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4 years ago I had a notion. I wanted to know what it took for very good general managers to become world leading hoteliers. I wanted to hear their story and what it takes to get to the top.
A year later, a book was born: ‘Dancing at the Fountain - In conversation with world leading hoteliers’
In it, I had the privilege of talking to those who run and have run iconic names such as; Burj Al Arab, Claridge’s, Mandarin Oriental, The Connaught, Waldorf Astoria, Fancourt, Beau Rivage Palace, The Ritz and many more.
In this article, I’d like to share some extracts that might help you in your daily quest for perfection and maybe we can all learn a little more about the difference between leadership and management from their stories.

The Right Thing
Peter Drucker, an Austrian born American management consultant and often regarded as the founder of modern management said – “Management is doing things right, Leadership is doing the right thing”
Clearly, at the core of successful and inspirational leadership is integrity which, in turn leads to trust and trust leads to followers. But, remember, inevitably, the ‘right thing’ will be the more difficult option. Or, to put it another way - “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest” – Mark Twain

Poulsens 11 Paradoxes of Management
Management and leadership are full of contradictions and perhaps Thygesen Poulsen’s analysis is easy to relate to;
1. To be able to build a close relationship with your staff…and to keep a subtle distance.
2. To be able to lead ... and to hold yourself in the background.
3. To trust your staff ... and to keep an eye on what is happening.
4. To be tolerant ... and to know how you want things to function.
5. To keep the goals of your own department in mind ... and at the same time to be loyal to the whole firm.
6. To do a good job of planning your own time ... and to be flexible with your schedule.
7. To express your own views freely ... and to be diplomatic.
8. To be a visionary…and to keep your feet on the ground.
9. To try to win consensus ... and to be able to cut through.
10. To be dynamic ... and to be reflective.
11. To be sure of yourself…and to be humble!

A Fascination
I have always been fascinated by hotels, motivation and the dynamics of training and getting the best out of your people. So, I wrote this to explain;
“Every night when the lights go down the show is over another day is done. The next day, no matter what has gone before it, the show will have a new audience, often a first-time audience, and today’s show must, at the very least, be better than the day before. The actors who will deliver the show are your people. If you do not invest in them in many ways you will have an average show. After all, what is the point of a beautiful comfortable cosy theatre with great sets, great seats and great lighting if the guys on stage have no idea what they are doing?”
And this is the nature of people and what they bring (or do!) to a daily business.
This interest in hotels stems from my childhood and, 3 years ago, I decided it would be interesting to talk to some of the world’s best hoteliers to see what they could teach us.
You see, hotels are unlike any other business.
The daily village is a mixture of VIP’s, the ordinary, the extraordinary, the gangsters, fraudsters and the invisible.
The Hotel Manager has to manage so much in one day and every day will be that different audience.
They will manage complaints, celebration, ego, trouble, events, people and motivation. They are master jugglers and I’d like to share just some of the stories from my time with them.

‘What You Didn’t See’
Kieran McDonald, The Savoy, London, The Fairmont, Vancouver.
I have always been the kind of person who wants to be the bird that gets the worm, so I’d always try to get to work ahead of anybody else. Over time, I have found that it has enhanced my overall productivity and success – in the early morning, you get time for thinking without the distractions of the phone calls and the likes. James was also an early bird. One morning, he called me to his office – which was never a good thing – before I had had my first cup of coffee and said “Mr. MacDonald, what time did you come in?” I said, “Around 6 o’clock Mr. Brown. I drove into the car park”. “So, you drove into the car park. And what did you see?” I thought to myself, “I barely saw what was in front of me, let alone anything specific”, but I said, “nothing really”. He replied, “Go back down and retrace your steps”. Now this was bizarre. It was 6.30 in the morning and I was retracing my steps down a circular driveway into the underground car park. As I went along, I saw bits of trash on the kerb – not a great deal, just little bits – but I was thinking “It must be something far more than that. Maybe there is a big crack, a structural fault that I should have noticed”. Anyway, I picked up the trash and I went back up to James Brown’s office, feeling very ill at ease going back saying, “I saw nothing but this”. James said, “Exactly. That’s exactly what you were meant to see. You know, Mr. MacDonald, parking at this hotel is a privilege. Never take it as a given. And you are always on duty”. I left his office fit to be tied. I was spitting nails for I don’t know how many hours afterwards, because I thought it was a terrible way to communicate. But many years later, I’m still recounting that story. The lesson Learnt? Never every walk past anything without having a sense of attention to detail.

