Hotel industry executives speaking at the Southern Lodging Summit identified traits of effective leaders and shared how they grow those people within their organizations.
MEMPHIS, Tennessee—As the hotel industry faces labor issues across all facets, the prevailing wisdom calls for recruiting talented leaders, training them well and holding on to them.
To address the question of how to actually do that, executives in top leadership roles at their companies spoke at the Southern Lodging Summit about the traits of effective leaders, and their strategies for motivating and inspiring employees to create a sustainable, diverse team.
- For more on labor challenges and how hoteliers are addressing them, read:
Finding the right leaders
Speakers agreed hiring good leaders is a challenge that requires the ability to spot candidates who not only possess talents in their core roles within an organization, but also leadership skills.
“There are things you can teach people and things you can’t,” Mary Beth Cutshall, EVP and chief development officer at HVMG, said. “I look for the things that someone innately must have for the position we’re filling. For example—passion; you can’t teach that. It’s an important, core trait I look for.”
HVMG uses testing methods to “understand (a candidate’s) talent and value and contribution,” she said.
Jane Cooper, president and COO of Herschend Family Entertainment, said testing can help organizations identify those skills.
“When I think about what’s required of leaders, especially in the last five to 10 years, I break it into technical skills and a cultural fit, and we test for both pieces of that,” she said. “Sometimes we’re lacking in a certain technical skill, and we have to go out and find a technical expert. I focus on the balance.”
Once leaders are hired, mentoring becomes key to development, speakers said.
“When I was growing up in the industry, no way did I think I needed a seat at the table—I felt lucky for any breadcrumbs that came out of an executive meeting,” said Dianna Vaughan, global head of all-suites brands for Hilton. “Now people want their seat at the table.”
She said serving as a mentor has helped her people find seats at the table and reap other benefits. She cited a mentoring relationship she has with Jenna Hackett, global head of Tapestry Collection by Hilton.
“I started mentoring her a few years ago; I knew she had the talent and the right attitude,” Vaughan said. “I thought I was mentoring her, but really we were mentoring each other. She pushed me too, and I found that so helpful.”
Vaughan’s advice: “Find a mentor who will challenge you. It’s not always about the senior executive mentoring down. It goes both ways.”
Working for diversity
Speakers agreed that building a diverse leadership group at an organization is vital because it reflects today’s consumer environment. But it doesn’t just happen naturally; it requires deliberate work and planning.
Cecilia Gordon, director at Goulston & Storrs and co-chair of the firm’s Hospitality and Recreation Industry Group, said law firms historically have “tended to hire people who looked only like the people already within their walls.”
Vaughan said building diversity “starts with conversations and acknowledging that there’s improvement for all of us to make.”
At Hilton, she said that means training about unconscious bias, ensuring diversity in the applicant pool and holding management accountable for how they recruit and hire.
Gordon added: “If you have more than one diverse candidate within your pool for a job, you substantially increase the chance a candidate will be hired because they don’t look so different.”
For smaller companies that don’t have a complex hiring infrastructure, she suggested “simple things, like screening resumes blindly, are ways any company can increase diversity in hiring.”
Adding to the lack of gender and ethnic diversity, several speakers pointed out today’s lack of generational diversity.
“When I look back at the 1990s and the economy, there was so much froth in the public market,” Cooper said. “There was so much cost-cutting that we eliminated an entire generation, and now there’s a big gap in skill sets.”
In part because of that “lost generation” in many industries, leadership development and succession planning is essential.
“I tell my leaders that their No. 1 job is to have a succession plan for themselves and their team,” Cooper said.
At Hilton, leaders are evaluated on their succession plans, Vaughan said. That includes identifying talent and skills gaps along the chain, and working to eliminate those gaps with training and other development.
Keep creativity flowing
Speakers agreed that constant motivation is essential for keeping leaders interested and effective.
Gordon said keeping creative juices flowing within a team can be tough with people working on different schedules and in different locations, but tools can help bring the group together.
“For me, creativity is best accomplished when people are in a room together, but that can’t always happen,” she said. “We’ve invested in great technology so … at least the video conferencing works really well.”
Cooper acknowledged that most people in hospitality industry leadership enjoy contributing creativity to the organization. To that end, she encouraged rewarding failure to an extent.
“You have to allow people to take a risk and fail,” she said. “If the plan doesn’t work, you celebrate it and people continue to improve. We always want to challenge people to come up with new ideas, so we have to support those ideas. Otherwise, you’ll squelch any creativity in a second.”