Industry Update
Opinion Article 9 June 2021

Loss and Perseverance

“At one point, I thought life was about acquiring things. Life is totally about losing.” - Former professional boxer, Mike Tyson.

By Keith Kefgen, Managing Director & CEO at AETHOS Consulting Group and James Houran, Managing Director at AETHOS Consulting Group

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Mike Tyson might have a new career as a philosopher. Indeed, his point about life being comprised of a long series of losses is not only insightful but also motivational. Tyson contends that a person’s drive and stamina to rise above loss is the defining mark of a winner. Martin Luther King, Jr. echoed this sentiment when he argued that “The ultimate measure of a person is not where they stand in moments of comfort and convenience, but where they stand at times of challenge and controversy.” Our long-standing psychometric studies back up this view. Specifically, high performers scored significantly higher on measures of resilience, adaptability, self-directedness, and personal accountability than those with poorer performance appraisals. At no point in our lifetime have these traits been so important.

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As the pandemic began to unfold, our consulting business was devastated as clients cancelled or delayed assignments. Hiring and organizational development were the last thing on people’s mind. It was about survival. It was a scary time for us and everyone we knew. Clients and friends kept asking, “what are you supposed to do?” We decided to start talking; to anyone willing to take our calls. We counselled others to do the same.

What we quickly found out is that other business leaders wanted to talk as well. No one had a 'playbook’ for COVID and it seemed like everyone wanted to bounce around ideas. We became a conduit between leaders in all facets of our business (lodging, restaurant, gaming, club, cruise, and travel technology). We even began a sharing group to help disseminate these ideas to others. We also started a Podcast to share some of their poignant stories of loss and perseverance. The two words that continued to be a theme amongst our discussions were RESILENCE and ADAPTIBILITY. In the wake of losing so much our industry has been so resilient and has adapted at incredible pace.

Re·sil·ience Noun 1. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties, toughness.

The lessons from our conversations focused on how quickly many of our clients reacted to the shutdown. Bill Walshe at Viceroy Hotels & Resorts described how their activated ideology and cultural roadmap gave him and his people the strength and purpose to carry on during the onset of the pandemic. The coordinated and random acts of kindness by his team were well-chronicled by the press. Arne Sorenson before his passing, told me that how quickly, compassionately, and openly Marriott dealt with difficult decisions would be his lasting legacy as the CEO of the company. He was so right.

Matt Maddox commented in an interview with Casino.org, that with Wynn’s operations in China, he knew that this was going to be a problem facing the US. He went on to say the company moved swiftly to hire medical experts and advisors to best ready the casino firm for life amid a pandemic. This allowed Wynn to develop the first plan in the industry. It was also a plan that he freely shared with others. Today, the company is in the process of creating “Wynn Lab” where employees and guests can get a COVID rapid test on site.

A·dapt·a·bil·i·ty Noun 1. The quality of being able to adjust to new conditions.

There are going to be hundreds of books written as post-mortems to the pandemic. Most will focus on how people and companies survived. The survivors will be the ones that showed how adaptable their people, processes and strategies were. Raul Leal at Virgin Hotels spoke to us about how their process improvement program allowed them to have a framework for making quick adjustments and adapting to the ever-changing events of the pandemic. It turns out that their discipline and rigor around processes was critical for building consensus quickly and effectively.

Danny Meyer, CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group quickly shut down his restaurants when the pandemic hit. He then quickly reopened when it was allowable and then sent a letter to customers and employees in November stating, “As of today, we have discontinued indoor and outdoor on-site dining at the small handful of our full-service restaurants that had been operating at 25% capacity (Union Square Cafe, Gramercy Tavern, and Blue Smoke, Battery Park City). Instead, we will focus exclusively on pickup, delivery, nationwide shipping, and virtual food and wine experiences—all of which you can find on our website. This will allow our teams to put 100% of their efforts into cooking amazing food that you can enjoy in the comfort and safety of your own home, whether picked up contact-free or delivered to you.”

Moving forward, perhaps the measure of strong leaders will be the choice to use their influence and power to turn episodes of significant loss into opportunities for themselves and the people around them. Think about what Tony Capuano needs to do as he takes over from Arne Sorenson at Marriott. How will he focus the world’s largest hotel company to become even greater? We doubt his plan is about just getting bigger, but rather about getting better. We suspect that the company will use its considerable influence to be more involved in government policy, social justice, and global travel strategy.

In some respects, the predictions of the death of New York City are no different. We believe that city leadership will need to quickly address the changing norms of city life post COVID. How will the exodus of talent and taxpayer dollars force the city to adapt and be a beacon of hope as it has been in the past? What will draw the next generation of leaders to the great cities of the world? It will be opportunity, advancement, and sustainability. The cities that get this right will be the big winners. Ultimately, we believe that post-pandemics leaders must ensure that their organizations stay intimately connected to a higher purpose and value system that reframes “loss, frustration, isolation, and adversity” as an opportunity to appreciate and model “gratitude, fortitude, humility, and service.”

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Keith Kefgen

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James Houran

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Keith Kefgen
Managing Director & CEO
Phone: +1 718 313 9149
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