EPISODE 506: Opportunities for Women in Hospitality Sales with Hilton’s Gerilyn Horan

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[EDITOR’S NOTE: This is a replay of the Women in Sales virtual learning session sponsored by the Institute for Excellence in Sales on April 28, 2022. It featured an interview with Gerilyn Horan, Vice President of Group Sales and Strategic Accounts for Hilton.]

Find Gerilyn on LinkedIn.

GERILYN’S TIP: “Think about where you want to be, how you’re going to get there, and who you need to know to get there. Think hard about expanding your network. There’s a lot of women on my team, I have regular chats now and again with everybody. I always say to people we hang up, you know, “Hey, put a coffee chat on my calendar and let’s catch up.” A few do, a lot don’t. I would say any opportunity I have to get to know those that have some opportunity to influence your career or help your career, to get to know them, you should do that. To be really intentional about that. It could be somebody in other parts of the business. Think about who you need to know to get to where you want to get to and form relationships. Figure out how to build a relationship with them and get on their radar and eventually, hopefully work that into a sponsor or a mentorship situation.”


Gina Stracuzzi: It’s great to have you on the podcast.

Gerilyn Horan: This is a topic I am so passionate about, women in leadership. How do we get here? How do we support each other on our individual journeys?

I am the Vice President of Group Sales and Strategic Accounts for Hilton. I’ve been in this role for the last four years and, as Fred mentioned, feel very fortunate to work for Hilton being one of the best places to work. Constantly coming up on the top one, two, and three of that list in Forbes, as was mentioned. There’s a real reason why, it’s an incredible company. The culture is amazing. The team members are some of the best. I feel really fortunate.

The funny thing is I started my career with Hilton. I spent my first 10 years of my hotel career with Hilton starting in college as a restaurant cashier. I was working at an insurance company and they shut down the whole department and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I have no job and I need a job quickly.” A friend of mine had just started a job as a cashier at the hotel and she got her boss to give me a job and my entire path changed. I was going to school for communications, hospitality was not even on my radar which is true for many of us. When you talk to hoteliers, most of us didn’t go to school for this, we somehow just fell into it and then we never leave because we love it. That was a great experience because I feel like, working in the hotel and back of the house and front desk and went on to Room Service Manager, which is a very challenging job. Finally worked my way into sales and felt like, “Wow, this is something I could get behind.”

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s interesting. Listening to you talk, a lot of the women that come on the program, when we ask how they get into sales, not just hotels, and in this instance, it’s the same kind of story. They certainly weren’t studying sales in college. They didn’t anticipate going into it, but they found themselves in it and then never left. You’ve done both, you’ve gone into a particular industry and into sales, which is amazing. Hilton always get such high marks. I had some collaboration with your diversity vendor unit, where they try to bring in women-owned companies, and I was representing a company that I was trying to connect you to, so really got to know that program very well. You all just do some amazing stuff.

Let’s guide this conversation along the lines of selling and the opportunities for women. One of the things that you and I hit on, and I think we’re both very passionate about and it’s so topical right now, is what women can do, how they can leverage this unique opportunity that’s in front of us? The importance of lifting others up with us, and not looking at each other as competition. One of the things that you and I talked about is way back in the day when we were coming up, sounds like it was back in the horse and carriage days, but you know what I mean [laughs]. There really was only one seat at the table, and you were quite often pitted against that other woman. There was no collaboration. Let’s talk about how you try to nurture that in your teams and why you feel it’s so important.

Gerilyn Horan: There’s a lot to unpack there. First of all, I would just say, coming up, it was a different time, obviously. I was always really fortunate. I had great men that I worked for that helped me and championed my career, and were my mentors and guides. They weren’t necessarily maybe as many women in more senior roles. I had my first management role at 25 or something. We were figuring it out, and there weren’t a lot of women to emulate at that time. We were all just figuring it out on our own, and maybe not necessarily in collaboration or in partnership with each other, which is unfortunate. I don’t know whether there was this intentional mean girl thing. We were all just trying to figure out what we were doing, and how do we get to the next place?

