The impetus for this article comes from the thousands of miles I have traveled and the many places I have stayed in my work as a leadership consultant and professional speaker. Depending upon the city and the client, the range goes from residential inns to five star resorts, from boutique hotels to bed-and-breakfast retreats, from international chains to franchise operations.

From a leadership perspective, what becomes clear is that while creature comforts can vary (and are always critically important), my ultimate experience is determined by the interactions I experience and observe with staff. This can apply to virtually any business where customers and staff interact.

As hotel executives, there is much you have to consider in running an enterprise that responds to customer needs and trends. Buffet breakfasts for the busy traveler are great but hampered when a server slams down coffee. The trend toward small plates in dining is fine but it won't matter if served by small hearts. Service recovery is critical but not when the front desk has to search for someone in authority to tell them how to handle a sediment-filled iron stain that ruined a suit. IPad check-in is swift but disconcerting when a guest's "good afternoon" greeting is met with disdain.

Don't get me wrong. I have observed some of the most obnoxious behavior from business travelers whose ego and arrogance is only a wee bit smaller than their lack of courtesy. To be in this industry is, in fact, an act of courage. Unlike the worlds of finance and technology, consumer products or construction, hospitality puts humans into the most intimate of settings. As author Joan Chittister, OSB, writes: "Hospitality is the act of a recklessly generous heart."

Here is where the contact sport begins: with you the executive. Think of leadership as an inside-out skill. Much like a rock in a pond, what you put out becomes the energy that moves from an inner circle to the furthest reaches of the enterprise. Your demeanor, your actions, your words carry an impact to your leadership team, to the front desk, to the bell desk, to housekeeping. Staff, for the most part, mirror how they are treated by those in leadership.
Consider this article like a booster shot. Just as a booster shot spikes the antibodies, this article is intended to spike what you know and are already doing. It will reinforce practices and hopefully, add some new tools in your leadership kit.

(1) Create meaning with employees

Everyone wants to know his or her work is meaningful even, if at face value, is might seem rather meaningless. Fascinating how small things allow someone to feel they matter.

Call everyone by name. I remember one resort property in which the security guards told me the new general manager had asked them to get their pictures to him so he could call them by name when he came onsite. What amazed them was that no manager heretofore had even cared. In another instance, housekeeping told me that one of their wishes was that the manager would acknowledge them by name when he got on the elevator. On the flip side, I believe the story of the GM who spent a day working along side housekeeping is probably legend.

Let people know the value of what they have done for the operation. There is a hospital in San Diego where a surgeon was overhead telling a custodian, "Hey Joe. Good to see you here. I never worry when you're on duty." That simple statement told the housekeeper that the surgeon knew that it was as important that the hospital be clean as it was that the surgeon's hands were steady in the operating room.

(2) Create an environment for mutuality

Mutuality is mirrored in respect. As the Ritz Carlton so famously states it, "ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen."

I know one general manager who insisted that respect was an unbreakable rule - and there were few rules. When his maître d'hôtel lost his temper and slapped a waiter, the maître d'hôtel was instantly dismissed. The manager told him how valuable he was but that disrespect of another employee would not be tolerated. To this day, the former maître d'hôtel sends Christmas cards and calls the general manager.


One of the foundational - and often missing - demonstrations of respect is the ability to listen deeply and without judgment. It does not happen via IM or text messages. It only happens face-to-face. As a leader, whom you listen to also carries weight.

Listen to the Little Davids

Little Davids are the youngest or newest members on your team. It is a term derived from the Middle Ages when then Rule of St. Benedict admonished the abbot to get input from all monks before making a decision and to make sure he started with the Little David, a reference to the biblical story of David and Goliath.

I have heard marvelous ideas and insights come from the youngest or newest members of a team because they come with fresh eyes and no political agenda. In fact, if a leader wants to create meaning AND mutuality, tell the Little David that at the end of 30 days, you want to learn something from them to improve the operation. You might well be astounded.

Listen to the Orange Batons.

This is a term I coined that comes from the Orange Batons used by ground crew who help an airplane ease into a gate. They are necessary because the pilots are so far off the ground, they cannot see the lines on the tarmac for the front wheel.

As the hotel executive, you too are removed from "the ground". It is impossible for you to see and know all that happens on an ongoing basis. Listen to your Orange Batons. They have wisdom to share and in the asking, you have also demonstrated respect.

Reinforce with random rewards.

Random rewards get regular performance. It is the element of surprise and specificity that makes acknowledgements special. Think of it as a kinder version of "I know who you are and I saw what you did." When the dentist showed up to his weekly staff meeting with a star cut out of a coke can, handing it to the receptionist with $25 and stating that he felt she made all the patients feel like stars, the joy was evident to all. Periodically, he'd show up with other "rewards". The randomness as well as the specifics of the feedback worked magic.

Encourage 360 degree acknowledgment. Imagine what would happen if team members from every department started off a work week with giving verbal thank you's to things they had observed other team members doing. Instead of just the leader or department head calling out members, imagine what would happen if everyone began to look for what was going right. You can also create an environment where team members acknowledge when someone has had a bad day. In one travel agency, the agents would know when someone had the traveler who made everyone's life miserable. If it was handled with compassion and calm. even if the agent had a melt down when she put down the phone, the agent was awarded "The Order of the Salmon" a stupid looking stuffed fish but the meaning was obvious: the agent kept on swimming upstream, against all odds.

(3) Create an environment for mirth

In The Maverick Employee there is a line that says, "Laughter and good humor are the canaries in the mine of commerce. If you, your employees, your customers don't have a good time, if the laughter has died, you are in the wrong business."

I will never forget one Halloween at a Hilton Hotel outside Chicago. A very creative staff turned a low census into an opportunity to show the surrounding residential community just what the hotel had to offer.

In short, they turned the hotel into a veritable Halloween happening - for free - so that parents could bring their goblins, princesses, witches, pirates, and assorted wee folks to have a safe, fun holiday. One entire floor became the trick-or-treat floor. Senior citizens from the area were given one free night if they would come, decorate their hotel door, and then hand out candy to children.

The ballroom was turned into a haunted house. Movies played in a meeting room. Hotdogs, popcorn, and sodas were offered for a pittance. And the staff—well—you never saw so many hotel employees having so much fun and radiating such pride in what their hotel was doing.

You don't have to go to the extreme as this one hotel did but there is much that can be done to create laughter, joy, and spontaneity - all hallmarks of what makes us uniquely human.

Meaning. Mutuality. Mirth. These three components are the places where contact is made. It starts with you, the hotel executive. And in the bargain, you end up with a residual effect: money.

© 2014, The Resiliency Group. Publication rights granted to all venues so long as article and by-line are reprinted intact and all links are made live.

Author's Bio: 

Eileen McDargh is a Hall of Fame motivational speaker, management consultant, resiliency expert and top thought-leader in leadership. Visit The Resiliency Group website at to get her free quarterly e-zine, read her blog and articles. Discover why hundreds of satisfied clients from all over the globe hire Eileen to keynote at their meetings and facilitate their retreats.