What makes an ultra-successful hotel? Look at the GM

Hotels can often attribute the level of sustained success to their leader, the significant role of general manger

Looking back on the first 25 years of my career working in the hospitality field, I’ll always remember a hotel general manager (GM) I worked with who was an inherently great manager. She had a knack for putting the right employees into the right jobs. She always knew the right time to step in to help out. And she was the most empathetic person I’ve ever met.

Working in this field inspired me to take a closer look at select- and limited-service hotels that were consistently succeeding in the areas of profitability, market share, quality assurance and customer satisfaction. What made these hotels successful compared to other, less successful hotels? It all came back to the GM.

Hotels that have achieved a high level of sustained success may often attribute that success to their leader, the GM. At the onset, the primary leadership style employed by a successful GM typically falls into one of several areas when measured by a formal leadership assessment. However, to run a successful hotel, the GM must also be able to shift leadership styles based on situations they face on the job. Formal leadership assessments are unable to capture the shift from one style to the next. As a result, this has not been closely examined in our field before—though it presents significant opportunity for hotels in the United States and abroad.

Now in academia, I’ve had the opportunity to examine why and how the GM plays such a significant role in the hotel business. I created a study to evaluate the actions and leadership style of three GMs, each the leader of an ultra-successful hotel, in order to find out what factors or characteristics are driving their successes. I used case study research, observation, one-on-one interviews and document analysis, and compared the results of my case study with those from a formal leadership assessment. All of this helped me to answer the primary question of how the GM of an ultra-successful hotel functions in day-to-day operations.

For those in the hospitality industry working their way up the ladder into hotel management roles, leveraging these insights will help set you up for success. Three core takeaways from my research included:

Strive to balance the needs of your employees with the needs of your guests. In our industry, exceptional customer service is often the differentiating factor among businesses—but don’t allow a focus on the customer to outweigh your focus on employees. Simple actions such as rewarding employees and taking an active role in service recovery can help you focus on your employees’ needs while creating positive guest interactions.

Place a high priority on developing your employees. There are many ways to develop employees, including departmental cross training, serving as a mentor to employees, prioritizing internal promotion over external recruiting and using creative staffing to utilize unique strengths of employees.

Use mistakes to help employees learn lessons. When an employee makes a mistake, use the situation as a teaching moment to explain why there is a problem and redirect the employee. Understand both sides of every story.

Through this lens, I discovered there is no one-size-fits-all approach to effective general management. GMs have their own ways of operating, and each hotel has distinct cultural elements that make it unique. The common thread tying these hotels together is the fact that the GM is the one setting the tone, creating the culture and empowering the staff.

Dr. Jenni Sandstrom is a clinical assistant professor of hospitality leadership and lodging-related courses at Washington State University, Carson College of Business School of Hospitality Business Management.

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