Before I became general manager of The Beverly Hills Hotel, I held the same position at another luxury hotel up the coast. And something was wrong. Facing interconnected operational issues, members of the eight-person senior leadership team were turning against one another.
Our fine dining restaurant was on the brink of losing its hard-won Michelin rating. Service increasingly was hit or miss, and Forbes Travel Guide issued a preliminary rating that would have docked the restaurant a star. The sales and marketing director said he was receiving complaints about sloppy service. The head of operations chimed in: His five most recent checkouts had complained about breakfast, and the cost of compensating guests for disappointing experiences was getting out of control.
Later, he privately told me he was thinking of leaving the hotel. The human resources department, which conducted daily exit interviews with staff leaving the hotel, was concerned that negative comments about working conditions would make finding new talent difficult. The director of finance grumbled that overtime costs were too high, due to high turnover and the fact that employee sick time had spiked. Revenue was trending down, which would affect our year-end bonuses. There was sniping and finger pointing.
This happens all the time in business. Processes get out of whack, and the result is underperformance and backbiting. It’s especially damaging in an enterprise that relies upon the flawless execution of simultaneous interconnected actions. There has to be a template for quickly getting the team back in sync, or else the failures will start to cascade.
Over the years, I have developed just such a template. It involves four steps.
The first is orientation. Essentially it is a fresh start, and it can begin any time we have an operational breakdown, to remind people of the need for change and continual improvement. In this case we’d noticed that a lot of our problems seemed to start in our restaurant; the restaurant’s Michelin star was valuable to the rest of our operation. So we decided to have our change begin in the kitchen.
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We made our fresh start very visible by bringing in a new restaurant director. Because he needed to be trained in the mechanics of the job, we had an opportunity to review those mechanics openly, in concert with the team, to remind everyone of the organization’s collective purpose. During this first step it’s advisable to publicly give the new hire permission to make mistakes, reminding the rest of the team that they, too, can make mistakes. This allows everyone to relax and spend time thinking about creating value rather than fearfully focusing on executing tasks.
The second step is disorientation, or identifying obstacles to success. This has to be done as a group. As business processes grow more complex, it really does take a team to solve them. That’s why at both my past and current hotels there are daily briefings to review issues that have arisen on the previous shift and project issues that lie ahead. These briefings transform personal roadblocks into team challenges. For example, when hiring slowed, the unfilled positions placed a strain on operations. Instead of pointing the finger at HR, we brought together the whole leadership team, including HR, to come up with possible solutions. That not only brought more brainpower to the problem but also meant that we were all invested in the solution.
The third step is resolution — overcoming obstacles and finding solutions. In the case of the recruiting issue, we made faster hiring a competition, rewarding individuals and teams that showed the best results. By crossing organizational borders, hiring did become faster, which alleviated stress in every department. Furthermore, the team experienced a tangible success, which helped us build confidence in our collaborative abilities, generating the trust and camaraderie that makes smooth team functioning possible.
The last step to securing and maintaining team synchronicity is continuity, or maintaining performance at a high level. It requires scorecards for each department that show the team where we’re winning collectively. We celebrate those successes (such as industry awards), and then we raise the bar by analyzing every glitch, whether it’s a poor room service delivery or a shortage of towels in the spa. These are not “gotcha” moments; they are learning and teaching opportunities that, through transparency, involve and synchronize the whole team.
At any given moment, any member of a team may be in any stage of this four-step process. They may be learning the mechanics, confronting an obstacle, working to resolve an issue, or trying to maintain a high level of performance. It’s up to the leader to ask each member to describe their situation and identify the current phase of their journey. At our team meetings I ask for input from people’s peers’. This helps everyone understand who needs help, what sort of help they need, and how their challenges affect everyone at the table — which makes problem solving collaborative, transparent, and creative, and generates trust. It also encourages risk taking (because the risks are shared), without which there can be no progress, no improvement.
I’m happy to report that before I left my previous hotel to take up my duties at The Beverly Hills, the restaurant had retained its Forbes and Michelin stars, revenue had rebounded (making the finance director very happy), the operations director stayed on, and the senior leaders were meeting both their collective and individual goals. No one was going to be unhappy with their end-of-year bonus. Resolving our operational issues didn’t just please our customers — it made the whole team happier and more cohesive.
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