Today’s Hotelier speaks with 40-year industry veteran Leon Larkin about what it takes to be a successful hotel GM and the brand-new organization created to support them.
by DAVID JONES
International Association of Hotel General Managers (IAHGM) president Leon Larkin hopes the new organization will assist general managers (GMs) around the world to get notoriety and perform better at their jobs. It’s what he considers developing tomorrow’s leaders in the field while helping to give back to a business he has grown to love.
Larkin’s extensive career, with over 40 years of experience as a GM in some of the world’s leading hotels in Europe, Asia and Australia, makes him a leading expert in how to identify, attract, retain and hire the best GM for the job.
He also understands and has strong views on the specific set of skills a hotel GM needs to be successful in their role. Larkin to shared his views, which are outlined as the eight to master and cultivate.
1. Know your strengths and weaknesses
First among the skills Larkin says it takes to make a successful GM is knowing your own strengths and weaknesses.
“This is not rocket science,” he said. “I think it’s a matter of their approach. Each GM needs to know their own strengths and weaknesses and to be honest with themselves. When you go into a GM’s job, don’t kid yourself. Know what your strengths are, know what your weaknesses are. Surround yourself with people who complement you. So if your marketing is in need, get a great marketing person. If your finances are weak, get a great finance person, and so on. Make sure you complement what you are good at and what you are not. Work on improving your weaknesses and honing your strengths. It’s very, very important to get the right results.”
2. Truly leading is key
Another area of expertise that helps highly-successful general managers excel is extraordinary leadership skills.
“Leadership is the absolute key,” Larkin said. “Lead from the front. If you want your staff to wear a name badge, you have to wear a name badge. If you want your staff to wear clean shoes, you have to wear clean shoes,” he said.
3. Manage by walking around
Larkin recalled a book written many years ago that succinctly summed up a third skill of a successful GM.
“There was a book written in the late ’70s, early ’80s called the One Minute Manager, where they teach you how to manage by walking around,” he said. “In the hotel business, you have to practice MBWA – management by walking around. Talk to guests. This is a business about the guest experience, and if the guest experience is outstanding, your profits will be, too. It’s like a snowball. There’s a direct connection between guest experience and profits. I spent a lot of years in Russia, and the Russians had a wonderful expression: If something was rotten, the fish always smelled from the head. Remember, the general manager is the last person in the management pyramid who actually talks to the person who pays all the salaries: the guest.”
4. Understand finances and how to manage expenses
Larkin said a successful GM must ensure everyone involved on the staff understands the financial climate they are in.
“The next thing is to make sure your team understands the financial situation at all times,” he said. “Everyone is responsible for their own financial discipline and managing their expenses. Share the hard reality, update them about goals and make sure you understand the importance of increasing profits and the value of the asset, which is paramount.”
“If you do those things you will be a good GM,” Larkin said.
5. Make common sense common
While the other traits are all critical for success, the biggest key to GM success is actually very simple.
“I think it’s common sense,” he said. “Managing is all about common sense and managing people. If you have common sense, you will be fine. You didn’t get the job because you didn’t have some attributes. You got the job because you had some proven qualities and proven values. All you have to do is understand what those values are then make sure your weaknesses are complemented with others’ strengths.”
6. It’s all about the proper fit
His formula for making the best hire includes another vital trait – make sure they’re the right fit.
“If you are an owner or an operator and you are looking for a GM, the first thing you have to do is sort of a SWOT analysis… know what your hotel is all about or what your product is,” Larkin said. “And then you need to ask, OK, what sort of GM do I need to cover all of those areas? We’ve got weaknesses, what are they? Know what your environment is. You’ve got to be environment-specific. What is needed? Is the challenge marketing, is it finance or is it a renovation? What am I looking for in a general manager? Make sure it fits.”
7. It’s not about the money
Larkin said GM hires can’t be “square pegs in round holes” nor should they be affected by worrying about saving costs.
“You’ve got to get the right fit, and this can’t be about money for the right GM,” he said. “You’re not going to save money by not hiring the best candidate because he wants more money. The right person is going to make you that ten-fold.”