What was missing was people that you could have a conversation with, say, “Boy, I’m going through this, what do you think?” Where it felt safe and comfortable and you didn’t feel like you were exposing any weakness or anything. That was part of it, because I think everyone around you was men. You had to get in there and do your thing. We talked about on the call, one of the hardest things was when you’re in a room and you’re one of the few women, just having the confidence to talk up. There’s that old McKinsey study I always refer to because it so sits with me, of how there would be a job spec that would go out for an open position. Women would have nine of the 10 attributes you needed, but they wouldn’t apply because they’re like, “Oh my God, I don’t have all 10.” Where a man would look at it and be like, “I got three of these, so let me go for it.”

That’s the thing that we just didn’t have. That innate competitive confidence that held us back, certainly held me back across my career a couple of times, I probably could have gone for a higher job. Having other women to talk about this, “Here’s what we’re both going through, how can we help each other to get there and get past these concerns and support one another?” Would have been really helpful.

For today, it’s very different. Obviously, women have come such a long way in partnership, because the only way we’re going to get in significant ways to the C-suite, in my opinion, is together. It’s not one over the other, I’m not going to have to climb over you to get there, but we’ve got to rise, raise each other up to that next level. We talked about examples like being in meetings. Sometimes a woman’s voices is not always heard, or, it’s a little harder to get your point in when there’s a lot of men in the room.

Whether it’s your own confidence, or not being heard, or physically sometimes voice just not being heard. Helping each other to make sure you’re heard. One of the examples is often, if you’re in the middle of saying something, sometimes you may get stepped on, or someone might pick up the thread of your conversation and take it off in a direction and own that conversation. Helping another woman to bring it back to her like, “Gina, I’d love to finish hearing what you had to say about that topic. I loved how you thought of that.”

To bring it back around to the woman to give her a chance. As you said, Gina that, this isn’t male bashing at all. A man might not realize they’re doing that, that they might be stepping on something a woman said, or not giving proper credit where something started. That might also shine a light for them to say, “Oh right, yeah, I should probably pivot back to that.” That sort of thing.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. You hit on something there a second ago, the competitive confidence. I’ve never really thought about it in that way because women are confident, it’s not that we lack confidence. But in a competitive situation, that’s where there’s just this little voice. I just had this conversation yesterday with two of the women that are going to be on the DEI&B panel at the conference. They were talking about how no matter the level of the woman, whether she’s a VP or even sometimes has a C in her title, she still gets plagued by the same – this was a researcher I was speaking with – the same kind of doubt.

The researcher was saying that it’s socialized at such a young age that it just sticks with you. Thinking about it in terms of competitive confidence when you’re in those environments where you are as qualified as anyone else in the room, yet you hold back because of this, whatever it is, this socialization, lack of competitive confidence. You’ve really hit on something and I wonder how, as leaders, as managers, as people who want to help elevate other women, how do we see that? Can we see it happening and can we step in?

Gerilyn Horan: Gina, this is big, seriously. Particularly, the more you’re in a room where there’s fewer women, I think sometimes you tend to get quieter. Part of it is too, women are also sensitive to sounding like a bragger. The tooting your own horn thing or, sounding like you’re bragging about it. We tend to be less overt about announcing and championing our accomplishments. There’s a little bit of that. Some of it is, we just have to own our fabulousness. We do. We have to own the fact that yes, I’m confident, I’m capable, I’m smart. I know this topic. I’m in the room, I should speak. We will regret, because it’s happened to me more than once sitting in a room and I’m thinking something and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know if I should say it.” This is previously. Now I just say what I say. Then I don’t say it, or you don’t say it, and then somebody else says it. Maybe one of the men and everybody’s like, “That’s a great idea, Joe.” You’re sitting there going, “I was thinking that I should have said it.”

You’re going to regret more the things that you don’t say and you don’t do than you will anything you say that doesn’t come out perfectly. Other women, particularly women leaders need to create a safe space where women feel they can say things, what they say is valued, that they want to be heard. I’m famous for some of my leadership calls and things. “Gina, I haven’t heard anything from you, what are you thinking about?” Trying to really pull things out of people, because I know it’s there. In a non-threatening way, try to draw it out or give the space for it to happen.

Gina Stracuzzi: A major panel at the IES Women in Sales Leadership Elevation Conference will be DEI&B initiatives. Tell us about Hilton and diversity and gender parity?

Gerilyn Horan: Thank you for asking.

“Diversity is at the core of who we are. We are committed to an equitable and inclusive workforce that fully represents all ages, genders, sexual orientation, nationalities, ethnicities, disabilities, military and veteran status, cultures and viewpoints. Grounded in our founding purpose, we foster an environment where Team Members can be their authentic selves.

