By Nicole Di Tomasso
Brian Leon has a strong sense of who he is and what he does well. As CEO of Choice Hotels Canada, this self-knowledge heightens his capacity to lead others and create a cohesive team that functions well in both positive and negative conditions.
“In leadership roles, you must overcome your own personality traits that are not conducive to the role,” says Leon. “For me, it’s the urge to micromanage. You must have that awareness, and the key to great leadership is to create an environment where your team can do their thing and are empowered to make decisions. That’s what I aspire to do — let our subject-matter experts be the experts.”
Leon’s ability to lead successfully has been developed and nurtured for a number of years in other franchise organizations prior to joining Choice in 2006.
“It started 17 years ago when I was approached by a placement firm that was [searching to fill] a leadership position at Choice. They were looking for someone with a franchise background, and I had been working in leadership roles in other franchise organizations — both hospitality and foodservice,” says Leon. “Franchising is something I have a long personal history with. Growing up, my father was the head of Canada’s largest foodservice company [Kentucky Fried Chicken]. I was also familiar with Choice and it seemed like a good fit. Clearly, all these years later, it was.”
Under Leon’s leadership, Choice Hotels Canada has a steady flow of hotels entering its system, with 43 new properties joining since March 2020, according to a June press release. In the last 12 months alone, the company has opened 14 new hotels from coast to coast. But when it comes to the success of the company, Leon is the first to drive attention to its executive leadership team and franchisees.
“My [leadership] style is participative and democratic,” says Leon. “I’m hands-on and enjoy digging into areas where I feel I can meaningfully contribute. My biggest strength is the ability to build a team and find great people. And once that happens, [I] get out of their way. It’s important to leverage that talent.”
Leon continues, “As a franchise organization, one of the things we often say is we’re only successful if our franchisees are. You need a great value proposition, and you need to be able to deliver. The way we do that changes all the time.”
To help identify areas of importance, Leon says the company’s franchise advisory board is always active, noting the development of its franchisee intranet site for Canadian-centric information as a direct example of their collaborative relationship.
To thrive in the intensely competitive and rapidly changing hotel industry, Leon says his leadership style has changed to accommodate the new business landscape and new generation of hotel employees.
“Today’s leadership demands a greater level of delegation and it’s important to have a team with broad-based skills you can draw on. We often need to make decisions quickly if we are to keep a competitive edge,” he says. “It also demands a culture where people aren’t afraid to fail. It’s critically important that people don’t feel personally responsible when decisions were made with the right intentions and appropriate rigour. This is an area where so many organizations fall short because they’re too afraid to make mistakes.”
Reflecting on his career, Leon says “the proudest moments are always those times when we have the opportunity to celebrate something special as a team. Last year, our bi-annual conference was particularly memorable, being able to get on stage after the pandemic and bring together our franchisee community. The collaboration we’ve had with our franchisee community through the pandemic has allowed us to make better, quicker decisions and emerge from the pandemic stronger than ever. When I look back overall at my career, that’s going to be a bright spot.”