What do you call a decorated Air Force veteran, an attorney, and a management consultant sitting at a desk? It may sound like the setup of a joke, but we call him Jay Caiafa.
InterContinental Hotel Group’s vice president of strategy for the Americas, is all of these things. We spoke with Jay about how his prolific and diverse background helps shape his perspective on setting strategic direction for one of the most successful hotel companies in the world, where you should look for a mentor, and what leadership really means.
How has your background in the military, the law, and management consulting helped you in your current role setting strategy for IHG?
The common thread throughout my different experiences is that they have all involved being surrounded by great people that have very different skill sets, motivations, backgrounds, etc. As I look back through my career, I think I’ve built a tool kit and knowledge base that spans a number of different industries. It’s not necessarily subject-matter driven. Instead, it’s a rather industry-agnostic tool kit—much more about understanding how you influence, work with, get along with, and understand people. At a company like IHG that is widely celebrated for its focus on diversity, it’s a great strength. My background also allows me to see relationships and process things in a unique way because nobody else has that perspective. We all look at the world through our own set of glasses, and I’ve been lucky enough to have collected a few different colored ones over my career, so that makes it a little bit more 3-D.
What kind of projects make you excited to get out of bed every morning?
For me it’s more about the impact that a project can have. I hate working on things where I lock myself in an office with two or three people and we’re just trying to solve something as the strategy people. I love working across functions of the business because it’s tangible, it drives outcomes, it drives us to impact our business, whether it’s our guests, owners, colleagues, or investors. At IHG, the projects that I’ve liked the most have been the ones that are transformational in the way we think about the business—where we’re partnering with operations, brands, development, commercial, and finance to gain insights from what we’re seeing in the industry. We then take those insights to create strategy that we can bring to action, and lead us to a different, hopefully much better outcome.
How important is it to have a mentor in the workplace?
I’ve had both formal and informal mentors throughout my career. One of my favorite parts of being at IHG is that everyone I have met is always willing to invest in each other’s growth, whether as a mentor formally or informally. For me personally, I’ve valued the informal mentor relationship much more. I think at the end of the day, a mentor is there to help you grow, and we don’t just grow in one direction. I’ve had the pleasure of working with people at IHG like Ricardo Lopez, my former boss, and Elie Maalouf, our Americas CEO and my current boss, and my teammates on our senior leadership team, whom I work with daily and learn from constantly. Where I think people tend to get lost is in the idea that a mentor always has to be somebody above you in title or rank. Everyone has something to teach. I’ve learned from people I work for, who work for me, and who are peers. I always encourage people to look 360 degrees around themselves, not just up in the organization. There are many people, regardless of title, that have a lot to teach. Be open to learning from those people that have different experience regardless of what their title says.
Be open to learning from those people that have different experience regardless of what their title says.
Do you have a daily habit or routine that prepares you for the day?
I always try to find 10 minutes every day when I get to work to meditate. I think as a leader it allows you to attack the day in a way where you’re open-minded, you’re not taking things personally, you’re bringing people with you, and you’re creating a sense of calm for those around you. We work in a very high-pace, high-demand area of the business that is capable of creating a lot of stress. I’ve always said that in my mind, there are two different types of leaders: stress absorbers and stress amplifiers. My role as a leader is to be a stress absorber for my team, and meditation helps with that. The more I can keep myself centered and in the present, the easier it is for me to take some of that stress off my team so they can focus 100 percent of themselves on getting the outcome that we need, as opposed to spending their energy feeling stress or uncertainty.
How does technology make your job easier or harder?
I don’t spend a great deal of time on technology-facing strategy for the company—thankfully we have great people at IHG in our technology organization that are working through leading-edge innovation. However, the technology innovation itself can change the speed at which and how we engage with guests. One of the most valuable things we have is the loyalty of our guests. When you think about where we are now with the sharing economy, a company like Uber’s advantage over competition may not be in the mechanics of ride sharing itself; rather, it’s because Uber has built a base of strongly loyal customers and own that mindshare because they’ve gotten the technology and customer interaction part of the business right. We are always striving to do things to create loyalty with our guests. It makes us laser focused on the guest journey, whether it’s in the dreaming about vacation stage, the planning, the booking, the stay, or sharing their travel story on social media. In every one of those areas of our guest journey, we have competitors trying to steal some of the mindshare of our guests. So technology can help us find ways to maintain that relationship through the entire guest journey. It also allows us to hear our customers in real time, which is important.
What’s the best advice you’ve been given?
When I was at the Air Force Academy I had a conversation with a chief master sergeant. He told me that through my life I would go through several promotions and I’d hold many different jobs. He suggested I keep a leadership journal, which I do to this day. In that journal, he said, “Every time a leader motivates you or demotivates you, write it down, describe what happened, what they did, how it made you feel, and what your reaction was.” He said, “Every time you get promoted, every time you write your review, go back and read your journal.” What I’ve found is that through time, you often make small compromises and you start forgetting how you felt when you were the one that needed motivation, as opposed to your current situation where you’re the one doing the motivating. It’s amazing how much you forget about what impacted you most and what you felt from leadership as you advanced in your career, and this journal has helped me keep it close.