Interview Steven Daines, Chief Talent & Culture Officer, ACCOR. He is willing to keep adapting to current changes and believes in the power of working in hospitality.
Steven, you have spent your whole career in the hospitality industry, what attracted you in this sector? And what made you stay in this industry?
Despite initially feeling destined to become a banker, with no one in my family working in hospitality, I found myself starting my career in the cruise industry. This is where I truly began to develop a passion for travel. I then started to identify strongly with the idea of nomadism, developing a deep appreciation for the power of travel, to bring people and cultures together while being a source of happiness for many individuals.
Building on this career start in cruises and after completing an MBA at IMHI ESSEC Cornell, I went on to join the then Accor owned Compagnie des Wagon-Lits where I worked for 10 years managing night trains, and Eurostar catering, where being bilingual in French and English was a huge help.
It was after this that I finally switched to hotels. My passion for encouraging exploration and bringing diverse groups together has never diminished, which is what has compelled me to remain in the industry for all these years.
Do you have to be an explorer to work in hospitality?
Above all, you need to have a genuine interest in being with people and a desire to understand people of many different backgrounds with an ability to adapt and shift to meet unique needs and preferences. We are in the business of providing unique and exceptional experiences each and every day, be that in serving meals, forming friendly relationships or solving guests’ problems. A curious and open mind is therefore indispensable for those professionals wanting to rise to the challenge of offering this novelty and excel in the industry.
How do you convince people with the right profile to join the business?
As an employer, you need to be totally consistent about what you offer to both your guests and your talents. Brands should define the kind of experience they want to bring to their clientele and how teams can work together to be part of this experience.
Additionally, the expansion and maintenance of a leading brand portfolio is also key to attracting talent with a true passion for hospitality. At Accor, we continue to provide the opportunity to work across both iconic historic brands and innovative new concepts where they can best express themselves.
Together, these factors allow free thinking and motivated talents to be readily attracted and employed in a way that enables hospitality teams to flourish while delivering the 21st century guest experience.
A lot of our brands were born at a time when consistency of service was a key priority with guests wanting the same experience whether they were in a Novotel in Sydney or in Sao Paulo. Today the challenge is more complex with consistency needed to maintain brand trust while standardization must be avoided to ensure guests are provided with new and horizon-expanding experiences.
Accor sees attracting the right talent as essential to take on this challenge. This will allow for stronger brand personality, differentiation, and a sense of taking the guests away from their everyday lives and for new lifestyle brands such as Jo&Joe to be created.
It is to this end that the Heartist program was created to allow Accor employees, we call Heartists – “Artists from the Heart”, to embark on a journey through the brands in a way that allows their own personalities, inventiveness and care for guests to shine through.
I believe hospitality offers greater opportunity for career growth than any other industry. Most of the GMs in our hotels have started in operations before advancing up through the organisation, and the same can be said of the corporate leadership teams at our headquarters. I started working with a small group of stewards and stewardesses at Eurostar, and I am not the only one among my peers at Accor’s Executive Committee who have progressed up the ranks. This is indicative of the limitless possibilities provided to talents through Accor’s international presence and diverse portfolio.
I am very aware that young people today are not interested in a career in hospitality but prefer to experience life with flexible working conditions, perhaps only 6 months or a year at a time. Indeed, hospitality is one of the best industries for allowing people to realise genuine life experiences, providing opportunities to interact with so many different individuals. In this industry, that is what we do every single day, finding ways to create happiness in every little human interaction, even if it is just through serving coffee.
As such, we want to demonstrate that hospitality shares this frame of mind to continue bringing true-to-self and experience-driven people into the industry. Moreover, it is important to attract diverse individuals, be they young adults, more senior individuals looking for a new role, single parents with limited time, refugees or people with a disability.
Instil the right attitude and spirit into the hotels
To support hoteliers in embodying our core values, we have adopted the latest tools and training to lead by example when embarking people on their hospitality journeys. Showing hotel owners how our talents are genuinely passionate and on board with the story we are writing together, will avoid a disconnect between the brand and hotel operators. In this way we can all come together to deliver an experience that will bring the highest revenue to both the hotelier and partners. If teams in marketing, finance and operations, etc. are all embracing the same culture and vision of delivering a great experience, quite naturally hotel owners will also engage with Accor’s vision.
The management culture in hospitality has historically been rather conservative. This is where refreshing lifestyle brands are a great signal of the way forward for all brands. I believe the future should see less division between lifestyle and core brands. Notorious core brands need to embrace a new culture and a new way of delivering service that is less formal and more locally and culturally rooted than in the past. All hotel owners can see this and many of them are willing to develop lifestyle offerings without relinquishing previous brands. Ibis is a great example of this and having worked there over the years, I have seen how it has managed to stay contemporary and global through various adaptations of rooms and services, positioning itself as THE lifestyle brand of the economy segment.
Leading by example takes time, but I really think that you only need a couple of hotels to be a little bit more proactive, and others will follow suit. When I was Vice President Operations for ibis, I had the responsibility of around 25 properties and noticed exactly that. This was apparent when we decided to remove the welcome desks and two GMs were quick to convince their owners to embrace the change. This then motivated others to follow just six months later after seeing the benefits this brought.