By the end of 2027, we are committed to achieve global gender parity and 25% US ethnic representation at our corporate leadership levels.

Our Team Member Resource Groups (TMRGs) represent the diverse segments of our workforce, including the Women’s TMRG which creates a collective culture to support the advancement of Women at Hilton through a network of engagement, empowerment and development which ensures every woman can thrive. It focuses on providing a support network, promoting allyship, inspiring growth and demonstrating career possibilities”.

Gina Stracuzzi:  Every company is different, so it’s hard to say, but if you have somebody that you know has good ideas but they are very reluctant to speak up in meetings, maybe a little bit of advanced coaching before the meeting. “Look, we’re going to go into this meeting, and I’m going to ask for ideas, and I know you have some about this, and I want you to share them. I’m going to let you go first.” Maybe that’s the way to do it. One of the things that I always like to tell men who say, “I want to help, but I don’t know what to say,” is if you see other people talking over, you can stop it yourself, like, “Hey Bob, give Mary a chance here.”

Gerilyn Horan: Often sometimes you might get cut off or get stepped over. In a lovely and delightful way, to say after they’re finished, “Yeah, Bob, that was great but I’d love to hear what else Gina was going to say.” Or to flick it back to that other person. Sometimes if an idea comes out and somehow it becomes somebody else’s idea, instead of where it started, to circle back and get it back on track of, “That was a great idea Gina had. Gina, how did you think it? What made you come to that idea?” To make sure that, everybody’s being recognized for their contribution. Women are less likely to probably take that extra step to do that for themselves. Often, particularly as you’re in higher ranked situations, there are fewer other women to help do that for you.

Gina Stracuzzi: Let’s talk a little bit about you and your team and what the break-up is. What you would like to see more of, how you try to bring your personal views into your recruiting. If somebody’s listening and they want to get a job with Hilton doing sales, what would you recommend for them?

Gerilyn Horan: First of all, I want to say it’s a great gig. It’s such a good company. I was gone for a long time after Hilton the first round. Four Seasons and Langham and Napa Valley in Meadowood. Then I went to the customer side and was at HelmsBriscoe on their leadership team. Coming back has really been incredible. To see the culture of this company and the way they look after their team members and the real concern for our clients and our purpose. It’s really something. It’s interesting, we don’t have a lot of turnover because people are pretty happy. You mentioned about The Great Resignation and hasn’t hit my team.

I’ve got just about a little over a hundred people on the team right now. It’s a lot of long-time team members. It’s a very coveted role within the company. Whenever there’s an opening, we certainly look at externally as well, because it’s always good to have some new blood but we’ve got a great pipeline of people within the Hilton Worldwide Sales Organization and the hotel community. We’re really intentional about our talent development.

First of all, we want a diverse workforce. I’m so passionate about the fact that having diverse voices at a table is much better for the business. I don’t want to hear a bunch of people that look and sound like me telling me the same thing. That’s not what I need. I need to know what our community is interested in, our planner community, our guests’ community, and that does not look like me. Very intentional about wanting to have lots of different voices at the table. Very intentional about building good talent and growing leaders. For me, that’s obviously men and women, but have a soft spot for the women that we’re trying to help continue to bring up. There’s a lot of ways that we do that.

There’s a lot of one-on-one coaching from their leaders. There are opportunities within the company for different sorts of training and things like looking at, “Here you are as a person, here’s the role that you want to get to. What are the gaps? What do we need to do to fill those in to get you ready for that next role?” We do some official and unofficial mentoring. An example was, there’s a woman on my team who wants to get into a role in one of the other regions, who’s got great potential, and there’s a woman in that region who’s on our leadership team, who I have unofficially mentored, have some good conversations with. I asked her if she would become a mentor to this girl who wants to get into her region.

Now, she’s going to start working with her to figure out where there might be opportunities, what are her gaps? What do we need to fill in? Being intentional about how we’re trying to raise each other up and get each other ready for that next spot. The funny thing is, I have a mentor at Hilton as well. He’s a man, and he’s terrific, and is very supportive of me as is my boss, Frank, who Fred mentioned earlier, who is super mentor and leader of many, many women on his leadership team.

