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Leadership Lessons From Virgin Hotels, Courtesy Of Richard Branson And CEO Raul Leal
Commons Club, Virgin Hotel Chicago

Leadership Lessons From Virgin Hotels, Courtesy Of Richard Branson And CEO Raul Leal

Leadership Lessons From Virgin Hotels, Courtesy Of Richard Branson And CEO Raul Leal

“Here’s a great story about how Richard (Branson) works with his companies, in this case ours,” Raul Leal, CEO of Virgin Hotels, tells me.
“We picked this building (the former Old Dearborn Bank Building in downtown Chicago) to build out as the future flagship of Virgin Hotels three and a half years ago. I told Richard ‘this is the place!’ He said, ‘well, if you say that it’s the place, then I say it’s the place – I trust you; you’re the hotel guy.’

“So, we get a couple years into the buildout” [an unusually involved buildout, as the building is a designated Chicago landmark with impressive architectural bones, many of which Virgin was required by statutory and aesthetic considerations to not only keep but restore to their original 1926 splendor] “and Richard came to visit. He told me, ‘Raul, you must have more imagination than me because I just don’t quite see it yet, but I know when you’re done I will be delighted.’”

Commons Club Virgin Hotel Chicago, Courtesy Virgin Hotels
Commons Club, Virgin Hotel Chicago

*****

I can identify three leadership lessons here, right off the bat.

1. Hire the right people.

2. Give those people responsibility
3. (and this may be the least obvious of the three): Let them know that you’re counting on them–that the responsibility is theirs.

Let’s focus on #3: While Mr. Leal seems like a relatively relaxed CEO, just imagine the pressure of having Branson telling you he trusts you to have more imagination than Sir Richard has himself? That he is counting on you to get it right before opening day? Now that is leadership.The thing is, every leader I’ve seen working under Branson functions in ways that are similar to Branson himself. Mr. Leal’s VP of People, Clio Knowles (a dead ringer for Meg Ryan, though I’m not sure how that’s relevant), isn’t micromanaged to death by CEO Leal, in spite of Knowles having what is arguably the most crucial position in a service-intensive business like hospitality. Actually, we should talk about them as hospitality businesses—plural::This one Virgin hotel team has responsibility for the hotel itself, the Commons Club (delicious—and complete with a “shag room” that is very shagadelic indeed), and a diner called Miss Ricky’s. The diner just opened yesterday and I haven’t had a chance to eat there, but the patrons I saw were smiling as broadly and looked just as sated as the guests in the Commons Club.)

In turn, nobody is micro-managing the superstars whom Ms. Knowles has hired (and some of them truly are superstars), but you can see evidence that they’ve internalized the same positive pressure. Take the food at the Commons Club and at the new Ricky’s Diner: both of these in-hotel restaurants are helmed by executive chef Rick Gresh with the assistance of executive sous chef John Comerford and team. “Every item on the menu,” according to Comerford, “we tested in at least 20 different variations—we did this over and over and over until we were convinced that this was the best possible dish we could set before the guests.”

Was anyone hounding Chef Gresh and team to do this? Was Mr. Leal hounding anyone to hound him? Was Sir Richard….
I don’t think so. These are people who are used to working for people with high standards. And they in turn make clear their own expectations of high standards and good results, with the result that none of these people in the organization is willing to let their superior down. And the result? They don’t let the guest down either.

(Random asides about the new Missy Ricky’s diner: 1. The name “Ricky” is what Sir Richard is called by his mum, with the “Miss” presumably referring to Branson’s well-known episodic cross-dressing. 2. The plan is eventually to have the diner open “23 hours a day,” Mr. Leal tells me. Which hour will they be closed? “We haven’t decided yet. I’ll keep you posted.”)

Now, as you get closer and closer to the guest, as we get to the hospitality moments where service is happening in real time as opposed to the slower-paced, behind the scenes worlds of menu testing and hotel buildout, things get a bit different.  In this real-time context what I’ve been talking about so far continues to be important: trusting the employee and inspiring them to do their best.  But because of a service employee’s ability to make mistakes with a guest that they never even know they’ve made, due to the quick-turn and always-on-stage aspects of the job, there needs to be an element of course correction as well on the part of management.

None of us can be objective about how we come across to a guest.  While we don’t need to be pilloried for our missteps, all of us who serve customers can benefit from quick and immediate corrections when called for. A manager’s place in any service industry is on the floor, in order to model great behavior, to be a reminder of how much is expected, and to course-correct (out of sight and earshot of the customer) before too much time has passed.

Thanks for the comment

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