Letting our moral compass lead the way

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How leaders can foster a culture of integrity and operate as shining examples in their organizations.

by ASHISH MODAK

An article was published by Harvard Business Review on integrity and ethics in an organizational context, which looked at two main reasons for integrity always being at crossroads in an organization. These were:

  1. The human habit to rationalize all actions; and
  2. Subjective definitions of the term ‘integrity.’

I found the article insightful for many reasons and have since spent some time thinking about this very subject. Let’s begin with first understanding the definition prescribed by Cambridge University: “Integrity is the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles that you refuse to change.”

Where do we go wrong?

From childhood, one is taught the importance of ethics and integrity. From the very beginning, parents want their children to follow moral practices, and many stories over the centuries have been crafted, told and retold about this very value. So, why is integrity such a difficult trait? If one has to believe that everyone understands the value of integrity, where does an individual, and, consequently, in a larger context, an organization go wrong?

Several questions come to light with this connection. What does integrity mean in an organizational context? Nearly every organization proudly proclaims integrity as one of its core values. And rightfully so – it needs to. No organization would ever want to be considered as one where compromising on ethics and integrity is acceptable. Large numbers of training hours are devoted and various new positions created to safeguard this important value. In such a case, where does it all start going wrong?

Recently, the actions of a leading automobile brand, Volkswagen, were on center stage, and questions have been raised about the actions taken – or not taken – by the then CEO of the company, Martin Winterkorn. Volkswagen has been accused of using deceptive software to deceive regulators into believing its diesel cars were compliant with emission regulations. What were the reasons for a reputed brand like VW to compromise on its principles of ethics and integrity?

Closer to home in the hospitality industry, Reto Wittwer, former CEO of the famous hotel group Kempinski, was obliged to retire, and legal actions have been initiated by the company against him for fraudulent practices. He is alleged to have channeled funds out of the company, with fraudulent intent and avoiding all internal controls, even during periods when Kempinski was obliged to make budget cuts and make drastic savings on labor costs.

Fostering integrity in your hotel’s culture

On a daily basis while working in hotels one sees and comes across several examples of integrity and, at times, lack of integrity. How does a hotel unit foster a culture that remains binding on all team members? For a hotel to be successful, the human resources manager has to establish whether the new employee’s personal values and goals are aligned with the organizational values and vision. The recruitment and the immediate orientation upon joining are key stages in this case; interviews need to focus on personal values and ambitions of the interviewee, orientation and onboarding programs need to strongly focus on the hotel’s values, vision and mission, and mentors need to spend time with the new hires, ensuring personal and organizational goals are aligned.

Oscar Wilde famously said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” So what does this mean? As many shall agree, in our business, temptations at all stages are aplenty, and falling for or not getting tempted by these are dependent on personal values and beliefs. Simply put, hotels need to develop regular and powerful training programs to reinforce the importance of adherence to all organizational values, with a special focus on integrity and ethics. This, however, still remains a theoretical approach – preaching brings in results but only to a limited extent.

Recognizing team members

At my resort, we found a simple and effective way to ensure the team understands and lives by the value of integrity. We spend a day a week where we focus on the importance of integrity in a very practical way.

We start the day by identifying team members who displayed the value of integrity in the previous week’s work. Integrity here is assuming the larger meaning and not just returning guests’ lost and found items. We celebrate team members who have displayed exemplary acts of integrity by featuring their photographs along with a description of their honorable act in prominent places around the property.

As the general manager, I make it a point to speak with these team members and personally thank them for exemplifying integrity and for being role models for the entire resort team. At the end of every month, one team member becomes the Team Member of the Month, which has started paying rich dividends. In every human being intrinsically lies a desire to be recognized. Team members from various departments at the resort strive for recognition, and to see that their names have been shared with the entire team for their responsible behavior brings about a sea change – not only in the individual, but the entire team.

I have team members who now regularly bring up issues and actions of the team that they feel strongly support or contradict the hotel’s values. This means spending time listening and understanding the concerns shared, assuring actions are taken where necessary. But this also means a more meaningful interaction with the team, resulting in better bonding between management and staff, and between various departments as well.

Improving and creating a trusting culture

Equally important, this results in a better customer experience at the hotel. The guests see the genuinity of the team in their actions and behavior. The positivity brought in the atmosphere is palpable, and a specific desirable pattern is developed. I have had several compliments from guests over the years about the positive energy we have created as a team. This comes through as a result of trust we have in each other; trust in each other is a direct derivative of a trusting culture, which is a culmination of continual actions.

What we preach needs to be converted into visible actions at all levels, examples need to be set, real stories need to be shared, and heroes and their acts need to be celebrated. As they say, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day,’ and the same concept prevails in developing a culture of trust and integrity.

With all the above in place, it does not mean integrity will not be compromised and trust will not be broken. This is the beauty of human nature. We, of course, have to be prepared for this, and strong and immediate actions against anyone breaking the value of integrity need to be in place.

I have been a firm believer that while cameras, security checks and strong control systems have an important role to play in having people desist from making the wrong decisions, that it is very often the combination of these control systems and a focus on people’s positive behavior – including celebrating them – that brings in lasting results.

Setting the right example and tone

It is often said that children practice what they see at home. Similarly, at work, employees follow their leaders. Team leaders have to be continually presenting themselves as true ambassadors of ethics and integrity by practicing and demonstrating this value through their actions, day in and day out. Leaders have to understand that they are being watched and followed, and their beliefs shape the culture in the organization.

As a leader, I always believed in asking myself a particular question: “Am I setting a right example with this action?”

The examples of leaders at the automobile company and hotel chain should serve as a reminder for all young and aspiring leaders. After all, the word Integrity begins with an I. ■

Ashish Modak is the general manager of LUX* Belle Mare based in Mauritius. Modak has 20 years in operational excellence of food and beverage, rooms division and allied areas in some of the finest hotels in Asia, Europe, Middle East and Africa including experience in pre-openings and complete refurbishments of hotels with reputed hotel chains such as Taj Hotels and Six Senses Resorts.

Have an interesting perspective on business that you’d like to share? Write to our editor at todayshotelier@naylor.com.

Wisdom in integrity and ethics

“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
— Abraham Lincoln 16th President of the United States

“As a leader, you have to not only do the right thing, but be perceived to be doing the right thing. A consequence of seeking a leadership position is being put under intense public scrutiny, being held to high standards, and enhancing a reputation that is constantly under threat.”
               — Jeffrey Sonnenfeld and Andrew Ward, authors, “Firing Back”

“There are seven things that will destroy us: Wealth without work; Pleasure without conscience; Knowledge without character; Religion without sacrifice; Politics without principle; Science without humanity; Business without ethics.”
               — Mahatma Gandhi, Asian Leader

“Your reputation and integrity are everything. Follow through on what you say you’re going to do. Your credibility can only be built over time, and it is built from the history of your words and actions.”
               — Maria Razumich-Zec, General Manager at Peninsula Chicago

“In looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. And if they don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.”
               — Warren Buffet, American business magnate, investor and philanthropist

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