And Some Think The Telegraph Is Dead…


Wow – with digital and other technology colliding with nearly every aspect of hospitality, it not only makes one’s head spin, but it pushes our industry to speed way the heck up, which is new to the hotel business, versus the tech world where it’s all about speed. Now, we are used to electronic communication and instant gratification via email, texting, Instagram, Skype and a host of other mobile and Web applications that have become fully integrated into our work and personal lives. In fact, these things have become dominant to the degree that some of us in leadership may be forgetting about a long-standing system of transmitting messages: the telegraph.

I can hear you gasp! “The telegraph? Has this guy been living in the proverbial cave?” Let me explain.

In your role as a leader, you transmit messages every day. Take corporate values, for instance. Typically, hours of effort are poured into off-sites and months of talking with employees and executives to gather and synthesize input that results in a clear statement of the company’s values. This is so important that it not only justifies the cost and time invested, but now the values are nicely framed and displayed in strategic locations throughout the organization, emphasized on the website and part of employee orientation. Let’s say that the same company now needs to hire a new Chief Operating Officer to help drive the growth strategy. That’s a valid goal. A number of candidates are considered and then one is hired. There is tremendous fanfare about the person’s pedigree and track record, and the press release reflects the same. However, it turns out that this person is absolutely an expert at driving strategy, but is also a major challenge to work with, not particularly collaborative, condescending to subordinates, secretive and fairly dishonest. The message that this “telegraphs” is that the values mean nothing, it was just an exercise, and, at the end of the day, it’s all about performance and not about people.

Consider another example: Enron. This was a company where leadership held meetings during which they planned real and imaginary power blackouts during the 2000-2001 California energy crisis to drive up prices and reap vast profits in the state’s newly deregulated energy market. This defrauded California out of billions of dollars! Meanwhile – I’m not making this up – Enron’s leaders patted one another on their backs and celebrated their superior strategy, laughing about how they fooled the victims! Think of the message that was telegraphed corporate-wide from that mind-set. And from that springs a culture…

What we telegraph isn’t always evil, corrupt or scandalous. Sometimes it’s simple and seems harmless enough. For example, picture the CEO who has just given a rousing, inspirational speech to an auditorium full of his employees. During the speech, he emphasized customer service, going the extra mile and the importance of being genuine in caring about the customers and one another. You are truly moved. You can’t wait to shake his hand and let him know how proud you are to work for the company, and of its commitment to the team and customers. When you approach him, he is preoccupied and aloof, but takes your handshake and turns toward you. Just as your eyes meet and you’re starting to express your passion and appreciation, a person he knows comes up to him, he shifts his focus to that person and the two of them walk away, leaving you feeling awkward and a bit humiliated. Did the CEO telegraph a genuine interest in people and behave as the epitome of customer service? He did not. In fact, he made you feel insignificant. So, that wonderful, inspirational speech was just that – a speech. It lives only in words, not in action.

Here’s a counter example: I attended the same church as President Ronald Reagan, and he attended regularly after leaving the White House. He’d enter in humility with Nancy at his side and, of course, three members of the Secret Service. One Sunday, my parents were visiting and attended church with me. As we exited the building, President Reagan smiled at my mom and chatted with her. As he was extending his hand to greet my dad, someone grabbed the President from behind and he turned his back on my dad to talk with the other party. My eyes were trained on the scene. A moment later, he turned to my dad, offered his hand again, and apologized for the interruption. What is the message the former President of the United States of America telegraphed not only to my parents but to all who were watching?

As leaders, let’s do a better job of keeping that supposedly obsolete telegraph clearly in mind moving forward.