A. I grew up in the family business, so one of my first paying jobs was working at the front desk of a hotel. I thought the way you got things done was by telling people what to do. That’s where I learned what not to do. I spent a good portion of my time telling people what they did wrong instead of really encouraging them about what they did right.
I used to think that was just the way that you managed people — telling people what they were doing wrong. As I got more comfortable with my own skills and grew to understand that nobody is perfect, I learned to cut people a little slack. But early on, people would shudder when I walked into a room, thinking that I was going to find something negative.
Q. How did you learn to take a different tack with people?
A. It was trial and error, and really watching as other people came into the organization. I realized that you get a lot more with the carrot routine than the stick routine. I also realized that you really needed to explain the “why” of things. You need to give people a little bit of space to come around, and say, “Yeah, that makes sense,” before you really engage them in what needed to be done.
Q. Other leadership lessons?
A. To listen a lot. It’s easy to say that you listen, but active listening — really listening for understanding — is something you learn over time. Because sometimes you don’t see people’s body language. They might be saying one thing, but they mean another thing. That’s something you just learn by observing.
Q. What’s a bit different about your company’s culture?
A. We’re celebrating our 50th anniversary in the hospitality business this year. And if there is one word I would use to describe our culture, it would be family, because we are a family-owned and -operated business.
But I always have to be careful when I use that word “family,” because a lot of times it can be misinterpreted as taking care of people to the point of not holding them accountable. You have to set certain standards that you want people to live up to. And if people need help, then we want to help them along the way.
I think people naturally want to do the right thing, and do their jobs well. Sometimes organizations can fall down if they don’t also ask: How do you give people the tools they need to be successful? How do you get that person to understand what change needs to happen, and how do you help them along the way? Because people can’t always figure it out on their own, and nor should you expect them to.
Q. What else about your culture?
A. We do something called round tables where we meet with our associates in small groups of maybe 10 or 12 people. I love to say to them, “Tell me something I don’t know.” And I’ll get comments like: “Oh, but you know everything. You’re the C.E.O.” It’s just a reminder of the perceptions that people have of the head of the company. But every time I ask that question, I learn something new.
Q. Other lessons you’ve learned over time?
A. One is, count to 10 before you say something. It’s especially true with e-mail today. People will share something and it causes terrible repercussions. You have to remember to take a deep breath when somebody says something that really ticks you off. A lot of times the context in an e-mail is so different than when you pick up the phone. And you shouldn’t “cc” the world, and don’t hit “reply” to everybody. That drives me nuts.
Q. A lot of C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed talk about the reluctance of people to have difficult conversations. How do you handle them?
A. We’ve tried something called “lessons learned” conversations. And we’ve had them facilitated a few times. So we might bring people together in a room who were involved in a project and ask: What were the things that worked? What were the things that didn’t? What could we have done differently?
And we’ve had some very spirited and cathartic conversations. You have to be able to let people put something on the table without actually pointing the finger. It allows things to come out in more of a nonaccusatory manner.
Q. Have you received any feedback over the years, especially since you’ve become C.E.O., that prompted you to adjust your leadership style, even in a small way?
A. I like details, so I will say a lot, “Give me the facts, Jack.” Because I feel so strongly about it, I might come across as being closed or defensive. So I really have to be mindful of my body language. When someone is saying something that I disagree with, I’m good at the listening part of it, but if I don’t really like what that person is saying, I have to be careful that my body language doesn’t stop the conversation. I have to make sure it continues to flow.
Q. Let’s shift to hiring. What questions do you ask? What are you looking for?
A. By the time somebody meets me, you can assume that the skills are there. So what I interview for is fit. And I’m always very curious to know, what is it about our company that appeals to that person?
There are people who are very professional interviewees. Every question you ask them, they nail it. But you kind of want people to not be perfect in their replies, because that makes them real people. You have to be authentic. We’re all works in progress. We have to improve each and every day. Because once you’ve become satisfied, you lose that urgency and that hunger to be better.
Q. What other questions do you ask?
A. How do you define culture? What kind of organizations have you worked for? What do you think is special about this culture? Tell me about a mistake that you’ve made, and how you dealt with it. How do you view yourself? If someone were to talk about you in the third person, how would they describe you?
#mail me for Manager Academy on May 16, 2013 firstname.lastname@example.org or 415-310-9894