“It’s like getting a coach of a football team,” he added. “Don’t go in if the team is going to lose. Make sure you are the right fit to make it work. From the candidate’s perspective, they need learn to say no sometimes and recognize when the opportunity is not right for them. For example, if they’ve have been a city hotel manager all their life, they may not have the right expertise to work in a resort without first gaining additional experience in that area.”
8. Get your point across with confidence
The No. 1 thing to think about when hiring or developing a successful GM?
“Being a general manager is very unique,” Larkin said. “Everybody knows how to do your job better than you. The owners know, the people at the head office know, the guests know, even your staff knows how to do it better than you. So you need to make sure you are the leader, that you understand what your goals are, what your financial responsibilities are, and how to communicate that to your team.” ■
David Jones is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer who resides in Florida with his wife.
A new industry voice for GMs around the globe
Australia native Leon Larkin spent two years behind the planning and organization of the International Association of Hotel General Managers (IAHGM) before it was officially introduced in late February 2016.
Membership is open to all hotel GMs, those who have previously served in the position, owner/operators, as well as retirees and aspiring young professionals on the career path to being a GM.
Doing what hasn’t been done before
“In the two years that I have taken setting this up, the vital question that people kept on asking was, ‘Why hasn’t this been done before?’” Larkin said from his headquarters in Dubai shortly after IAHGM was launched. “So there’s a lot at stake here. There will a lot of opportunity here, too, to develop in line with member feedback. There are things we haven’t even thought of, I am sure.”
Larkin is planning to spend much of his time traveling to promote IAHGM, including an initial trip to Berlin. His reasoning for investing so much time and effort?
“I want to leave a legacy,” Larkin said. “The industry has been good to me. I want to leave something that’s going to last a few hundred years, and this will do a lot of good. What it will do is it will help general managers improve their skills; employers will be happier because they are going to get a better, more rounded employee.”
GMs need more recognition
The importance and relevance of the new organization was obvious to him.
“No. 1 is recognition,” Larkin said. “General managers are responsible for the lives of hundreds of people a night, in some cases even more. You need recognition for that; it requires a certain skill set and there is not enough recognition [currently]given.’’
They need to be adequately prepared for the future
He also wants better preparation for general managers in the future.
“Today’s general manager, research shows, is going to work for six or seven different companies throughout their career – not one,” he said. “So they need portability in health care, pension planning, disability insurance, insurance, that sort of stuff. There has to be portability because if you work for company A and you leave that company for whatever reason, you lose your health insurance. Now that may not be a problem when you are young, but as you get older it becomes a real problem. And in my particular case, when I was retired, I didn’t have health insurance. And it’s very expensive to buy when you are in your 60s, I can assure you.
Career development at their fingertips
“The third thing is career development: learning, sharing best practices, networking, if you lose your job where do you go to find a new one? So we are setting up systems for that.’’
Provide a voice for GMs in the industry
Larkin wants IAHGM to serve another role.
“There needs to be an industry voice,” he said. “We don’t want to be a union. It’s not in our charter, we’re not going down that path, but we want to be a voice. We want members to have a say in the culture of our association, taking the organization in the direction the members want it to go. There has never been anything like this before on a global basis.”
Product and talent development
“[We want] to identify products that are needed in the industry and set up task forces to develop these products [and]help young hoteliers with scholarships and mentoring,” he said. “I think this is vital if our industry is going to continue to grow. Young people are the future.”
Gathering the best of the best
An all-star committee of governors, comprised of some of the most experienced hoteliers in the world over the past several decades, have come on board to offer their talents. “Every one of these people absolutely did not hesitate [to join the effort],” Larkin said.
Retired members will play an important role as well. “There is a group of general managers out there who are retired, and we want to use their experience in mentoring, setting up business opportunities in advisory committees and so on.”
A first World Congress is being planned near the end of 2016 with the topic of hotel security leading the agenda with lectures on terrorism, cyber security and, Larkin said, “all sorts of stuff that general managers 15 years ago, 20 years ago, didn’t have to worry about.’’
The new organization will be taxing on his time and energy, but he’s prepared for it.
“I’m passionate about it,” Larkin said. “It’s an overused cliché, perhaps, but I really am. I loved being a general manager, and I want to give something back and leave a legacy, and if there is a way to do it, this is it.”
To learn more, visit www.hotelgms.com.