When you start working with hospitality organisations, what does the status quo that needs changing tend to look like?

Typically, that it’s vital for the organisation to go in a direction that the people who’ve called me in don’t necessarily want it to go. They have enlisted a person who is very objective, but very often the ask is: “Put a sticking plaster on it. And then we’ll call you back next year to put another sticking plaster on it.” But I never, ever want that gig. I want to create a lasting impact. And, in their heart of hearts, that’s what the leaders want, too. But the situation they’re facing is painful.

For example, one truth that leaders may not want to hear is that the main source of the problems in question often resides with the very people who have turned to me for answers. This is where I must make a rather delicate, but relevant, analogy: in many respects, my work resembles the TV show Supernanny. And what you tend to notice from that show is that Supernanny hardly ever talks to the children. She talks to the parents. And in some cases, leaders are essentially parents who have created an environment in which their children are either mimicking their negative behaviours, or not thriving as they should.

So, would it be correct to say that the primary issue you examine is self-awareness?

Yes. And the difficulty in that area is that even though the leaders I work with are often experienced veterans, there is always someone bigger who sets the tone. That will have a distorting effect: a leader may tactically choose or prefer not to make decisions from a self-aware place, because the person above them is exerting pressure to do certain things in a certain way, in service of those three, dreaded letters: KPIs. So, the message from the top is: “I got you into this organisation with a big title and big money to get things done, so I can get my money back – and more.”

How do you encourage the people you coach and train to approach change?

Firstly, I’m clear that change is the only constant in life. If someone ever wants me to guarantee that something will be around forever, I’ll say that the only thing that really applies to is change. There’s change that we decide to make, and change that’s imposed upon us. And when change occurs to you in the work environment, you have a choice, in that moment, to navigate the change or watch it navigate its way around you.

What I often see among employees who have had change imposed upon them – whether in the shape of a new leader or manager, or a new structure or work process – is that they feel like they can’t be open about how they think the change will affect them. To break the ice, I usually say, “What will happen if you speak up?” And they typically reply, “Oh, I can’t do that.” So, I say, “Tell me why not – what’s the worst that could happen?” And then there’s a long silence – and they’ll say, “Well, the environment will become toxic, and they’ll fire me or I’ll leave.” But those outcomes mean you get to choose the change you want next.

My track record is based on areas such as motivation and inspiration – but the whole process of getting people to those places is often misinterpreted. I’m not a Jedi. I can’t wave my hand in front of someone’s face and say, “You are now motivated and inspired,” because motivation and inspiration aren’t states you can train people into.

But what you can do is encourage people to focus on the things they can control – and that’s where the two circles Stephen Covey suggests come in. As he says, we as individuals have a circle of influence and a circle of concern. So, I always talk to people about what they can control: ‘can do,’ versus what they can’t control: ‘can’t do.’ We all tend to worry about things like, “What are they going to say in this big meeting when I go in?” But other people’s actions and words are not in our control. So, focus on controlling the areas where you can have genuine impact – and in a way that will bring positivity, optimism and happiness to you first, and potentially spread into the workplace.

If that positivity is coming from a leadership figure, then what you will see is that, one by one, members of staff will come up to that person and ask, “Can I speak to you in private?” – because they finally feel that, when they speak up about any concerns they have, the conversation is going to be honest, open and constructive. And that’s what they’re looking for – something constructive to help them move forward out of a situation they’re stuck in.

What do you think organisations could learn from the coaching style that you apply?

The sky is not going to fall. The progress of the system you have built for making money and generating growth will not be hindered simply because you have decided to adopt a more personal and empowering style with your employees.

I can understand why the old ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ slogan existed in the past, but to think that we can continue to use this mantra today is self-deceiving. Some companies will look at their own workings and say, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Even if those workings are based mainly on exerting power from one place to another. But I repeat: the only thing we can guarantee in life is change. And it’s likely that more and more people will tell you, “I don’t like working in these conditions,” and you’ll lose them. With that in mind, I always ask businesses to think about what would happen if they do try change, versus what would happen if they don’t. Power brings accountability – and at the stroke of a pen, leaders have the capacity to change so many things for the better.

This is particularly important in the guest-facing arena of hospitality. One warm-up question I tend to ask the people I train is, “Who do you work for?” By and large, they will answer with their employer’s brand name. But I’m always at pains to point out, “You also work for yourselves.” As individuals, I tell them, you represent your own, personal brands. And when you’re dealing with guest complaints and executing service recovery, how you express your brand value will determine whether your employer’s brand is burnished – or tarnished.

In your line of work, people are going to be really unhappy at you – right in your face. So, how do you deal with that pressure? For many hospitality workers, the answer will be, “We follow procedure.” But how about following humanity? Procedure is mainly there for new people coming in who don’t know what to do. But it doesn’t tell you HOW to resolve key, interpersonal challenges, such as a guest who’s in tears because they’ve lost their passport, or valuable personal articles gifted to them by their grandparents.

That all falls to you, and your own qualities. You must adapt to the situation. What is your personal brand telling you to do? Nurturing that sort of initiative is at the core of the change I try to introduce and coach people through.

Voices from our community: Moun Idriss is founder of Dubai-based MTJ Learning, which specialises in the development of human skills in the hospitality industry.

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