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Mediocrity detrimental to leadership success
January 18 2013

Leaders who accept the status quo are detrimental to improving the hotel industry.

  • Mediocrity within a hotel organization leads to lower profits and maintaining the status quo.
  • The question is whether or not your organization is meeting the leader’s hierarchy of needs.
  • A leader who is consistently engaged and looking for ways to create innovative solutions has the potential to innovate and challenge mediocrity.
By Adam Zembruski
HNN columnist

Thousands of people have written thousands of reports on why people leave organizations. And some of those reports have made the hospitality industry infamous for having high employee turnover.  I’ve worked at every level of hotels and food service, starting my career as a hotel front-desk clerk. I’ve had excellent bosses (5%), and I’ve had horrible bosses (5%). But most were just mediocre (90%). The hotel industry at the GM and high-ranking property levels are full of people in leadership positions that are safe, secure and would rather get their finger nails pulled out one by one than to speak up in the boardroom. Mediocrity suffocates ideas and progress.

I am convinced the No. 1 driver to sustained hotel profitability is long-term, sustained leadership at the property and above-property levels, which leads to higher profits. The No. 1 driver of high turnover is the commoditization of today’s hotel leader. Why focus on the job satisfaction of a leader when you can just find a replacement when that person leaves?

The problem is not a lack of talent; it’s the acceptance of mediocrity. The status quo is not going to improve our industry. For example, hotel executives are saying the biggest hotel industry challenges of 2013 are distribution, online reviews, mobile technology, brand/franchising rising costs, guest WiFi, international travel (or lack thereof), etc. The concerns are valid, but they are all the same. None expose what is right under their nose. When will a hotel CEO state that the No. 1 challenge in 2013 is to eliminate mediocrity from the organization?

So, what’s the problem and how do we remedy it? It’s an easier fix than you might think.

Hotel corporate office leadership cannot directly control the turnover percentage of the housekeeping department at one of the company’s largest resorts. However, the GM does directly affect that percentage. If the GM was a good hire, then the chain of leadership and the culture of the company needs to exist to support the hotel’s performance. If that’s true, then the regional director of operations should be focused on the treatment of the GM, ensuring effective, sustainable leadership is enjoyed at the hotel level. What about the VP of the hotel or that person’s boss, the executive VP or president? The plan should be the same: Keep the superstars and eliminate mediocrity. The key is recognizing this core issue. A word of caution: A perceived mediocre leader today might be the superstar of tomorrow. Once the door is open for that person to shine, it’s like taking the cap off of a shaken up bottle of soda.

The question is whether or not your organization is meeting the leader’s hierarchy of needs, which based on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, as described in his 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.”

So, where does your organization stand today? Most organizations with mediocre leaders meet the bottom two needs, physiological and safety. Give them a paycheck, an action plan and a two-week severance if something goes wrong and their basic needs are met. The hard work is meeting and exceeding the needs that go beyond the basic. Does your organization make your leaders feel important, respected, loved? Do you inspire creativity and innovation? Do they feel like they are among people who care about them?

In order to find out, you will need to take the temperature of your organization and discover how your leaders feel about working for your company.

Most organizations complete a 360-degree review at least once a year. This is an example of a mediocre solution. In speaking with numerous hotel corporate leaders and GMs over the last couple months, they even call it a waste of time.

Instead, try this technique. Ask your leaders or GMs to answer five questions. The wording of the questions is important because they should inspire honesty and openness. For example:

  1. How many times last year did your immediate boss recognize you in front of others? Explain each occurrence, up to five occurrences.
    This first question exposes the recognition levels in your organization. Recognition builds self esteem, which builds confidence, respect among fellow employees and community recognition.
  2. How many times last year did your immediate boss have a scheduled one-on-one meeting to discuss your goals and plans for the following months (not including budget sessions)? Explain each occurrence, up to five occurrences.
    An investment in time with your leaders makes them feel wanted, appreciated and safe, which is the second of the hierarchy of needs. A leader who feels safe in their position will start to challenge the mediocre, share their passions and push the envelope. This feeling has the potential to extend throughout the organization.
  3. How many times last year did your boss discuss getting you more education and training? If so, explain and what was the result?
    A company that invests in furthering the education of a leader sends a clear message that they value you, resulting in a leader feeling safe and secure in his or her role. Encouraging leaders to reinforce their education by training others on what they learned is even better.
  4. How many times last year were you invited to join a meeting at the home office (not including budget sessions)?
    This question is about the feeling of belonging. The legal team may not like to use the word love, but that’s what this is about. It’s extremely difficult if these leaders look at the corporate office like the Death Star. The benefits also extends to getting your leaders out of the field and engaged with the CEO, president and others they don’t see on a regular basis.
  5. How many times last year were you asked to create a solution for a company-wide problem? Explain each occurrence, up to five occurrences. This question discusses the possibility of reaching the highest in the hierarchy of needs, self actualization. A leader who is consistently engaged and looking for ways to create innovative solutions has the potential to innovate and challenge mediocrity. People like this within your organization are often described as a person who is difficult to manage. They may be difficult because they are a shaken up bottle of soda, ready to burst. These leaders have the potential to make a serious and positive impact to your organization and could turn out to be your true superstars.

