When an inspector calls - October 2018

With the prospect of lower immigration and a growing labour shortage, competition for employees is fiercer than ever. Director of Quality in Tourism Deborah Heather considers what makes a good GM and why businesses need to be good operators.

As you might expect in my job, visits to hotels are par for the course and I can stop in several in a week on my travels. Along the way, I meet the operators behind the businesses, and their career histories and business operations are diverse and eclectic, with no two the same. Big business, small business, household brand or boutique, part-time, full-time, the range of operations is astounding. Factor in the individuals who run them, from owner-managers to career operators, first-timers to old-timers and it quickly becomes clear that there are thousands of methods available to secure the success of your business. This concept got me musing; can you do your own thing, or are good operators defined by a few collective criteria?

My own career history saw me fulfil a few hotel roles before becoming GM at Aldwark Manor (Q Hotels) and Dartington Manor too. In 2012 I was extremely lucky to be granted St Julian Scholarship funding to attend the Cornell GM programme in the US, which included two weeks of intensive, residential training at the University. My course peers included Gareth Banner, Managing Director of The Ned and Simon Mahon who is Ops Director for Saco among others. The focus of the training was all about good management including (as you would expect) leadership and motivation of staff and asset management, but then more unusually the topics of developing competitive advantage and how to tackle ethical dilemmas in your decision-making. Even then the focus was on improving the individual and not training the group collective, and much was left to self-reflection and personal style, without the need to conform to a particular approach or strategy. It was a phenomenal grounding for my position, and I shall be forever grateful for what I learned in the duration.

Looking to their content now and Cornell identifies a list of key skills for GMs, including:

  • they lead by example
  • they have their team's back – they mentor and provide the tools for success
  • they communicate high expectations
  • they have integrity
  • they are always learning and growing.

They top this off with the assertion that GMs should be lifelong learners, never content to stick with what they know.

What fascinates and delights me about this approach is the focus on emotional intelligence and soft skills, rather than an identikit approach to management with a list of key skills to attain. It is this less tangible, more real approach which helps to develop good GMs and enables them to be flexible to the needs of the individual business in which they operate. So if we’re advocating soft-skills and being your best self, what I am left with is the question – can you clearly define a good operator?

The answer to this question is inevitably no, or at least it cannot be simplified into a checklist of attributes. What I end up concluding every single time is that every GM or leader is individual (and should be) and with that individuality comes a great period of progression for every business. What I also conclude however is that there is often a number of shared attributes which manifest in different ways, but which are shared between every great GM and operator I have ever met. So what are these?

Being an approachable leader

Hospitality develops a close staff environment and with that comes both benefits and challenges. I’ve seen ‘approachability’ delivered in a number of different formats by leaders, but invariably the staff feel able to engage with their leadership team, obtain mentoring, advice and guidance when they need it, and even have the right to challenge what they don’t agree with, in an open and honest environment. No two approaches are the same though and in the last few weeks alone I’ve seen everything from staff loan schemes set-up in deprived areas to an employee training consortium where staff are able to gain experience around the country at partner hotels, a dress-down uniform with the GM in a jumper and jeans and even a ‘GM for the day’ programme where staff get to shadow leaders in the hotel.

Having an overarching, strategic approach and communicating it

So often, I see teams working in silos where waiting staff are trained to deliver exceptional guest experience in the dining room, the bar staff in the bar and the reception staff in reception. However so few operators bring staff together collectively to set out the vision and to give enough training so that the guest experience is superb wherever they are and whoever they talk to in the hotel. I appreciate there is some generalisation here, but it’s interesting how many staff handbooks are specific to the individual role they are undertaking in the hotel, and not to the delivery of an overarching strategy or vision for the hotel.

Define the culture and attract the audience

You cannot be what you are not, and so many successful businesses and their teams have worked together to create a unique and attractive culture which in turn attracts an audience that appreciates it. I recently visited two five-star hotels in quick succession, each of which had over 90% year-round occupancy, in areas with occupancy closer to 70%. On the surface, they were entirely comparable; both five star, both in rural locations, both premier operators in their locale, but on the visit, their approach could not have been more different. For one, a uniform of converse and chinos combined with a relaxed, ‘dress-down’ culture with the clients. Never once did we feel unserved or unvalued, but the culture was also very relaxed and self-serve. For the other, a more ‘traditional’ uniform combined with a very knowledgeable staff with a clear appreciation of the owner’s vision. They laughed and joked with the clients, made excellent recommendations and were each encouraged to portray their own personality, but it was carefully cultivated to offer the traditional concierge-style hospitality. Both hotels were clearly five star, and both succeeded in attracting their own audience, but neither could be accused of any similarity to the other.


Putting it into action

Last week, I did a whistle-stop tour of several Cornwall hotels over two days and there are two which stick in my mind for a mention. I will be covering them in future issues in more depth, but in the meantime, here’s a little precis.

Carbis Bay – Five star

Here, the culture is typified by a definite family feel to the business, with an established management team who have been in place for over 10 years. They have perfected the art of working together in an open and honest way, which staff find approachable and there’s very little limits to what the team can ask. They are the pioneers of the staff loan scheme and they openly encourage the team to discuss concerns and worries so that support can be offered. The staff also benefit from a range of different learning environments with the opportunity to experience all aspects of the Estate. Carbis Bay Owner Stephen Baker advises “Focus on the 99% that’s done well, and encourage improvement for the 1%. We can all become a bit focussed on the small stuff when actually our teams are excelling.”

The Headland – Five star

Family-owned and run for more than 40 years, the Hotel Manager Neil is very in tune with the vision of the owners and this is communicated to all of the staff. However, they are also encouraged to challenge and push the boundaries that have been set, all in pursuit of improvement. The employees are encouraged to display their own personalities and to use their own strengths to enhance the customer experience. For a 'traditional' high end hotel with a mixed multi-generational demographic it was incredibly relaxed, which put you at ease but you could not fault the service and quality of the offering. HM Neil Slade comments “We have a fabulous team who care passionately about delivering five-star experiences to every guest, every time.  We understand the importance of a seamless guest journey and ensure that all of our team are well trained and afforded the opportunity to put forward suggestions to enable continuous improvement.”

Experience of course counts for much but emotional intelligence, interpersonal skills and a drive to do things well can be more advantageous in the long-run. Good operators in turn establish good teams, which in turn reduces staff turnover and delivers a better overall operation. Anecdotally there is a growing divide between good and bad leaders in hospitality, but those who excel have businesses that are influenced less by the external threats that come with labour shortages and skills gaps.

Deborah is Director of Quality in Tourism, pioneers of the new, customer-centric quality assessments. She manages a field force of assessors who visit and grade hundreds of hotels a year. To find out more about the assessments, please visit www.qualityintourism.com
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