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Wharf Hotel's President, Dr Jennifer Cronin speaks to Samantha Chan, and shares how her professional experiences in managing crises led her to do research and come up with better ways for the industry to make things work during tough times.

Dr Jennifer Cronin was appointed as President of Wharf Hotels in 2016, after serving as Vice President Sales & Marketing for two years. Throughout her career, she has been a firm believer of learning and improving her capabilities.

She refused to bow down in what was typically known as a male-dominated industry. She got her MBA back in the 1990s when MBAs were “still a pretty sexy thing to do”. On top of that, she decided to pursue a Phd degree from Bond University in 2011, even when she was already a VP at a listed hospitality group. Her research, titled Empowering Readiness; influencing crisis management success outcomes, along with her experiences in handling crises such as the Red Shirts in Thailand made her way ahead of others when the pandemic hit. 

What inspired you to pursue a PhD degree?

Doing the PhD was a really left-field decision because I was already Vice President of Sales and Marketing for a hotel group in Thailand. It was a very good job, and I felt that I had reached a new high in my career as it was my first corporate VP job.

But then, at the time, in Thailand, they were having a crisis every year. Every year we were doing a recovery plan. I felt that we could be doing it better but many of the leaders at that time really didn't take crisis management as seriously as we should be. 

In 2010, we had the Red Shirts crisis in Thailand. When the Red Shirts’ leader was shot dead in front of our hotel, the protesters threw Molotov cocktails at the hotel. We were under siege at the time. It was like a war zone, and it was pretty scary. 

So, at that time, I thought, I could help out the industry by going back to academia and doing research, and coming up with a better way to manage a crisis. Back then, I was also in between staying in the corporate world and teaching at universities. To teach at a university at a good level, you need a PhD so that convinced me to go back and do it full time.

It was really the best thing I did. After I submitted my thesis, I thought academia is probably going to be too quiet for me, and I want to get back to the corporate world. I started putting my feelers out to friends in the industry. I flew here for an interview and the rest is history.

What are the key takeaways from your thesis?

  1. One of the outcomes of my PhD, also my recommendation for every organisation, is that you need a living manual.

Every organisation has manuals for all kinds of things but they often sit on a shelf and gather dust. The fact we call it a living manual gives everybody the understanding that it must be reinforced, energised, reviewed, updated, added to, every time something new happens.

We've also created a fantastic training programme around it. In today's world today, there's always some sort of crisis. Some are small, some are big, some are really scary, but you know, you've got to be able to manage through it.

  1. Understanding the difference between transformational leadership and transactional leadership. Your leadership style will determine the outcomes of a crisis. 

A charismatic leader, or a transformational leader will be able to get the buy-in from people. You walk the talk, you set the example, you empower people, and you encourage them to learn. Whereas hotels were for many years very transactional. As I was growing up in hotels, I was used to general managers yelling and executives with the attitudes of ‘It's my way or the highway.’  They were very aggressive and could be intimidating. 

It's a different world today. We have a much better and well-educated workforce, you cannot manage them that way. The most successful leaders, I would say, are transformational leaders. 

The living manual covers everything and is accessible to everyone. What is the role of a leader?

To be able to give that support to help employees bounce off where they're at. Because very often, when there is a crisis, they’re so focused on following the procedures which don’t necessarily cover everything. My role is to empower them to do their job at their best, while making sure that the standards are met, the reputational image of our company is understood with the highest of integrity, the highest ethics, and that we do the right thing at every opportunity.

The industry was badly hit by various crises. How did you overcome it?

Well, we haven't overcome it yet. This has been two years since we've been going through a form of crisis. We had social unrest in 2019. I think the international media portrayed Hong Kong as a warzone, which is unfair because in fact overall business was still going on. 

That is why we created the Heritage Tourism Brands group, which is made up of seven luxury hotel brands in Hong Kong. We all got together and said that we have to tell the world that Hong Kong will survive. Paris or Istanbul were having protests too, and they were more violent than here. We wanted to tell everybody that Hong Kong is still open for business and we want you to come back. And there’s so much more to Hong Kong than just the harbour. We came up with a video called “Our home” last May, as we emerged from the COVID-19. 

Our people have sacrificed a lot during the pandemic. We had to do no paid leave. That for me is heartbreaking. This year, we close our office every Friday. In our corporate office, we haven't made anybody redundant but it still takes its toll of trying to keep everybody motivated. 

How has the pandemic changed the HR function?

We have become much more focused on digital tools to get our jobs done. We've had to look at mobile solutions more than ever before. We are also looking at the AI aspects, workforce optimisation through data and digitalisation where we've also looked at organisational structures to be much flatter. Hotels were dinosaurs when it came to technology so the pandemic has really forced us to change. 

What does it take for HR to make it to the top? 

A lot of HR specialists are just specialists. What they need to do is expand their knowledge base.

Madame Juliette (currently the group’s Vice President, Human Resources) has sales and marketing and other operational backgrounds so she could. 

It's not very often you find HR leaders who have a more diversified approach. If you really want to work your way to the top, it's really important to understand as much about the operation, the business, and the industry and not to just rely on one discipline. Try to be a more rounded leader and you can also gain the respect of the people that you work with. 

You mentioned that back in the days it was not easy for women to move up the ranks. Has the situation improved now? 

I had instances of being told I couldn't do something because I was female. Only that made me more driven to prove them wrong.

A hotel magazine recently nominated me along with three male leaders from really big companies for a global award. I worked for one of the nominated companies, and the president at that time didn't want a female GM. And look, I'm at that same career level and am competing against that company. So I think the proof is just working hard even though I think we've still got a way to go in our industry. 

What is your next goal for your career?

It's very much to use my knowledge from these roles, and eventually be a chairman of a board in multinational companies or Chancellor of the University.