Create a metric that analyzes the results and take action on creating solutions for the results that are driving mediocrity in your organization and the people that facilitate it.

Also, cash bonuses feed the motivational need for leaders to be recognized, therefore building self esteem. Because the bonuses are not just about the cash, it’s important to remember that even the smallest amount of recognition is important to people. For example, the leader that came very close to earning a $5,000 bonus could be given a handwritten letter from the CEO along with another small token of appreciation.

Lastly, don’t ignore your superstars. Mediocre leaders believe their time is best used dealing with other mediocre leaders. This is the vicious circle to avoid at all costs.

Good luck and have fun!

Adam Zembruski is the president of Pharos Hospitality, a Charlotte, NC-based hotel investment platform explicitly designed to acquire, own and operate franchised upscale select service hotels. Adam oversees all operating entities at Pharos, including Property Assessments and Takeover, Sales and Marketing, Revenue Management, Human Resources and Culture Development, System Implementation, Financial Analysis, and Talent/Performance Tracking. Adam can be reached at 704-333-1818, ext. 12, or via email at

The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of or its parent company, STR and its affiliated companies. Columnists published on this site are given the freedom to express views that may be controversial, but our goal is to provoke thought and constructive discussion within our reader community. Please feel free to comment or contact an editor with any questions or concerns.


Adam Zembruski
2/10/2013 7:06:00 AM
@Burned..Also, in my earlier response I didn't make clear....What happened and is happening to your husband is exactly what is wrong with the hotel industry today. The change must come from the top and is the reason I wrote the article- to expose the increasing percentage of weak leadership that exists at the top today. Not all fit this mold but it has gotten worse over the past 10 years or so. Hotels are operating businesses but the real estate transactional-minded deal makers leading the industry need to evolve or move aside because their ways are becoming toxic and it's only a matter of time until we take the industry back. Again, contact me please. We can make a difference. Adam Zembruski
Adam Zembruski
2/10/2013 5:54:00 AM
@Burned. Please email me. I would love to speak to you or your husband. I have not left operations. My job will always be to affect positive change at the property level and maybe we can help each other.
2/2/2013 9:35:00 AM
As someone whose family has been burned multiple times by the inherent "commoditization of today's hotel leader", I wish the answer was as simple as you make it. After delivering results, improving metrics and profitability at every hotel he's been at, my husband has been on the receiving end of layoffs resulting from the flipping of hotels and new owners and/or management companies coming in. This has happened 5-6 times at least in the last decade at incredible toll to our family. He is promised much during the interview process: growth, advancement, opportunity.. Want reality? Just look on LinkedIn at the executive committee level team members at the property level look at many of their tenures many are just 18-24 months. What you don't see behind that picture are the families left with no severance, no "2 weeks in lieu", pricey COBRA payments... It is a sad state and I have come to advise anyone who has dreams of entering the hospitality industry to run away from those dreams asap. It's bad enough that property level management works 6-7 days a week no work/life balance but then throw in the uncertainty, the inability to plan much or, if you plan things, the need to continually put those plans on hold. Not easy to do when you have children who are young and don't understand. If you're in operations, you are merely expendable. You are a commodity. It doesn't matter how good you are no one is immune. You are fortunate you got out of operations. My husband would love to have a regional or corporate role, or get into asset management, but he isn't in one place long enough to either get the mentoring (ie, internal "rabbi") that can foster that, and as you're well aware, those regional and/or corporate roles are few and far between. I am happy you have found your niche and can now advise others. But for vast majority caught in the cross-hairs of commoditization, there are many sleepless nights.
1/19/2013 9:39:00 AM
Mediocrity begets mediocrity, where as virtuous leadership inspires,challenges and raises the bar. Total commitment to fostering nothing but sustained excellence across the board throughout the enterprise and a level of zero tolerance is a critical essentiality to preventing the decay due to mediocrity. True leadership demands highest level of Organisational performance. Every leader must be prepared to pay the price for success irrespective of whatever form it takes.
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