A 21st Century Quandary: Pause To Assimilate But Never Stop Running


Implications For Hospitality Leadership

Wherever I go, I see signs of people wanting to hit the pause button, to take a moment to assimilate what is happening around them. Overwhelmed by fast-paced developments and an ever-changing environment, some are longing for the orderly and structured world of times past.

These are unprecedented times, and one can either embrace the new realities or rescind and give up. So, wearing my hat as an organisational advisor in talent management and human resources, I have been asking myself, ‘Is hitting the pause button the right thing to do? What is needed for leadership talent in the hotel industry to adjust to and not be overwhelmed by the continuous catching up to keep up-to-date with progress?’

We Are Creatures Of Habit
What lies at the heart of the current situation is our collective general disposition of being creatures of habit, who are not necessarily known for quickly adjusting to new circumstances, which puts us at war with the technological advancement of the past few decades.

Technology has rippled through each and every aspect of our lives; it has created new economies and streamlined old ones. It has curated ‘global villages,’ facilitated communication and increased cultural awareness. Technological progress has also manifested itself in the workplace, affecting highly specialised functions as well as general management leadership roles in hospitality, as well as entire businesses. Just think about revenue management, sales, marketing and PR, for example – job descriptions of those holding functional responsibilities in these areas will have looked widely different only a decade ago from what they are today. Not only have the systems with which we work changed but so have the way the consumers buy and communicate, as well as how they are influenced by opinion leaders. And if one were to ask any business leader of today, s/he will almost certainly say that in the past decade they have had to learn how to constantly adapt their business plans to reflect the dramatic changes in the business environment. Many have had to learn that ‘data’ suddenly became important and that it could, in fact, become the backbone of one’s business. Gone are the days where a ‘secret recipe’ ensured lifelong success – technology has been instrumental in creating competitive advantage, fostering efficiencies of scale, lowering costs of distribution or diminishing barriers to entry, and it has forced business leaders to re-strategize or alter their business model completely.

TO PAUSE: “To Stop Doing Something For a Short Time” (Cambridge Dictionary)
What worries some is that technological advancements are exponential – progress is speeding up and mankind is playing catch up. How do we avoid becoming obsolete? In his book, Thank You for Being Late, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Thomas L. Friedman explores exactly those fast-paced changes in today’s world – primarily in technology, globalization and climate change. He looks at how in this ‘Age of Acceleration’ people easily become fearful of the uncertainties and the unfamiliar. It is a good read and his advice to indeed pause and reflect in order to cope and adjust to a world that never stands still is probably a welcomed conclusion to many of its readers.

I happen to believe in Friedman’s conclusion because hitting the pause button allows one to take a step back, observe, digest and assimilate the ever-changing environment. The emphasis should be on pausing for a short period of time — if you take too much of a break, then you fall behind. Friedman points to this fact. He says that it takes effort to ensure that one does not get left behind in today’s world, and he specifically points to high levels of self-motivation as well as trust in others and collaboration as means to survive, adjust and meet challenges upfront. Being well-grounded will help each and every one of us to cope with what he calls a ‘dystopian dislocation,’ and he champions the idea of lifelong learning.

TO ADJUST: “To Become More Familiar With A New Situation” (Cambridge Dictionary)
So, with this is mind, how is the hospitality industry faring in this respect? Looking for anecdotal evidence appears to paint a positive picture. Some companies have certainly stepped up their game – think of Accor, for example. It appears to have morphed into an agile living organism, constantly adjusting itself to what the industry throws at it. Pursuing an asset-light or an asset-heavy strategy depending on the market dynamics – not a problem, it buys or sells its real estate accordingly. Increased competition from online travel agencies and third party distribution platforms – it just opens up its own channels to everyone else and invites competition in. Understanding the mind-set and career preferences of the millennials – Accor has recognised their fundamentally different way of thinking. The CEO reportedly meets Millennials prior to board meetings to gain their perspective on things.

However, it is one thing for companies to adjust and change their strategies as they see fit, but what about its management team and leaders? Are they keeping up pace? I looked for tangible evidence and decided to analyse more than 100,000 20I20 Skills Assessments – an Aethos™ proprietary tool that goes beyond traditional personality testing to measure ten core competencies that predict performance at all employment levels. The assessments were completed by hospitality executives at different seniority levels across the globe. Results are encouraging (see figure below). They showed that as experience/seniority levels increase, hospitality leaders display greater degrees of adaptability:

A 21st Century Quandary_Pause To Assimilate But Never Stop Running_Thomas Mielke_Aethos Consulting Group™

  • ‘Ethical Awareness’: possessing more agility, flexible thinking and a greater ease in adjusting to new circumstances and environments;
  • ‘Team Building’: displaying well-developed soft skills, people management capabilities and collaboration;
  • ‘Self-Efficacy’ and ‘Self-Motivation’: demonstrating a greater focus on getting things done;
  • ‘Problem Solving’ and ‘Creativity’: having a greater comfort level with strategic thinking that is based on metrics and analytics.

These characteristics mirror those that Friedman points out as key to successful adaptation and survival. It probably should not come as a surprise that a career in the hospitality industry is – inadvertently or not – built around those metrics. Just think about the mere fact that, unlike many other sectors, the hospitality industry does foster cross-functional training opportunities, and it allows for a multitude of cross-cultural experiences, which, in turn, enables individuals to obtain a more holistic picture of the industry as a whole, fostering open-mindedness and adaptability.

Plotting The Path To Future Successes
We certainly cannot undo or reset technological advancements, but it appears that industry leaders are well-equipped to adjust and accept these newfound realities. It seems that the industry’s leaders have the gumption and the right attitude to make it work. A recent interview with Chip Conley, former Head of Global Hospitality and Strategy at Airbnb, summarised this nicely, with Hotels Magazine quoting him saying, “If offered a seat on the rocket ship, don’t ask what seat – just get on it!”

Although admitting that coming from a more traditional background and joining a technology company for the first time had been a disorientating experience, Conley is highlighting that to survive in a fast-paced environment, one needs courage, innate curiosity and an eagerness to continue learning. The latter, this concept of ‘lifelong learning,’ is probably where the hospitality sector still shows room for improvement. An Aethos™ study conducted in 2016 showed that hotel companies are providing solid development programs for their mid-management staff – yet, depth of content, follow-through and format varied significantly. Most companies do not actually measure the success rate of these programs, and anecdotal evidence furthermore seems to suggest that as employees grow through the ranks, offers (or support) for structured learning opportunities become far and few between.

To ensure that talent is not overwhelmed by progress, it may be advisable for hospitality firms to review their talent management and learning best practices and to make sure that what they have in place proves to be effective. A new and improved itineration cycle for development programs is needed, constantly fostering new learning, thinking and behaviour, assessing consequences and re-evaluating situations to then adjust programs and reform the learning programs. Lastly, it may also warrant for hospitality organisations ‘check-in’ more often with their staff and assess how they are coping with the fast-paced developments of the present day. When was the last time you conducted an employee opinion survey?