It can be faster than one thinks. It is about creating a team spirit where everything is consistent in the interest of guests, owners, and the operator, and in how the brand’s story is delivered to the market and how we address our people.
Another important point is that a balanced life is key. If you push your people into overdrive, even unconsciously, they are going to break. It may show in 10,15 or 20 years, with employees who have had to neglect their personal lives and health becoming tired, unproductive, and dissatisfied with their jobs.
In the hospitality industry, emotional balance is essential. You are constantly faced with guests who come to the property with certain levels of stress. As staff of the hotel, we have to absorb that stress and help our guests relax and unwind during their stay. That requires of our talents an ability to absorb negativity without letting it consume them. In my experience, the only way they may be able to do so is to grant themselves a moment to re-energise.
As leaders, we need to be conscious of that, we sometimes witness, people in overdrive and in the mid-term, it can be disastrous. We need to encourage our teams to rest and discover new things. Burnout is a particularly prevalent risk in hotels because we are open 24/7. When you are a GM or a head of department, you may feel that you have to be there at all times because there is always something happening. However, we need our managers to have an open mindset, and be less conservative in their leadership, not underestimating the importance of well-being among team members. And on that topic, I think the younger generations are leading the way.
Hospitality within the next years
There is a stronger trend in diversity. At Accor, we are committed in increasing the percentage of female leadership. There will be 36% female GMs by the end of 2022, and we target 40% by 2025. In other areas of diversity, we are well on the way, with some brands going further on issues of cultural, mobility and racial diversity.
As an industry that embodies curiosity and cultural encounters, we must lead by example, and I feel there is tremendous scope to have true diversity at the helm of our hotel and our departments within ten years.
The declining interest in conventional career paths will see a reimagining of how people might progress in hospitality which puts a greater emphasis on the need to always be looking for and attracting new people.
Following the idea of diversity also means that we will have a more mature population joining the industry. Away from the usual scheme of fresh graduates starting their career and growing a career in hotels, instead we will welcome the Gen Xers (40 - 50-year-olds), who have developed and matured in other industries, as well as those who previously felt excluded due to specific needs.
I dream of an industry that is even more of an example than today in terms of mixing people from everywhere. An industry that shows that different cultures from different countries can work together. We are seeing borders being re-established with people sometimes being fearful of foreigners, and our industry is one that can prove the value of diversity.
Hotels are one of the only structures in a city, apart from hospitals and police stations, that are open 24/7. What we have not been good at in this industry so far is attracting locals. For the locals, we can be a meeting point where you would go to meet a variety of people. That means hotels providing a range of services more integrated with the local community, such as a venue for a small local group of musicians or a local yoga class, to create a mixture of people staying for just one night or several.
We know that the only way to deliver the desired experience to our guests is to offer our teams the optimal working experience with learning being a key factor. Our Accor Academy offers training on topics such as leading with the heart or leading in the new normal. However, in our industry, you can’t train only through e-learning because a lot of what we do is through the energy of interaction. It is through our leadership that the passion, Accor’s values and brand story are communicated.
As such, Accor has developed mentoring programs as a pragmatic, less formal way of coaching designed to work alongside tailored leadership training available to managers from all levels. Accor Academy’s in-house trainings allow leaders to be equipped to lead with empathy and embrace vulnerability and self-awareness, which are key to leading with the heart.
Executive bite-size training dedicated to GMs and peers include platforms such as Strengthsfinder, LinkedIn Learning and individual coaching. Of specific note, and a first in the history of Cornell, Accor has collaborated with Cornell University to codesign and adapt their existing leadership training, tailoring their courses specifically for hospitality leaders. This involves the exploration of such topics as resisting burnout, work life balance, embracing uncertainty, positive psychology and psychological safety, to provide a safe place for team members.
Dare and take risks
Daring and taking risks apply to our leaders, managers and people. Recruiting different profiles than those you are used to requires taking a risk which can impact both sides, the applicant as well as the recruiter.
I find it baffling that the hospitality industry is so conservative, and we need to take more risks. This could come from the fact that, particularly in the luxury segment, we were intent on reproducing historical codes and etiquettes inherited from the 18th or 19th century.
When I visit hospitality schools, I feel sometimes that this conservatism remains. We are not pushing students hard enough to think outside the box and teaching them to not be afraid to take risks. Inside Accor, it is something that our Chairman & CEO Sébastien Bazin encourages all the time. For instance, he chose for Talent & Culture (Human Resources) someone like me, from operations. I had never worked in an HR department prior to this role. Most of Sébastien Bazin’s appointments involve some risk taking. That is the way he is, he gives opportunities to people who do not necessarily have the profile that a head-hunter would have chosen. That is part of who we are at Accor. When you go back to our roots, our co-founders Paul Dubrule and Gérard Pélisson always took fantastic risks.
This philosophy and mindset have led the group to where it is today. When I was head of the ibis’ brand in South America, local guests came back from a travel in Europe and told me that they had no idea that ibis had expanded out of Brazil!
It is only by giving trust and engaging your leadership team to adopt the same culture, that it will work. Some decisions may not go so well but ultimately, it is better to make bold decisions and take risks than being overly conservative.
The spirit of Accor is not only about treating people well so that they can treat guests well, but also about empowering our talents and giving them the space to make decisions and take measured risks when needed.