“Talent” in the Hospitality World

Originally, I had set out to write a short, inspirational manifesto about the nature of innate talent versus the merits of hard work. But as more and more evidence mounted, I realized that there is a lot more behind the word ‘talent’, especially when applied to the hospitality industry. Even though the simple conclusion, in a strict business sense, is that hard work and dedication to one’s job will always trump talent, the real answer is mired in gray.

For starters, how would you describe a ‘talented hotelier’? Does this modifier imply the same attributes when compared to that of a talented athlete or a talented entertainer? Can the term even be applied to the world of hotel operations and management? If you’ll have me, let’s take a closer look at some of the lurking qualities of talent to see if perhaps there is more we can do to foster the talented hoteliers among us and improve our own skills to the point where we too might be labeled as ‘talented’.

Destined for Hospitality

When trying to decode the hidden contributors to talent, it’s inevitable that one delve into the lives of many disparate and prolific personalities from the annals of history. A common thread you might find through various accounts, biographies and memoirs is that a person is described as ‘destined for’ a certain profession where they would later flourish. This implies that, rather than being a tabula rasa, an individual can somehow be preternaturally earmarked for a given occupation from birth. Whatever your beliefs in the existence of fate and divine machinations, there is conclusive evidence showing that to be ‘destined for’ something – and thus to be talented in that something later on in life – arises from environmental influences in our early childhoods.

A classic example: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. In retrospect, it’s easy to say he was destined to be music talent incarnate, writing his first digestible composition by age six before crafting dozens of masterpieces throughout his teens and early adulthood. Alas, though, this is a naïve conception of the man.

To understand Mozart, we must also know his father, Leopold. As a work-from-home composer and teacher, Leopold was skilled in both music and mentorship – two insurmountable gifts to a child’s sponge-like mind. With Leopold as a resident musician, a day in the life of infant Mozart would be one brimming with melody, so much so that Mozart’s brain would learn music’s structure and rhythm intrinsically similarly to how we learn our first language. Aside from mere noise, the walls of Mozart’s domicile would also pulse with Leopold’s own insatiable enthusiasm for orchestral oeuvre – a passion that rubbed off on his offspring. Lastly, as an experienced teacher, Leopold would know how best to train his soon-to-be-prodigal son, having wrought out the kinks in his instructional approach over the years of tutoring other children.

Although this is a good narrative to open the discussion on early childhood influences, it’s a bit too tidy. Until very recently, music was a niche study and an even more niche profession. Plus, inheriting the profession of one’s parent is not anywhere near a stretch of the imagination. So, what about the rest of us, the 98% who don’t follow in the immediate footsteps of our parents or those who pursue an esoteric artistic enterprise?

A fond personal memory that I often recall is my first job, which happened to be at a hotel when I was a teenager living in 1960s Montreal. Although my career path was far more serpentine in its direction back to the hospitality industry – first completing an undergraduate degree in engineering followed by an MBA specializing in marketing – the peculiarities of how hotels functioned was always on the back of my mind.

That’s my story in a nutshell. What’s yours? Do you have any early memories which may have steered you towards hospitality? How did your parents help shape your future path as a hotelier? Perhaps they raised you to be a loving, caring person and now you want others to share in that experience. Or maybe you were immersed into a highly social atmosphere from a young age and it’s what you are naturally best suited for as an adult. And if you can’t recall any juvenile exposure to our industry, where do you draw your motivation to keep going (outside of monetary incentives)? Moreover, how will you compensate for this lack of early experience?

A Quick Note on Genetics

When you contemplate childhood influences with regard to one’s eventual career path as an adult, you must also consider one’s genetic makeup as I previously alluded to. This would be a much easier examination if we were to stick solely to occupations that are more dependent on physical abilities like sports, modeling and acting. Alas, our game is not one of brawn, but of brains, pleasantries and smiles. This doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t briefly learn from a few select athletes who’ve won out against their supposed innate abilities.

Take Nate Robinson for instance. In the game of basketball where height reigns supreme, this contemporary player, who stands at 5’9” (175cm), also happens to quite ironically be the NBA’s only three-time Slam Dunk Contest champion. However superior the genes are for the musculature in his legs, he undoubtedly had to fight endless naysayers – those who would constantly tell him to give up on his dream because he was too short – during his teenage ascension to the rank of a ‘talented’ player.

