Rachel Begbie FIH reflects on leadership in challenging times.
Leadership in challenging times, is certainly something many of us are facing head on in this Covid era. For some of us, this will be the first time we find ourselves leading in uncertain times. Whilst for others we will be reflecting on past experiences, and seeing how we can build on the skills we learnt, to navigate our way through this new unchartered territory.
When I think about leadership in challenging times, I think of Sir Winston Churchill and his role as Prime Minister of the UK during the second world war, and making some very tough decisions to ensure victory. The movie, The Darkest Hour, depicts the struggles he faced leading the country, and showed the vulnerable side to him that many would have never seen.
I also think of 9/11, a date that many of us will remember for the rest of our lives, and the impact this incident has had on how we live today. Tony Blair was Prime Minister in the UK at that time, and George W Bush, President of the USA. Both men felt their leadership tested as the Global War on Terrorism commenced.
I was the Training Manager at Four Seasons London on Park Lane. I remember the business from North America disappearing overnight. The fear of airline travel impacted how businesses operated, and the lead time changed instantly. Gone were the days when companies booked hotels for groups and conferences months, and in some cases years in advance. We moved into the instant era where events were booked with 1- 2 weeks lead time. The Senior Leadership team of the hotel pulled together, looked at how expenses could be contained, and asked for the flexibility of the whole team to navigate this storm. I remember seeing the senior leaders in banqueting uniforms serving at events to limit the cost of casual labour, and I too was asked to work in the Florist department 3 days per week. The need for training the employees reduced as we had a temporary hiring freeze in place. Flexibility and Adaptability became key traits. Leading by example, so others would follow your lead.
In September 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy causing ripples through all the markets across the world. At this time, I was the Director of Human Resources at the Four Seasons Hotel London at Canary Wharf. I was now part of the Senior Leadership team and played a key role in how the hotel and business would ride this storm. Being located in Canary Wharf a large amount of our business came from the financial institutes in the area.
As a leadership team we commenced by looking at our costs. Where could we reduce whilst not impacting the service to our guests. This meant no stone was unturned, every part of the business was looked at. We looked at our people, who had transferable skills, who could we transfer to our sister hotels, who could we send on temporary assignment, thus protecting jobs where we could, and reducing costs from contract and casual labour. The sales team started looking at petit accounts, and ensuring business was no longer reliant on just five key accounts. At all times we kept the team informed, we needed them on this journey with us and this was only going to be possible if they understood what was happening. Sadly, in the end we did need to make a small number of employees redundant. I can honestly say this one of the worst times in my career, but at all times we acted with integrity and treated each employee in the best possible way we could, and supported them in finding alternative employment.
In August 2011 I relocated to Beirut in Lebanon with Four Seasons. The Middle East was experiencing a boom and it was so refreshing to be a leader once again in good times. The goal was to find more great talent for the hotel and continue to develop the existing team, so full steam ahead for my team and I, little did we know what was around the corner!
The unrest in Syria was rumbling, but by April 2012, the situation heightened! “UN reported 200,000 or more Syrians internally displaced, 55,000 registered refugees and an estimated 20,000 not yet registered.” (Wikipedia.org – refugees of the Syrian Civil war). Once again I found myself leading in uncertain times. Lebanon was listed as a country not to visit unless essential. Groups, events and bookings cancelled. Unrest occurred on the streets and our pipeline of business disappeared.
Once again, the Senior Leadership team got together to look how to navigate this storm. I felt slightly better prepared due to my previous experience, and brought many ideas to the table. Once again, we applied a hiring freeze. Sadly some people we had offered roles to who were waiting for work permits we needed to place on hold. We looked at who we could transfer to other Four Seasons Hotels, who we could send on support assignments, who had transferable skills and could work in other parts of the business. Training with external providers was postponed and brought in house. We looked at the offerings to our employees and where we could make small changes without detrimentally impacting the employee experience. An example of this was reducing the doctor’s hours to two half days instead of two full days each week.
Every other cost of the business was looked at, contract and casual labour, all the contracts we had in place, from floristry, to landscaping, to the engineering plant servicing agreements. Negotiating became a key skill, as all businesses were facing the same challenges. Suppliers needed to be willing to offer flexibility on their prices instead of losing the business altogether.
The labour law in Lebanon was more complex than the UK, and yet again I found myself looking at ways to reduce the team further. Those in probation were looked at first, then those on fixed one-year contracts and finally other members of the team. This was an agonising experience. Salaries in Lebanon were not high and people had families to feed, and there wasn’t an abundance of jobs out there. To navigate the hotel and the rest of the team to smoother waters, this task had to be done.
I personally met with each employee, with their manager and one of my HR colleagues for translation where needed. We put together a fair package for everyone, and again ensured they felt treated with respect and dignity. Dealing from the heart whilst using your head was key. We offered support in finding other roles in the city, my HR connections were helpful, and they were grateful to employ our people. I am proud to say we had no negative repercussions, and when good times returned, we did reach out to some of the team we had to say goodbye to and offered them jobs with us again.
So what lessons have I learnt that could be applied to Leaders today? Communication is key – keep your team informed of what is going on, and be willing to listen to their ideas. Be a Role Model to others – leaders need to lead from the front as well as supporting from behind. Build a Flexible and Adaptable team, and look for those transferable skills. Negotiate, the worst that can happen is they say no, and then you always have the option to look elsewhere. Most importantly, treat your people with Respect and Dignity, put yourself in their shoes and use your heart and head.
Remember business is cyclical. We will come out at the other end. What is important is, we come out stronger and better prepared for the future. If I can offer any assistance please get in touch at www.rachelebegbie.com
Rachel has worked in the Hospitality Industry for over 30 years. Initially in the Operation, and for the last 20 years in Human Resources Management on property, regionally and corporately. Rachel has been a member of the Institute of Hospitality since 1991, and became a Fellow in 2018. In April 2020 she launched Rachel E Begbie Consultancy Services, giving her the opportunity to give back to the industry and share her years of experience and knowledge with others.