Leadership Is All Around Us
The Five Practices
While the Executive MBA students I teach at Santa Clara University are on a study abroad experience I ask them to be “leadership observers” and, upon their return, to write an essay that shares their observations about leadership-in-practice: Where did they see themselves, their colleagues, the executives they met with, hotel staff, shop personnel, etc. engage in The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®? In that spirit, I decided to practice-what-I-preach. I did something similar while I was recently aboard a Viking River Cruise® of the Mediterranean:
Joachim Scherz is the General Manager of our floating hotel—with 930 guests in 465 staterooms and a staff of about 450 people—responsible for dining, entertainment, housekeeping, concierge services, maintenance, and pretty much everything but steering the ship and keeping the engines and machinery running. He oversees operations of roughly one staff member for every two guests. But it’s not just that ratio that made Joachim’s leadership significant. It’s also because the staff he leads comes from over 40 different countries and that quite literally live at their workplace (that’s 24x7 for months at a time in very close quarters and spartan accommodations). It’s no wonder that Joachim says leaders have to invest in their people, at all levels, and “that without them, you have nothing.”
People make the difference, which is also reflected in the philosophy of hiring for personality and training for the job. This is a big reason that Colleen McDaniel, Cruise Critic Senior Executive Editor, says that “A cruise on Viking Sky is exceptional, in large part because of the friendly crew that anticipates virtually every need, recognize preferences, and aren't afraid to make recommendations. From cabin stewards to waiters to bartenders, everyone is friendly and they have long memories; they will remember your name every time they see you and know that you prefer beer to wine or like a sparkling water rather than still.”
With over 30 years of experience in the hospitality industry, Joachim maintains that, like Disney’s theme parks, staff on his Viking® ship must realize that they are part of a show being experienced by their guests; they are performers on a stage regardless of the service they are providing. What makes his floating hotel different from other hotels, on land or water, is how the staff owns the show.
The formula for success is quite simple, Joachim suggests: make people smile. And that begins with making sure that’s how the staff feel they are being treated. It’s obviously working because they have a 95 percent staff retention rate and Cruise Critic not only named Viking Cruises “Best Overall” in 2018, but best in 10 separate categories.
There are many specific ways that Joachim demonstrates The Leadership Challenge® Practice, Enable Others to Act, beginning with his understanding that he’s a servant leader who works to ensure that his direct reports are successful—and not the other way around. “If my crew is happy,” he exclaims, “then high performance is the outcome.” As befits a service organization, each member of the staff receives feedback on a daily basis from their guests and also on a regular basis from Joachim and his management team.
Because everyone on staff lives together, they also need to feel that the work they do is enjoyable and that they make a difference in the “total experience” felt by guests aboard. That’s why all members of the staff are given many opportunities to gain new skills. There is an ongoing rotation of people through the overall Viking organization (with the launch of new ships). And many of the staff takes several months off between “contracts” to return to their homes, to spend time with family and refresh. They refer to their employee development programs as training “stars” and Joachim nearly beams when talking about how proud he is of the “opportunity to grow people.”
Joachim himself sets the example (i.e., Models the Way) by demonstrating first-hand the cheerfulness, visibility, and responsiveness he expects of others. “You have to be out-and-about in the first place,” says Joachim, in order “to hear and learn how things are going.” And true to his word, we saw Joachim all over the ship, walking through the various restaurants (breakfast, lunch, and dinners), and welcoming people off the ship for excursions in the morning and again when they returned in the afternoon, shaking hands and talking with people before and after various special events and evening entertainments.
Most important to his own success in his floating hotel (as in any organization), Joachim explains, is not falling into the trap of micro-managing because, he says, “it kills initiative, lowers levels of trust and pride, and without people feeling ownership, they’ll leave.”
One well-guarded secret aboard our ship: when does Joachim sleep?
Barry Posner, Ph.D., is the Accolti Endowed Professor of Leadership at the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University, where he served as Dean for 12 years. Together with Jim Kouzes, he is author of over 30 books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including the recently-released Stop Selling & Start Leading (with additional co-author Deb Calvert) and the fully-revised and updated sixth edition of the international bestseller, The Leadership Challenge.