Exceptions can’t prove the rule, yet on the other hand, does extraordinary height guarantee you a spot in the NBA? Hardly. But the example of Nate Robinson does reveal one other critical aspect about talent. Raw genetics are merely a starting point. The rest has to come from a continued drive to rise above the challenge. If all a person has is good genes and no internal motivation then they probably won’t amount to much.

That stimulus might come from an early childhood experience or an aspiration to follow in the footsteps of one’s role model. As Thomas Edison used to remark, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Whatever the impetus, as stated in the introduction, greatness – and talent for that matter – will stem from hard work.

10,000 Hours

Touching back on innate physical abilities, I might have been a tad rash to include acting on that list. For when you consider what it takes to make it as an actor, good looks and chiseled features may get you through the audition door, but the rest of the ‘talent juice’ comes from dedication to one’s craft as well as unbridled luck. For every Julia Roberts, there are a thousand gorgeous gals lacking the chops to fully bring a character to life and enthrall an audience. In this way, preordained ‘talent’ in these brawn-dominant trades is an illusion masking a very tough grind.

What we are alluding to here is, of course, the ‘10,000-Hour Rule’ which has had a resurgence of late after it was examined in Malcolm Gladwell’s third book Outliers. Basically, in order to become an expert at any given skill, one must devote 10,000 hours of practice to this task. If you put the average workweek at 40 hours total, with a little arithmetic this means that it will comprise of roughly five years of learning time.

I wish it were that simple, though. The 10,000-Hour Rule may make for a catchy buzz term, but it only scratches the surface for the realities of how a hotelier goes about earning his or her stripes. When discussing the realm of hospitality skills, perhaps talent isn’t the right word to use so much as proficiency – best not to confuse the two. Talent, as we define it, is a perceived sum of instinctive abilities whereas proficiency more directly implies the laborious accrual of a skill set. Being a talented hotelier entails a natural understanding of multiple disciplines whereas proficiency denotes a commitment to mastering one particular area of expertise.

And this is why the 10,000-Hour Rule fails to grasp the complexities of our industry. Hospitality does not involve a single dominant skill but a cluster of abilities – some overlapping, others mutually exclusive. Some are so rudimentary – conviviality, politeness and attentiveness for example – that they generally aren’t taught outright within an office environment. Rather, they are acquired during one’s adolescent years and only reinforced by daily adult work policies. What’s introduced later on are the financial best practices, the marketing theories, the operations wherewithal and the inventory management capabilities – all the ‘textbook’ skills.

Learn By Doing

Key to reaching the upper echelons of hotel proficiency is to learn by doing rather than by reading and observing. You have to get your hands dirty; tacit, on-the-job experience requires you to think quickly and make actual decisions, two cerebral activities that are especially taxing on energy levels. But given enough repeated exposure, the brain will adapt to these parameters and learn to complete tasks without draining all the brain’s sugar. This means that the end goal of proficiency is to perform a specific action without recruiting higher conscious regions of the mind – to act without thinking.

When I was working at Procter & Gamble in the brand (marketing) department, one of the primary tasks was to analyze the bimonthly market share reports from AC Nielsen. In those days, the reports came in brown, three-ring binders, chockfull of data sorted into tabs by product type, class, state and numerous other fields. My first report took almost two full months to complete as I was tutored by my manager on the best ways to analyze and translate this data into a meaningful statement. For the next few years, by continuously repeating these analyses on different products I was able to get the turnaround time for a report down to an hour or two, not to mention a better analysis at that!

My own personal experience helps to demonstrate that the 10,000 hours concept is not a binary switch of a pursuit. When you are tactilely involved in a task, you will see incremental improvements as you progress towards mastery. At first it took me two months to finish a report, then one week, then one day and finally less than two hours. Learning by doing also compels you into constant self-analysis of your own performance, making growth almost totally inevitable.

Cross-Compatibility

Further convoluting this 10,000 hours model is the cross-compatibility of ostensibly disparate tasks. For instance, one hour spent working in an advertising office may translate one-to-one with marketing proficiency, but, depending on the nature of the work in that time, it might also confer a tenth of an hour towards accounting or guest services expertise.

