points to think through. I think not only about the business, but how I’m going myself, areas I want to improve on. As a leader, you need to grow and develop, so that you can help the business and others, but we spend too much time thinking about how to improve the business. It should go hand in hand.

I like mind maps, so I draw and think.

Thinking is hard, and leaders don’t spend enough time thinking. Sure you can do it on the plane or while jogging, but on planes, especially through different time zones and jet lag, your clarity is not there.

Give me an example of a great idea from one of your ‘think days’ recently.
Sometimes you just get great clarity from it. I know some of my leaders say they have been at the receiving end of Jan’s ‘think day’ (chuckles) when I start going ‘What about this?, What about that?’. I’ve to be mindful as that can be negative, so I write things down and at the right time pull them out.

What’s the biggest issue in AMEA that keeps you thinking?
How you attract, retain and develop your talent is going to be critical. At the end of the day, your hotels in India need to be run by Indians – you need a diversity of talent, so you need to develop them. India’s a great example, it’s got 150,000 rooms, 200,000 rooms or something under construction – just think the multiples and where you are going to get the talent, with the call centres, etc, also trying to attract the same pool.

This is why I’m getting my head around to leveraging on the people we have in AMEA, how we can capture Indians, Indonesians, Filipinos, etc, working in InterContinental or Crowne Plaza hotels in the Middle East, if they want to leave, to work with us in Asia or vice versa.

This is why putting Middle East/Africa as part of Asia rather than UK or Europe makes sense. Geographically, it is a wide spread, covering 50 countries (40 of which IHG operates in), but the two businesses are similar. Eighty per cent is managed (the rest franchise). The hotels are more upscale – close of half of InterContinental hotels in the world are in the region. There is heavy F&B content. The owner profile is similar – more high net worth individuals, fewer institutional investors and the labour markets are cross-regional, unlike UK hotels, which are run mainly by people from UK, or Australia, run mainly by Australians.

There’s also a lot of Middle East investment going into Asia, even Australia. So, when you look at the owners, customers, business models, people (labour), Middle East/Africa have more similarities to Asia/Australasia than to Europe.

Are Middle East owners similar to Asian owners and are they getting younger like them too?
Culturally they are different but needs are the same – it’s all about relationships. Institutional owners are different compared with these high net worth families where one-on-one relationship with the management company counts.

And yes, I used to be the youngest guy on the table (Smits started his career with IHG in 2002), now I’m the oldest (laughs). But it’s exciting to see the next generation come through. They are astute business people who have been mentored by their family. They are ready to grow the empire and they come with a fresh pair of eyes. It’s fantastic. And our customers too are getting younger.

What is your biggest achievement since taking on the AMEA role?
Setting up the framework on how to work the region and doing it differently. I have a diverse management team – leaders all over the place and they are not in one office – and we’re using technology to effectively manage the business. We only get together four times a year; there are different technologies now to meet, but it takes discipline and focus, for example, when you’ve set aside time for a conference call, you have to be really present. It’s the same principle as giving quality time and not quantity time with your family.

What drives you in this role?
I love the diversity of the region. Cultures always excite me.

The region is also exciting. Yes, it’s had its challenges but look at the development – I was in Saudi Arabia for the first time, look at the infrastructure that is going in!

I’m a competitive person, and the other thing that drives me is people – seeing people and owners who work with us grow.

This article was first published in TTG Asia, June 29, 2012 issue, on page 7. To read more, please view our digital edition or click here to subscribe.

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