Heading a workforce of 170,000 at a $38-billion hospitality chain is no easy job. Especially, if the chain operates more than a thousand hotels under the Radisson brand and almost the same number of restaurants under TGI Friday’s besides travel service company Carlson Wagonlit Travels, it requires not just deft leadership skills, but plain speaking as well, says Hubert Joly, president and CEO, Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group in an interview. Excerpts.
What are the main attributes of a leader?
First is the ability to set directions. Second is to build a high-performance team depending on circumstances. Third is integrity — doing what is right and essential. And the fourth is producing or delivering quality results.
As a rank outsider to the hospitality industry, do you think the leadership skills required here are different?
Yes and no. Yes because if you look at various industries such as semi conductors or jet engines, the success factors are very different. For example, R&D would be a very long-term perspective in jet engines and you may need to take a 30-year perspective. So each sector is unique. And no because the basic leadership attributes tend to always remain the same.
Does your leadership style differ according to geography?
Leadership style has to be situational. One has to deal with different cultures, which have some specificity, though, I do believe that human values around the world are actually quite common.
Talking of human values, do you think as far as leaders are concerned morals have changed over time?
The fundamental values of wisdom such as what is the meaning of life, why we are here and what is the purpose of what we do, have been around for a long time. As companies or as individuals we go wrong only when we deviate from these values and the system. The recent crisis is an example of this, when greed becomes pervasive and there is loss of the sense of purpose.
Tell us about your experience as a French guy running an American legacy firm?
When I became the CEO of Carlson, it was the fourth time I was moving to the US — we have lived in California twice and in New York twice. Over the years I have tried to develop a sensitivity to some of the nuances that do not exist particularly in France. For example, in France there is heavy emphasis on theory whereas there is more pragmatism in the US.
What about India?
There is one thing that is very striking in India, which is the difficulty to say no. If you ask somebody to do something it’s very difficult for them to say no.
As a leader, are you a consensus builder or a top-down guy?
I use different styles. Sometimes my style is effective and sometimes it is not.
How do you get rid of non-performers?
The key element of leadership is the development of a high performance team. When you take up the job of CEO of different companies, you always find great performers, medium performers and bottom performers. If you do not pay attention to this bottom, they drag everybody down. So I never hesitate to remove the bottom performers in terms of their performance or attitudes. It is extraordinary how it uplifts the rest of the group. Now that you have removed the bottom quarter or the bottom third there is a new bottom quarter and bottom third. So it’s a constant engineering of the team. Today in Carlson’s global executive team, 70% of the members are new compared to four years ago.
Name two non-business leaders you admire
I have great admiration for Winston Churchill, I admire him for his creativity and leadership. In your country Mahatma Gandhi was somebody extraordinary. As (US President Franklin Delano) Roosevelt said you must do things that you think you cannot do to become a leader. As leaders, we need to do things we have not done before.