‘Who is it?’
Philippe Leboeuf, Claridge’s, London. Mandarin Oriental, Paris.
At The Carlyle, Frank Bowling became one of my first mentors. He had been at The Connaught in London as number two and then he was at The Ritz-Carlton in New York. Frank Bowling was the kind of guy who could call Betsy Bloomingdale or Nancy Reagan – I learnt so much from him and we became good friends. Frank managed The Carlyle during the day, and I managed it during the evening shift.
For the owner, who held on to the old principles, this hotel was really his passion. His background was in the industry – at 15, his mother sent him to work in room service and the bar and he knew everything about his business by the time he was 17.
We had computers at the time – it was USA in 1980 – but the owner came in one night and asked at reception “Has Mr. X arrived?”, and someone said “Who?” That’s when he removed the computers. He said, “You guys need to understand about name recognition – goodbye computers!”

‘On Service’
Bernard Murphy. Gleneagles, Scotland. The Churchill, London.
At induction, I always talk about the grotty English phrase, “Treat everybody the way you want to be treated”. That’s rubbish: treat people the way they want to be treated. An analogy I give is that, to talk to a four-year-old, adults bend down, get down to their level, but we don’t make the same adjustment for an adult. If somebody’s obviously in a hurry, he’s in a blood hurry, meet him half way! If someone wants to chat, chat to them. And that’s what we encourage our people to do. I don’t think you’re teaching emotional intelligence. I think you’re just saying to people, “Give some thought to the fact that you’re not actually there to just stick a registration card in front of them and ask them to sign it”. Once you coach it like that, you tell waiters, “You’re not serving food. You’re creating a two-hour experience for people in celebration of their 40th birthday. The fact they’re going to eat a meal during that period is largely incidental”. I think a lot of the team are quite surprised by that but I really believe that if you are going to get people to do what you need them to do, truly to deliver service, they’ve just got to do it as naturally as they possibly can, and think about it, just think about, the person. Its consideration, isn’t it really emotional intelligence?

‘The X Factor’
Philippe Leboeuf, Claridge’s, London. Mandarin Oriental, Paris.
Talking about people I have met, naturally I talk about the first one that really moved me: The Dalai Lama. I shook his hand when I greeted him at The Carlyle in New York. I felt that I got a brain scan – a total physical scan, everything at the same time, all in two seconds. His eyes were so brilliant, and he was so genuine. There has to be something genuine inside a person like that. I got to meet the Dalai Lama twice – the second time was in India at a hotels conference and that was incredible too.
Another person who made a big impression on me was Bryan Ferry – so talented and elegant and full of energy. And when you meet these people, what’s so exciting is that they are quite simple people.
Another thing you find in these kind of people – it’s no secret – is that they are hard workers. Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan because he was the first one on the basketball and the last one to leave training or practice. It’s the same with Tiger Woods, the same thing.

Michael Davern. The K Club, Kildare. Fancourt Estate & Country Club, South Africa.
That was my stand-out day for me in the hotel business: Greeting Nelson Mandela at the front door of the hotel at Fancourt. The employees felt they owned Nelson Mandela – this iconic man is coming to visit and why wouldn’t they shake his hand? I remember we thought about it very carefully and it was decided to ask if he could take some time out to meet and greet all of the staff. He agreed, which was wonderful. I knew it was not really my role to welcome him. I was the Irish guy, a white guy, who happened to be the General Manager running the place. So, it was decided that the best person to represent the employees would be somebody from Human Resources and the obvious person was our Assistant Human Resources Director, Timothy Ndwani, from the Xhosa Tribe – Mandela’s tribe. But as the black BMW Seven Series car containing Nelson Mandela pulled up, Timothy’s knees literally went from under him, he started to cry and went to walk away. Nelson Mandela got out of the car, saw what was happening and immediately walked through the small crowd of people. He grabbed Timothy and hugged him as if he was his brother who had got bad news and when he had calmed him, he said “Its fine”, shook his hand, asked him who he was and spoke with him as we all walked into the lobby.

