Industry Update
Opinion Article20 June 2018

Culture Is Stronger Than Knowledge

By Benoit Gateau-Cumin, Chief Recruiting Officer at The Boutique Search Firm

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Gateau-Cumin

We often hear of the General Manager who moves from Tucson to New York and finds her/himself completely lost the minute a union representative demands an audience. Worse yet, suppose your company promotes you, after 10 years in Seattle to Atlanta. Or from Provo to San Francisco.

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I am asked a number of times a week "what is like to live" in Georgia, Texas, Colorado, Utah, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, New Mexico and many more. It is our job to know not only the corporate culture of the potential placement but the local culture of the potential city. There is no such thing as "the United States" when it comes to leadership and upper management. Large corporations are well aware of it, hence the "Irish promotions" they generously issue when they are looking to get rid of someone. One of your General Managers has never worked in a large city, raised all four of his children in Podunk, and has a wife involved with the local Junior League. You happen to know he owns a home in a depressed market and is accordingly "under water". But the man is not your favorite, and obviously you cannot terminate him. So you reassign him to New York-a city that is far far away, culturally, from Podunk. My prediction is that he will not last or will his marriage.

When "expats" started being shipped around the world by the initial Big Three (InterContinental, Hilton International and Sheraton) back in the late fifties, it did not matter much who was shipped where: the General Manager of a global hotel had basically NO contact with the local population and was mostly a figurehead. Whether they were Austrian, German, Swiss or Dutch, as long as their English was fluent, they had no need to speak any other language: you could be the GM of the Istanbul Hilton for 8 years without having to learn or utter one single word of Turkish. In Africa (Cameroon, Senegal, Congo, Rwanda, Togo) the GM and their family often did not leave the hotel compound for weeks on end, and then mostly to be taken to the airport for an R&R flight*.

Those days are over: you do not assign a General Manager, for example, who is Jewish to Muslim countries any more than Taiwanese executives are assigned to China.

ACT GLOBAL, BUT THINK LOCAL?

We have heard this for a number of years now. Yet I believe it requires some debunking. Take Ramadan as the most visible example of a cultural phenomenon in a very large area of the world. If, as the General Manager of a luxury hotel in Egypt, Qatar, or Bahrain, you do not try to understand the hardship fasting in 100+-degree temperature imposes on your staff, then you just do NOT belong there. Unless you learn that when Balinese say "yes" they often mean "no", you will not get much accomplish there either.

Dealing with ownership, however is where a high level of understanding and diplomacy belongs: to a Chinese owner, a white round plate is just a white round plate. He can purchase or have them made for $1 apiece. The problem is, for you, there is a huge difference between his $1 plate and the $42 Villeroy & Boch plate you specified for your fine dining restaurant. Avoid featuring an "all you can eat" buffet anywhere in your hotel: within minutes half of the food will be on the floor and fights could erupt over shrimp.

Owners in the Middle East often are interested in building monuments to themselves: as an architect, do not spend too much energy proposing a streamlined, purely elegant building: they will have so many change orders until it morphs into "La Mamounia meets the Candy Spelling Mansion" you won't even know what hit you. Give them what they want in the first place.

Last but not least, do not go around, as a General Manager, with inflexible staffing guides and productivity indexes: what is no big deal in Houston or Minneapolis is an impossible goal in Istanbul.

ACT LOCAL, THINK GLOBAL

*Until very recently (it still exists in the worst of hardship destinations) senior hotel management would receive, as part of their benefit package, a once-a-year or twice-a-year R&R gift from their employer: 4 days in a major destination of their choice, including flights, hotel and food. Suppose you ran a hotel in Borneo, your R&R would take you to Singapore. Were you to run a hotel in Guangzhou, it would be Hong Kong.

Benoit Gateau-Cumin

Born and raised in France, Benoit managed to scoop up a French law degree prior to studying Hotel Administration at Cornell University. Upon graduation in 1975, he engaged in an eleven-year hotel management career that took him to Chicago, New York, Washington DC, San Diego, Istanbul, Jamaica and Hawaii.

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