Furthermore, studying a textbook makes you better at processing the meaning of those words into knowledge as well as reading words off a page in general; studying makes you better at studying in addition to helping you acquire a valuable skill. The point here is that there are many paths that can impart you with 10,000 hours worth of experience and often seemingly unrelated activities may contribute substantially towards a long-term goal.

To end off with a little self-reflection, think about what you do outside of the nine-to-five to perfect your hotel talents and get you your 10,000 hours. Do you visit other hotels and inspect their operations? Do you read hospitality publications and op-ed articles? Do you discuss work issues with colleagues or friends while out at dinner or over the weekend?

Tweaking and Intuition

Through the consistent repetition of a task, you will build towards the ideal of acting without thinking. Some might say that this recurrence leads to stagnation, but I argue that it is a vital component of mastery. To relate back to musicians, the constant practicing of basic note scales or chord progressions is what frees the mind to think not about forming each sound and to focus on melody, improvisation and the song as a whole.

By not using valuable energy stores during the completion of quotidian jobs (as you would when in the gestation phase of learning a skill), you free your brain for more conceptual thought patterns and scrutiny of the tasks at hand. These intricate ideas are what will allow you to conjure up new and profound ideas that will propel your business forward. Only through repetition can you know a task or product intimately and know where it needs improvement – the buzz word I use to describe this iterative process is ‘tweaking’. Working in a hotel, you might find yourself tweaking your appearance, the way you approach guests or even your own smile. In fact, the only thing you probably can’t tweak is your own internal drive.

To paraphrase a common adage: you must learn the rules in order to break them. And my advice for anyone buried under the tedium of boring paperwork is to hang in there. If it’s related to your end goal, then it will benefit you in the long run.

Equally as important, countless sunken hours transfer the skills to your subconscious neurology, building for you a solid, and very often correct, gut reaction. Being proficient means you can intuit what a novel situation will need within a second of its presentation. So, for those who have developed their gut, know that it’s based on years of exposure to similar circumstances. But also be wary as learning skills incorrectly will fill your gut with bad microflora, leading you off in an unwanted direction. Nowadays, speaking from our gut is often met with disdain in the boardroom, but with all that’s been stated above, it’s worth listening with an open mind.

There’s a fun anecdote worth sharing at this point. A mechanic is called in to look at a home’s malfunctioning boiler. The repairman examines the machine, takes out a hammer and hits a valve. The boiler now works perfectly again. The final bill: $2,025. Clearly, the owner of the house is upset at the bill. Why so much? The response: $25 to tap the boiler, $2,000 to know where to hit it. As a hotelier, you should know what areas of expertise or what skills you possess which will earn you that extra $2,000.

Flashes of Genius

Much like the formation of one’s power of intuition, flashes of genius are a component of talent with a lot of misconceptions. By using the word ‘flash’, it’s implied that brilliant ideas are formed within a second from putative nothingness. This is wrong.

These eureka moments are best thought of as static discharges. You see the lightning bolt – the end result – but you don’t account for the endless friction of trillions of molecules in the clouds rubbing against one another and shedding their electrons. You end up missing the gradual charge, which in the case of a flash of genius is the 10,000 hours of prior exposure along with any other corroborating thoughts. As a fairly ironic example, consider Isaac Newton. He may have had his eureka moment when the apple hit his head, but the profound scientific breakthrough about the laws of gravitation were more the result of years of previous deliberation and debate. Whether the fruit incident was real or lore, it doesn’t matter; he worked hard and eventually the discovery came.

Conclusion

You may consider this to be an exhaustive puff piece to galvanize your faith in hard work. And in a lot of ways it is. Hopefully, though, when you factor in the benefits that may result from the long, grueling process of accruing hours committed – such as intuition and increased odds of having a eureka moment – you’ll see that it is definitely worth the struggle. So, would you consider yourself to be a talented hotelier? What’s stopping you? And lastly, what are you going to do so others will call you talented within the next five years?

(Published by Larry Mogelonsky in Hotel Executive May 20, 2013)


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