‘Stopping Them Dead’
Nathalie Seiler-Hayez, The Connaught, London, Beau Rivage Palace, Lausanne.
My stand-out day was at the beginning of my career. I was Sales Director in Paris at the Hôtel Lutetia. It was my first weekend as duty manager; I was 24, not long out of hotel school. It was 1998 and the Paris riots were happening. At 2 O Clock in the morning, they called me, “Nathalie, rioters are arriving into The Lutetia. What do we do?” The rioters had destroyed La Couple – Le Brasserie de la Couple – with fire. There were no police around. It was chaos. The rioters came into the hotel, we couldn’t stop them. There were not that many, I would say no more than 50, so it was a manageable group. I came down and there were all of these people in the extraordinary lobby of The Lutetia. I stood up on a chair and I invited them all around and I said, “I represent the management of the hotel. But I am also Nathalie, a person. I cannot do a lot for you. What I can do for you now is to make sure you have some food, that you have some drinks”. I was lucky, they all listened. We spent that night from 2 O’clock until 5.30 in the morning together. We served them breakfast at 5 O’clock and that was the deal: “We’ll give you breakfast but then the hotel is going to open, and you are going to go” and they all went! They thanked me for the breakfast. The staff were really good. We asked the pastry chef to come in to serve at 5 o’clock. And we served the rioters in the same way as we always do, what we would have done with a guest – you should have seen that! Then very quickly the TV people came, and the radio people. I didn’t know at the time that I had to refer communications to PR; I just did it. And it went down very well – so it ended up being a very good communication thing. But I just acted from instinct – from gut feeling and instinct and empathy. It was an extraordinary night.

‘Tribes and Dismissials’
Michael Davern. The K Club, Kildare. Fancourt Estate & Country Club, South Africa.
One of the outstanding issues that I remember was the first disciplining and dismissal of a white manager. I didn’t see it as an issue: the person in question had screwed up, due process was followed, and the person had gone through the same process as everybody else. But I suppose what I didn’t realise was that in their heart of hearts, the staff constantly believed that as soon as the issue would get to me at GM level, I’d find an excuse to throw it out and protect the white manager. Why would they think otherwise, because that’s what would have always occurred in the past? In the end, the person lost their job. That day, there was almost euphoria amongst the workers because a white person was fired. It was a massive turning point. Unfortunately, it had to be done and dismissing somebody, which is never easy, had to be done in that case because it was the right thing to do no matter what their position, race or creed.

‘Was it a complaint?’
Kieran McDonald, The Savoy, London, The Fairmont, Vancouver.
We had an incident a while ago now that stuck with me as a memory moment. A guest was having breakfast. It was early in the morning so there weren’t many other guests there. The first I became aware of him was when he stood up from his table and started barking across the restaurant about his toast being cold. It shouldn’t happen – and it was addressed immediately. But I thought to myself, “that reaction was way too over the top. I’m not connecting the dots”, so I decided to go across and introduce myself and make sure everything was all right. By talking to him, I was able to find that actually his outburst had nothing to do with the toast. He’d missed his wake-up call that morning – our mistake – the toast was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back. But I wouldn’t have known until later about the missed wake-up call had the outburst not happened or had I not actually engaged and dug a little deeper in terms of understanding the root cause. As it was, I was able to assist in a successful recovery and ultimately a happy guest.

