Leadership is the capacity to translate vision into reality. (Warren Bennis)
The greatest leader is not necessarily the one who does the greatest things.
They are the one that gets the people to do the greatest things. (Ronald Reagan)
A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions,
and the compassion to listen to the needs of others. (Douglas MacArthur)
Dialogue with the Five-Star Hotel Director Philippe Clarinval.
We all have heard cheesy quotes about leadership buzzing around in business and everyday lives. The majority of us look up to a leader, and hopefully it is a good one.
Leadership is something intangible, yet we all have a rather concrete expectation of what a leader must do: Holding everything together, acting as a charismatic role-model, being a representative of the organization… lots of nice sounding words, actually quite hard to translate into actionable tasks, very difficult to describe with quantitative indicators, impossible to create a blueprint to implement into every organization and context.
In this article, we will explore what a real and highly successful leader, the general manager of a five-star hotel, can share with regards to multiple facets of leadership. As some readers of this present article may already have studied leadership, at least on the surface level, we seek to apply the frameworks and see, how the theories look like in day-to-day-practice.
The motivation for writing this article stems from an inspiring guest lecture at HEC Lausanne, in which Professor Felicitas Morhart invited the general manager of multiple highly prestigious luxury hotels, Philippe Clarinval. Currently, he is the general manager at the 5-star hotel “Les Trois Rois” in Basel, Switzerland. He was so kind to make himself available for a personal interview in which we talked about leadership and what comes along with being a leader.
In addition, I would like to recommend the book “CEO of Excellence” (2022) written by C. Dewar, S. Keller, and V. Malhotra, Senior Partners at McKinsey & Company. The book is a guide that offers practical insights for advancing leadership skills in order to achieve organizational success. The interview questions for this article were crafted based on the six distinct mindsets examined in the “CEO of Excellence” book.
The following visual provides an overview of the topics covered in this article and that were central to the dialogue with hotel director Philippe Clarinval.
WHAT DOES A CEO ACTUALLY DO?
The authors of “CEO of Excellence” asked a dozen CEOs of FT-500 listed companies “What does a CEO actually do?” and received two dozen different answers. Having had the opportunity to talk personally to the hotel director of the five-star hotel Les Trois Rois, I asked Philippe Clarinval: “What does a general manager actually do?” He grinned widely and replied to the question:
Every day, I see myself as a Chinese plate spinner who gives impulses and takes care to keep the plates rotating on the stick. As an impulse giver, I bring together teams and embody a long-term strategy. One of my roles is to communicate the vision and illustrate the purpose to give employees meaning in their tasks. Sometimes, employees tend to minimize their purpose to the sole job description, which can lead to them losing potential. Still, I aim to avoid micro-managing and instead focus on bringing the team together and to provide a shared goal.
In short, transformational leadership is the leadership style that inspires and motivates followers to achieve exceptional outcomes beyond their expectations. The outcome of transformational leadership correlates positively with increased motivation, job satisfaction, and organizational commitment, leading to higher levels of performance and productivity. As I have met Philippe Clarinval as a highly charismatic and transformational leader, I asked: How does transformational leadership look like in daily business? He replied:
The hospitality industry is a very transactional business at its core. As soon as you start explaining the purpose and the vision, you achieve a transformation. Subsequently, employees begin to understand the know-why on top of their know-how. The next step is to stimulate them intellectually by integrating them into decisions. This is achieved by identifying obsolete transactional processes within the organization and simplifying those together with the workforce. In a next step, a leader has to critically analyze themselves, by searching for answers to the following guiding questions: How am I inspirational? How much of a role-model am I? Do I walk the talk? A leader needs to continuously learn and share his learnings, best through inspirational stories. Another important aspect to transformational leadership is knowing well the individuals within your workforce. Some guiding questions here are: How well do I know my employees? How well do I know their stories, their personal engagement drivers? Do I know where the individuals of my workforce come from, and where they want to go? Do I know what capabilities they need to learn in order to fully use their potential?
There are two ways to become a CEO (or general manager in the hospitality industry): through internal promotion or external recruitment. According to Dr. Gerhard Furtmüller, who is a prominent Austrian expert on leadership, if an individual who typically performs operational tasks is promoted to a leadership position, they often misguidedly view the new role as merely a title change with the same operational obligations. However, leadership requires delegation and many other skills, as Gerhard Furtmüller depicts. External recruitment was the path that brought Philippe Clarinval to the hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, as he previously functioned as the general manager in the five-star Omnia Mountain Lodge in Zermatt, Switzerland. I asked him on how to gain the acceptance of the existing workforce as a newly appointed CEO of an organization when recruited externally. Philippe Clarinval replied:
When a new CEO steps into a leadership role, earning acceptance from the employees is a two-lane road. Not only does the CEO need to earn credibility, but the employees must also distinguish themselves with the CEO. After all, they know how their hotel works, whereas the new CEO is still getting to know the ropes. To gain credibility, the CEO needs to listen, watch, and think before questioning. There are two steps to achieving this. Firstly, the CEO needs to know what their own values are, what they stand for, and where they want the organization to go. Secondly, the CEO should sharpen their vision for the organization. The workforce can quickly determine if the new CEO has a clue or is a phony. Therefore, the CEO needs to listen, watch, keep an open mind, accept what went well, and show understanding for what didn’t go well. In doing so, the CEO can build trust, gain acceptance, and lead the organization towards success.