Gina Stracuzzi: That’s awesome. I have to say, it’s refreshing to actually hear somebody say, “Yeah, we’re doing great, we’ve got a strong team, don’t need anybody.” So many employers right now are just struggling to find people, to hang on to women. The tech industry got harder hit because it’s very fast-paced, lots of hours. It’s hard anyway. Then everything that transpired over the last two years made it untenable for a number of women. They’re all just scratching their head trying to figure out like, “How do we really attract and retain women?” It sounds like you all have cracked that nut in a big way.

Gerilyn Horan:  Could be luck, but we’ve done well in the Hilton Worldwide Sales world. I will say the hotels, they’re on the property level. They’re still needing to backfill positions that are open. If anywhere, that’s where the challenge is, but we’ve been very, very fortunate. I think about over the pandemic even, some of the things that we did, I was just amazed by the women on my team, how they managed through the pandemic. Many of them have young children. Suddenly, they’re working from home, their partner is working from home, too. They’ve got kids that are now needing to be homeschooled, and they’re keeping it all together.

I would get on our regular huddle calls, and I would say, “I don’t even know how you guys are doing it.” I could tell you, if my son was home, he’s in college now. We’d be killing each other if I was trying to educate him at nine years old. He would get mad that I’m not doing his math, right. I’m like, “Well, that’s how I learned it, I don’t know.”

I had such respect and admiration and empathy for them because it was a tough go. Recognizing what people are going through and giving them a space to do what they need to do and showing some empathy particularly for women, and particularly working moms. Companies really have to think about how do they support them? How do they give them the space in that period of time that they really need the most flexibility?

Which is a relatively small period of time, when you think about a 40-year career. That’s when you’ll build such loyalty if you’re supportive and flexible and continue to work with them to grow their career as they go through that period. It’s not like you stop and stagnate there, you can continue to grow. That’s where a lot of women sometimes get a little behind and it’s harder then to make it.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. It is one of the reasons women get stuck. They might take off time for the reasons you just listed, and then they come back and they get the equivalent job, but it may not be on the same path at all. It really demoralizes sometimes and leaves women with the feeling of being stuck. As you and I discussed, those middle management years really are the make or break. If it takes you 10 years and a guy flies through at three to five, that’s big, that’s huge.

Gerilyn Horan: Totally. That’s the biggest challenge. Companies need to figure out aside from the flexibility and things I’m talking about, how do we really, make sure that we take care of these women when they need that help? That we keep them on the right track? That they still feel inspired and motivated and understand that the world is their oyster? It’s not that they’re stepping back because they’re doing other very important work, raising little people. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s still work to be done there.

Gina Stracuzzi: Absolutely. As I was telling you, one of the main reasons we started the forum was to help employers bridge that area so that women can be more rapidly advanced. They get over their own internal hesitations, and they leverage opportunities within the company for the much-needed visibility, which is a huge thing. That is a huge thing employers can do is make sure they’re providing those visibility opportunities.

Gerilyn Horan: That’s right. There are people they need to know in the leadership team up, or make sure the leadership team, where they would next go to is aware of them. We’ll organize a coffee chat with somebody.  Go and have a cup of coffee with someone and get to know them, or call. A lot of it is on us. It’s not like this isn’t everybody else’s job to do for you. A lot of it is on us to pick up the thread when we have an opportunity, but the door has to be open for that.

Gina Stracuzzi: Exactly. That is very well said, Gerilyn. We’re ready to unfortunately call an end to this conversation, which is too bad.  I know that you and I will continue. We like to leave our audience with one piece of advice from our guests that they can put into action today to advance their careers or start thinking in a new direction. Something that is just easy to think about, maybe something to read, something to write out. Whatever you’d like.

Gerilyn Horan: Really think about where you want to be, how you’re going to get there, but who you need to know to get there. Really think about expanding your network. There’s a lot of women on my team, I have regular chats now and again with everybody. I always say to people we hang up, you know, “Hey, put a coffee chat on my calendar and let’s catch up.” A few do, a lot don’t. I would say any opportunity I have to get to know those that have some opportunity to influence your career or help your career, to get to know them, you should do that. To be really intentional about that. I’m not saying your direct boss, it could be somebody in other parts of the business. Think about who you need to know to get to where you want to get to and form relationships. Figure out how to build a relationship with them and get on their radar and eventually, hopefully work that into a sponsor or a mentorship situation. That helps.

Transcribed by Mariana Badillo

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