‘There’s a Bomb in Your Car Park’
Bernard Murphy. Gleneagles, Scotland. The Churchill, London.
At the Churchill, we got some funny things to deal with. Now, when we have a crisis, I look back on some of the things there. One morning we were having the President of an African nation come to stay. We also had the then US Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs coming the same day. The American’s used to take a whole floor for their principal, dogs in the lobby, all the routine. I got in early – about 6.30am to start at 7 o clock. Somebody phoned up and said they had left a bomb in our carpark underneath the hotel. We got the police in and I stood there with the fellow from the Met and said “what do we do here? These two VIPs with their security, are coming in this morning”. He said, “They didn’t leave a code word, so I don’t know. It’s probably a hoax – but it’s your hotel, your decision”. I was 23 or 24 at the time, the senior manager – the only manager on duty. In the end, we elected not to evacuate, and nothing happened. So that was the start of the morning. The GM got in about 8 o clock and it was “Let’s get on with the day”.
Then the US Secretary of State turned dup, got out of the car, a bulletproof car with the American outriders, walked into the lobby, with the American Secret Service holding the lift. Straight in behind him, unannounced, with no outriders, the African President turned up. He was supposed to arrive later, but here he was. He bounced out of the car, no protection, just straight in through the front door like anybody else. Because he was a President, diplomatic protocol dictates that he had priority, so the Secretary of State shook his hand, dead surprised to see him here, since no one had briefed him he was going to be in the same hotel at the same time. Of course, the Secretary of State said, “you take the lift”. The Secret Service guys went berserk because they’ve now got their principal stood still in the middle of a hotel lobby with no lift! This went on for probably two to three minutes – it seemed like an hour and a half. I remember I had to go back to my office afterwards for a cup of tea and a biscuit! “What else is going to happen today?” I don’t think it was 9.30 yet! It was a really surreal morning.

‘Managing the bottom 10%’
Bernard Murphy. Gleneagles, Scotland. The Churchill, London.
The other thing that I’ve learned – and I still don’t do enough of it – is that most managers spend most of their time worrying about or dealing with the bottom 10% of their performers. In actual fact, we’d probably get far further if we invested that time in the top 20%, telling them what a great job they’re doing and showing them how they could do it even better – it would be like letting the genie out of the bottle.
Another thing is that if you look at really great Chief Executives, of big businesses, they never make anything sound complicated. Everything sounds really simple, because they have thought it all through and they don’t feel the need to impress people with all the mindless business babble. They just say, “Here’s what we need to do” and I’m a big admirer of that.

‘3 Things’
Luc Delafosse. Hotel Burj Al Arab, Dubai. Waldorf Astoria, Beverly Hills.
A GM needs to be able to do three things. One is to master conversations, whether they be with colleagues, guests, people from the trade, and so on – a GM should be able to engage with people in a positive manner in every situation on every subject. The second is decision-making. These two skills come with one more: the willingness to listen always and to be a good listener.

‘You Gotta Do what You Gotta Do’
Luc Delafosse. Hotel Burj Al Arab, Dubai. Waldorf Astoria, Beverly Hills.
I can tell you a story: At The Hotel Burj Al Arab, a head of state from a small company was staying with us, and I was summoned to his suite by his private secretary. When I arrived, the secretary said, “I am busy with something. Can you please wait?” So, I had to wait in the lobby. After five minutes or so, he came back and said, “Come with me” and I followed him into the dressing room of the master bedroom of the suite. The head of state was standing in the dressing room, getting dressed for his next meeting. He started with instructions for an event he wanted for the next day. The private secretary took the jacket and went to hang it up. As he had a bottle of perfume in his other hand and needed both hands to hang the jacket, he gave me the bottle of perfume to hold. Before he could take it back, the head of state gestured to me to spray the perfume. And so, I did. I sprayed the perfume over him. Perhaps I am the only GM in the world to have actually sprayed perfume on a head of state! I came out of that suite thinking “I love my job!”

‘The 1, 2, 3 of Business’
Michael Davern. The K Club, Kildare. Fancourt Estate & Country Club, South Africa.
I learned from Dr. Smurfit one great mantra – management is very simple: its step 1, 2, 3, problem, solution, implementation. That’s it, there’s nothing more to it. Presented with a problem, analyse the facts, come up with a solution and then go and implement the solution. If you have decided on the solution, what are you doing hanging around? Go get it done, move it on and then the next one will come along.


We can learn much from the world’s finest by listening to the And remember the story of the little boy who sat on the pavement in the Ramblas in Barcelona, his cup held out for coins, his big brown eyes full of tears. The passers-by passed him by. An old beggar came along and said, "You must not look sad. You must smile and be happy and make the passers-by happy". That's what the little boy did - and his cup overflowed.

Nobody will follow a gloomy leader for long. A leader who has sorted out his inner conflicts will convey a sense of optimism and hope.

Cheer up.

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