In “CEO of Excellence”, the authors explores the concept of high-value roles, which are critical leadership responsibilities that can significantly impact the success of an organization. The book emphasizes the importance of CEOs identifying and prioritizing high-value roles in order to effectively allocate their time and resources. I asked Philippe Clarinval what the most important high-value roles in his hotel are, and he replied:
In today’s interconnected world, the classical linear organigram is becoming outdated. We should not hold onto this structure as situations are continuously changing. Instead, we need to adopt a dynamic network approach. A network is made up of people, and those people are differently weighted depending on the situation. For example, at 11 am, the housekeeping personnel who is preparing the rooms for new guests may be one of the highest-value roles. However, right before a board meeting, the financial controller may be one of the most important people. As such, it is essential to identify the situation and who the most critical person is at that moment and how they are connected to others. Finally, nothing is black or white; everything is a shade of grey, and nothing is static. Therefore, it is necessary to remain adaptable and flexible to be successful in this interconnected world.
Business leaders and scholars have debated whether strategy or culture is more crucial for organizational success. Some argue that a clear strategy is essential, while others, like Peter Drucker, believe that organizational culture is even more critical. Drucker famously stated that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, suggesting that no matter how well-conceived a strategy may be, it cannot be effectively implemented without a strong and supportive organizational culture. Philippe Clarinval stated “culture is what happens, when the boss leaves the room” – which leaves space to think about how can leaders positively influence the organizational culture? On asking this, he replied:
Most importantly, by being a role model, leaders set an example of the behavior they expect from their employees. Next, through storytelling, they can share experiences that exemplify the desired organizational culture. By showing the consequences of bad behavior, leaders can make it clear that certain actions are not acceptable. Likewise, by celebrating good behavior, leaders can reinforce the desired cultural values. However, it is essential to remember that positively influencing the organizational culture is a long-wired process. It requires explicitly communicating the vision and values that the leader has for the organization. In short, by consistently exhibiting and reinforcing the desired cultural values, leaders can create a healthy and positive organizational culture that drives success.
Motivating employees is critical to the success of any organization. As a result, leaders must have a clear understanding of how to motivate their employees successfully. This is the reason why I asked the following question: How do you get the most potential out of your workforce? Philippe Clarinval replied:
To maximize the potential of a workforce, it is essential to identify their engagement drivers, not just motivators. While motivation leads to satisfaction, it may not necessarily advance the organization. Leaders should ask employees what they love doing and how it aligns with the organization’s purpose and vision. Additionally, it is crucial to ensure that employees embody the hotel’s values. A helpful metaphor for achieving this is getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats, but first, you must ask them which bus. This can be accomplished through clear communication of vision and values.
“Change is the only constant in the world” is a famous quote, and leaders must be prepared to navigate their organizations through it. Therefore, they need to reflect on their approach to change management and continuously seek ways to improve their skills in this area. In this way, they can successfully guide their organizations through the inevitable changes they will face and emerge stronger and more resilient on the other side. I asked Philippe Clarinval: How to lead a workforce through a crisis? He replied:
Communication, openness, transparency, and admitting what you do not know. This is how to lead employees through hard times with humbleness and trust. Communicate to the employees: Together, we can do this. Everything is going to be fine. Openly seek the dialogue with them: How can we can navigate through the uncertainty together? What is likewise important is to stand up for the organization’s values and transparently state a deviation from the shared values is not an option.
Leadership is a challenging role, which is why resilience is a critical trait for any successful leader. Resilience allows leaders to navigate through setbacks and other obstacles that arise in their path, enabling them to keep their focus on their goals and continue to inspire and motivate their teams. As a final question, I asked Philippe Clarinval what resilience means to him and how he stays resilient. He replied:
Beforehand, a brief clarification. Grit is the tenacious focus on the end goal, regardless of any obstacles or distractions that may arise. Resilience, on the other hand, is the ability to recover from setbacks and stay on track towards one’s objectives. To me, the key aspect of resilience is finding gratitude in every situation. This can look like “I am grateful for this challenge because I will learn from it for the future” or “I am grateful for my great team that supports me through this challenge”. To find gratitude is to become more resilient.
THANK YOU : I genuinely want to thank Philippe Clarinval for the inspiring talk and time that he made available for the personal interview. Further, I want to thank Felicitas Morhart for her remarkable class at HEC Lausanne as well as Gerhard Furtmüller for his profound class at WU Vienna. References available upon request.