Talent Development: Interview with Heather Jacobs, Vice President of Human Resources EMEA, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts
Manager in Training program in 1994 and has not looked back since. Working her way through different departments of the hotel, she found a passion for HR and was successively promoted up to the ranks. Almost 20 years permanently with Four Seasons, she gained a BSc. from Cornell University before joining the MIT program upon graduation. A certified GPHR since 2006; she is a proud advocate and Chair of the Executive Committee of the International Tourism Partnership since 2005. The Young Hoteliers Summit was delighted to be able to interview Ms Jacobs during her presence at the 2014 Summit, which she joined as part of the Four Seasons Partnership with YHS. - Interviewed by Friederike von Bünau, YHS Press Officer
What was the proudest moment in your career?
There have been numerous – like being part of opening a hotel. One of the biggest ones was helpingBudapest open, and probably my first international experience as I was living in the States at the time. Being part of the selection of the core team, through to seeing them go through mass hires, not internally within the hotel but from a corporate perspective, it was probably one of the proudest moments. Another one is going into a hotel, and seeing someone you hired 15 years ago and they now are general manager and watching their progression! It can be from very small on a daily level to very big monumental things, you take a huge amount of pride in all of those things.
At what moment did you realize this was the company you want to continue working forindefinitely?
I think when I started, I started in operations in Chicago (some of the best memories!) and thenrealized I wanted to make a switch, I wanted to explore human resources. I remember talking to my managers at that time, which are fellow colleagues now, saying I really want to do this HR thing, until I had convinced them, and they gave that chance to me. That was exciting, and from then on I said to myself – this is a company where, when I express that I want to do something differently, they support me in that. That's a wonderful feeling to have, that they had confidence in me and were willing to take a risk on me. That was about three or four years in, and it was probably the moment where I did realize …
You spoke of Energy, Pride and Connectivity being important factors for you at Four Seasons.How do you foster these in your HR Role for others?
Rule number one is that we support the teams in the hotels. We also create global strategies, and otherthings that are ultimately going to enhance the brand with what we're delivering, but from a day-to-day perspective, it's bringing a compassion, and a time of listening and being a sounding board for a GM or a HR director of a hotel sometimes, but I love what I do! And when you love what you do, and you feel that you're connecting and that you're contributing to something, it's just a natural thing. It's all about passion, as long as you're bringing that.
Connectivity is also how you get to know people. You get to know the person not just the job – youlearn to understand their motivation and everyone is different. That connectivity comes with just spending a small amount of time with a person and that becomes – 'Hey, the last time, I heard something in your voice... is everything okay? Is there something..?" When somebody reaches out to you in that way – that's a connection. This (hospitality) is a non-stop industry, very intense, so that connection, in terms of what they do on a daily basis, helps them do their job better.
Beginning your Four Seasons journey with various internships, is there one role in particularthat you felt allowed you to grow personally?
My first internship was unpaid in the Four Seasons back in the 90s, when it was still making its name.The following year, the person I had worked for had moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, and called me to ask – what are you doing this summer, I want you to do something in F&B and we can pay you! I'm not F&B person, I do love it but it's not my oeuvre: and still I said yes, fantastic. So for me a defining moment was actually stretching and doing something different, that I knew would be great because it would expose me to a different part of the hotel and see a different part of the operation: from hostess to serving to scheduling. But I think the defining moment that I grew was when I spilled an entire cocktail tray of drinks into the pool at the Four Seasons Los Angeles …! I was quickly taken off pool duty, but for later the empathy level rises: when you see someone else doing something for the first time, it's quick to come back to you when you have had those moments.
Many people speak of generational gaps, and you wrote a HBR article on the subject. Is it thekey issue for you in HR today, or rather another?
Every group of individuals wants to be treated in a way – when you look at what comes out aboutGeneration Y: "I want somebody that will look after my career, I want somebody that's going to challenge me, I want recognition I want to know that I'm contributing…" Personally, when I talk to people from different levels, I don't see that that's different. They might vocalize or express it differently, but at the core we're people. I think keeping things relevant and fast paced and exciting for the employees is more important. For the hospitality industry in general, it's a labour intensive industry, 24/7: so how do you make exciting, how to we make it lucrative and interesting, when there are other much more exciting things out there that are attracting the best and the brightest of minds? We still need people who sit at the front desk, or help guests in those front-facing positions. How do we as an industry, make this attractive? I think there are ways we can do that, but about Gen Y perception is reality and if we want to attract them to the industry and make it exciting for them, we have to listen: As everything always evolves and changes, to me it's not necessarily a stumbling block.
How can you integrate your sustainability work with the ITP in your HR workplace?
At the Four Seasons we don't have a dedicated CSR department; we believe it everyone'sresponsibility. We don't have a particular framework, but from a HR standpoint, CSR is one of the key things we've worked on - there's a great synergy in my mind between HR and Corporate Social Responsibility. The YCI, Youth Career Initiative the ITP sponsors goes into emerging markets, and it really focuses on disadvantaged students, between the high school and university years. The connection between ITP and HR for me is through two programs – one in Amman Jordan, one in Mumbai, where we've done these 6 month programs, they come in and our managers spend time with them and there's a great curriculum that's been developed. We try and do it with other hotels in the city, as it's not about future employment with us particularly – it's about how we're contributing back to the community where we're doing business in. Some of them go on to get other degrees, but one student we happened to end up hiring in Amman and she ended up being our employee of the year! So there are some brilliant stories we may not otherwise have seen. Community involvement is great because it is about the heart and it is about people giving back to where we operate. Some of the most beautiful places in the world, and you want to make sure it's there forever, and that you're not displacing the people or resources that they have.
Travel is one of the most attractive things about the hospitality industry for young people –how has moving across continents affected you in the past?
Beyond words, it was the best thing I ever did. Specificallyfrom a HR standpoint, what we do is career development and moving people and talent mobility. When you've gone through that experience and understand what it means, you become able to understand what works and what doesn't work when you're trying to move people. There is that innate quality when you're moving somebody: the first question people ask is "What do you miss from the States?" and I would say "Nothing…" That's not to say that I don't' miss my friends and family, but I didn't go Switzerland to replicate what I had in America. I went to experience a new culture, going out to the markets, and the combats des vâches (a Swiss tradition). It's through having the capacity to start understanding your own internal workforce – who are the people that want that, and where that's easier for them in terms of different marketplaces, that you're going to find that right fit.
What would be the one essential piece of advice every hospitality student should remember?
Have fun! Ultimately, this is a business where having fun and being passionate about what you're doingand delivering. Success will come if you have those things – don't focus on success first, because I really do think there are so many opportunities: stay open minded! So passionate, have fun, stay open-minded - not to be cliché, but they're simple. Let your instincts guide you! Contrary to other professional industries, taking a risk could open up so many doors. Even within a hotel, by moving divisions you can make an opportunity for yourself. I don't think that risk needs to be as negative as sometimes people say; it can be a great opportunity.
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