“Sometimes,” sighs Trevor Bracher, director of Service Culture for Stamford, Conn.-based Starwood Hotels and Resorts, “running a hospitality business feels like you’re trying to change a tire while moving 100 miles an hour.” Life, he says, gets crazy, and the opportunities to address the concerns of junior members in the profession are among the first to fall by the wayside.

It’s the reason Starwood introduced a comprehensive mentorship program entitled Reaching Our Potential. Piloted at its Hawaiian property three years ago, the program was rolled out company-wide in 2010. The program helps Starwood to identify 25 high-potential individuals within the company’s managed properties and pair each with a seasoned veteran. The veteran shares stories, facilitates conversations on developmental strategies and opens the door for easy discussions about the novice’s career development. “We wanted to see our high potentials grow faster within the organization,” says Bracher, “and we thought we could aid that by partnering them with people who have already gone through the whole thing.”

Mentorship programs are enjoying increasing attention across the hotel industry of late, as organizations cast about for creative means of retaining and improving personnel. But the subject of mentorship has always attracted well-deserved attention for its value in passing a tradition of excellence down the ladder. But it’s of particular importance now, as the economy lowers itself into another perilous squeeze and managers’ time to screen potential candidates evaporates. “More and more organizations are realizing we need to find a way to grow our [internal] talent that goes beyond formalized education or attending a training course,” says Christine Maassen, senior vice-president of Human Resources at Vancouver-based SilverBirch Hotel and Resorts. Think about it, she says, the hotel industry is all about human interaction, and that translates into a daily parade of unpredictability. “There’s a bunch of skills around how to behave in situations you simply can’t describe in a textbook or a seminar. That’s where mentorship becomes very important.”

The trick to successful mastery, says Maassen, is for the organization to develop a culture that supports the mentor-mentee arrangement. She’s quick to suggest that every successful individual in a senior role in the hotel business today was mentored whether they realized it or not. The key to a mentor-mentee relationship lies in the leadership practices in place at the hotel. Ideally, all systems and processes are set up so leaders are rewarded for growing others. A schedule of regular meetings between managers and novices monitors progress, and, while an acknowledgement of the importance of profits and losses exists, there’s also a realization that it not be at the expense of other duties.

“Unless we manage to find a way to stay connected with the people who actually do the work for us, we’re lost”.

“We were a business focused on numbers before, but I think we’ve exhausted what we can glean from that,” says Maassen. “Now we’re [thinking]: what about employee engagement? We’re realizing, unless we manage to find a way to stay connected with the people who actually do the work for us, we’re lost.” Labour costs, after all, represent the biggest expense on an organization’s profit-and-loss ledger. It’s important for companies to reflect on the value of their labour.

At SilverBirch, an informal mentorship program simmers under the surface of every activity. Individuals identified as leaders are thought to owe an automatic debt to everyone else in the company. The natural expectation is that leaders need to facilitate the cultivation of talent. SilverBirch has increased its training budget significantly and amended its performance review schedule so that managers now sit down with their underlings on a quarterly basis. “We’re forcing the conversation through a process,” says Maassen.

Such action is critical today, agrees Dimitrios Zarikos, regional vice-president and general manager at the Four Seasons Hotel, Toronto. It’s true, 50 years ago movement among job seekers and employers was considerably less common, “now we’re competing with any and everyone,” says Zarikos. As such, the demands on someone who manages other employees is enormous, extending well beyond teaching them the technical aspects of the job. The manager needs to really understand what motivates people, and how they interact. The knack, Zarikos suggests, is to remain open to influences while maintaining your own convictions. A dogmatic approach rarely works for leaders. “The leader who’s accepted by all without questioning, eventually leads the team to the wrong place,” he says. “You need to foster an environment that encourages interaction and contribution.”

Cultivating innovation is a big part of those leadership efforts. The idea that people at every level know they can influence the way the company does business, says Zarikos, is meaningful. “If they feel they can, they’ll speak up,” he says. “And if the layers above them are properly conditioned not to filter this stuff out, but to give the idea a chance, then something good will come out of it.”

Starwood’s Reaching-Our-Potential program has been enthusiastically received, with mentors and mentees equally acknowledging their counterparts have has lessons to teach them. Each eight-month session, which runs through the school year, includes regular electronic contact, in-person meetings and bi-weekly telephone conversations. Mentees are assigned projects that impact the hotel while giving them experience.

“So it’s not only their own development getting attention, but real-life situations,” says Bracher. Mentors at Starwood, working within well-defined guidelines furnished by management, look to soothe anxieties among their subordinates and provide feedback to them, encouraging self-introspection.

The mentors and mentees aren’t from the same hotel, which is a deliberate way of sidestepping the potential for conflict or discomfort. “Instead of saying, ‘I’m training you to be the next director of Finance,’ — because that’s not what it’s about — it’s, ‘I’m training you to be a leader,’” explains Bracher.

“It’s really about developing comfort and confidence within the mentees, and then it’s up to them to apply and take on that next challenge,” says Bracher. And it’s working. Where employees used to hold back, not applying for positions, Starwood meetings now vibrate with people poking their hands into the sky and announcing they’re ready for the next step. The organization has benefitted powerfully from the shift, says Bracher, with the level of skilled talent and internal movement within the company, getting a powerful boost. “It’s a good thing,” he says. “We recognize that we won’t have leaders in the future if we don’t start developing them now.”

image courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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