Creating employee trust: The unseen but decisive factor in corporate success (Guest Commentary)

CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts counts employee relations as the cornerstone of the Canadian company’s international success

By 1978 Four Seasons was in every Canadian city big enough to support a five-star hotel. To grow without lowering quality we had to go for broke in the big league, an American market dominated by giant chains.

We knew we had to set ourselves apart. We had already upgraded five-star standards: aesthetics, convenience, comfort — every aspect of every room, from the softest towels to the quietest plumbing.

We became the leader in innovation. Like 24-hour room service, shampoo, bathrobes, make-up mirrors, hair dryers, overnight laundry, shoe shining and many more. These were popular ideas, but quickly and widely copied.

We needed something more. So we studied, surveyed and listened to customers. Most were business executives, often pressured by time and the need to be productive. Luxury was seen then chiefly as architecture and decor. We decided to redefine luxury as service, a support system to fill in for the one left at home and the office.

That customer-service strategy made our customer-employee contact the most meaningful of all our working relationships. And that customer-service focus helped us foresee changes and trends. It kept our priorities straight, challenged employees and gave us growth in the United States.

But with growth and new employees came problems of control.

We always had an implicit operating philosophy. In 1982, as we expanded, I decided to make it explicit. Spell out our goals, beliefs and values. Tell everyone how to act. Give a reference point from which to ask: “Does this deal, this action, square with our values?”

I tried to put this into a few words and took it to our senior people. Some scoffed, called it trite and unnecessary. Some agreed, but only in principle, implying no intention of acting it out. That worried me. Unless all executives shared the same values, we’d be working at cross-purposes. Employees, even then, believed only what they saw. If we were seen showing greater concern for profit, prestige or quotas than for customers and employees there would be no belief in our values and no wholehearted commitment.

I sat down with our public relations director and detailed a formal credo based on the Golden Rule, the cornerstone of what would later be called our corporate culture. In essence, the rule was to treat others — all others: customers, employees, partners, suppliers — as we ourselves would want to be treated.

There was nothing new about this. Even back then, such credos were common, though seldom believed. What was new was that we enforced it. Senior managers who couldn’t or wouldn’t walk the talk were winnowed out within a few years.

It was a painful process, personally distressing, perhaps the hardest thing I ever did. But the fastest way for management to destroy its credibility is to say employees come first and be seen putting them last. Better not profess any values than not live up to them.

Conceiving a vision and strategy is relatively easy. The hard part was selling it: getting it across to design staff, purchasing people, engineers. Getting it down to the bottom: bellmen, waiters, chambermaids, dishwashers, the lowest paid and traditionally our least motivated people, but the ones who can make or break a five-star reputation.

I became an evangelist, preaching the gospel of service every day on every trip to every hotel. Continuously restating it. Clarifying it. Developing it. Reinforcing it by rewarding and celebrating outstanding performance. Focusing employees at every level on one priority: giving customers added-value through service.

When I was a young builder, I worked side by side with my crew, digging ditches, pouring concrete in the rain. When I had to leave they went on working as if I was there. An attitude based on mutual respect and trust.

This was the attitude I wanted to develop in Four Seasons. First, by hiring more for attitude than experience. Then by establishing career paths and promotion from within. By paying as much attention to employee complaints as to guest complaints. By upgrading employee facilities whenever we upgraded a hotel. By disallowing class distinction in cafeterias and parking lots. By pushing responsibility down and encouraging self-discipline. By setting performance standards high and holding people accountable. And most of all by unfailing adherence to the Golden Rule: generating trust.

By the end of this year, we’ll have more than 70 hotels in 30 countries. Irreplaceable buildings in irreplaceable locations.

This is not growth and success based on, as hoteliers so often said in the past, “location, location, location.” This is success due primarily to employee commitment and, fundamentally, to belief. Belief that a fully committed workforce is a company’s greatest asset.

I know this is not the prevailing view. With so many companies exporting jobs abroad and simultaneously laying off staff, a committed workforce is more often seen as an oxymoron.

But every day, in every hotel, our staff confirm our belief in their value by consistently delivering error-free service. It is this service consistency that has proven to be what every company dreams of: a sustainable competitive advantage.

Isadore Sharp, chair and CEO of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, spoke at the Conference Board of Canada’s Deloitte Leaders Forum in Toronto in June. For a full text of that speech — including how the organization responded to the industry’s downturn following Sept. 11 and the tragedy of the December tsunami — click on the link below.

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