By Dr. Geoff Smart (ghSMART) and Nick Stoyer (Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts)
Today, I watched over 100 of my colleagues crying.
Their. Eyes. Out.
The reason was that Nick Stoyer, Learning and Development Leader at Four Seasons Resort Orlando, was revealing some secrets to world class service.
And his stories were so compelling, so powerful, that many of us were overwhelmed with emotion. Nick was generous enough to stop a ghSMART summit to share some secrets to success. And he and his firm agreed to allow us to share them with you.
How does the Four Seasons deliver world-class service across the globe?
That was the central question. Below are some excerpts from the conversation. I hope you find the insights as powerful and as useful as we did.
Geoff: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts is known as the gold standard for service worldwide. It has achieved more Forbes Five Star ratings than any other hotel and resort brand in the world, among a long list of “best of” awards. The experience is unique. And it’s consistently awesome. Any company in any industry can benefit from learning from your example. The question is HOW DO YOU DO THAT?”
Nick: Long before it was fashionable for CEOs to talk about doing good in the world, and treating “stakeholders” (also known as “people”) well, Four Seasons has been practicing the Golden Rule—to treat others as you wish to be treated. Our Founder Issy Sharp, son of Polish immigrants, started Four Seasons in 1961 in Toronto. It seemed to him that if you wanted to build the best hospitality company in the world, you had to treat your colleagues and guests the best.
Geoff: Easier said than done.
Geoff: So is it all about defining metrics and meticulously measuring your employees and holding people accountable, as so many companies do?
Geoff: What do you mean, no? That’s management 101, right?
Nick: Yes. Maybe. But we have a different approach.
Geoff: What’s that?
Nick: For us it’s all about the people we hire, the way we develop them, and the culture we build together. That’s what we focus on, in order to give our guests the best possible experience. One of our guests said that she defines luxury as “the absence of worry.” Think about that. We thought it was brilliant and we rolled it out as our definition of luxury. So, we need to hire the best people, develop them, and give them a culture of support (alleviating them of worry as a team member), so they can do their best to free our guests from worry.
Geoff: OK say more about the hiring piece.
Nick: Yes, the “who.” Very important. Bottom line is we go to great lengths to hire people who we believe will take great care of each other and our guests, even if we gave them no instruction at all. People who can really put themselves in other’s shoes. We don’t want to create robots who follow a script. We want to hire genuinely caring and competent team members who know how to connect with people. Unscripted care is the goal.
Geoff: So did you come out of some fancy school or hospitality company yourself?
Nick: No, I was a teacher, worked with non-profits, and then joined a local start-up. And to supplement my income, I got a job working for the golf course at Four Seasons. Funny story—well it wasn’t so funny at the time. On my first day, I drove a watering tractor, a newly leased $40,000 machine, literally off a hill and it landed in a sand bunker. It was a complete disaster as it was damaged and immovable. I walked the two miles back to the office and told my boss that I needed to leave. He asked why and I admitted I had wrecked the tractor and I expected him to fire me on the spot. But an amazing thing happened. My boss said, “Nick, I’m so sorry, that was my fault. It’s on me to get you the training you need to be successful, so how about you take the rest of the day off, get some rest tonight, and I’ll see you here tomorrow morning.” At that moment, I knew I wanted to spend the rest of my career at this company.
Geoff: You sounded like a horrible employee! Just joking.
Nick: Ha, yes that first day was rough. But they saw something in me. And that was over 5 years ago and today I get to train and develop our staff, leaders, and contribute to developing learning for the brand.
Geoff: What about training? Don’t you give them long manuals to follow?
Nick: No. Funny story. I was asked by our executive leadership what my ideal job would be. I wrote down all the ways I really thought I could add value to the Resort and gave it to them. After listening and asking clarifying questions for a half hour, they said “Well, THAT is what we want you to do here.” I have my dream job and I pinch myself that I get to do this work every day. As I was on-boarded into the role, the Head of HR said, I want you to read this manual as it pertains to legal codes and requirements in HR. I stared at it–overwhelmed by the sheer density of the material. After about a minute, he said, “Now, Stop. What we really want is for you to take care of people the way you know how and do what is right for them.” Then he took the manual and he dumped it into the garbage can with a loud CRASH! I couldn’t believe it.
Geoff: So if it’s not with manuals, how do you develop people?
Nick: We have some formal training, about 10% of the time. But most of it is on the job. Like this one gentleman who works for us in Las Vegas–he gets a lot of support and feedback from his senior managers—is there anything you need, how are you, how can we help? In contrast, he also works at one of our competitors. He said that at his other job, the senior managers come around with evaluation cards and rate him based on what he is doing. He said, “They mostly are there to tell me what I’m doing wrong.” But at Four Seasons, he feels like he is free to experiment and try things and be himself as he interacts with guests.
Geoff: So there is good feedback it sounds like.
Nick: Yes, another example is in call centers. The person sitting next to you, taking a reservation, might lean over and say, “Hey I heard you having a hard time on that last call. Maybe try X, Y, or Z—those tend to work for me.”
Geoff: Sounds like people at your firm view it as their role to help their colleagues get better.
Nick: They really do. We all want each other to be successful not just in our work life, but in our whole life. That’s the attitude. I remember one of my leaders once said that we don’t do work-life balance. We do work-life integration.
Geoff: What’s that mean?
Nick: It means we want people to be their “full self” at work and to have a great home life too. We don’t want people to feel like they have to wear a mask to work—to be somebody they are not. Who you are is who you should be all the time–your authentic self. It’s not healthy to live otherwise. So, we ask how can we help you be the best version of yourself? How can we make the world a better place together? The attitude around developing people is that we believe in you. You are enough. You are enough exactly as you are. And yes we’ll give you some tools and tips and have conversations to help you learn and grow. We’ll make investments in people’s lives without being too invasive or too Big-Brother-ish because we believe in you. We want you to have an amazing life, not just an amazing career. Humanity’s goal in work should be to leave the world and those in it, better than when we came into it. You can use your people to build profits or you can use your profits to build people–we want to be in the people-building business.
Geoff: Beyond developing and coaching people, what’s the culture like at Four Seasons?
Nick: It’s very positive. Even in failure. We have this saying “You either win, or you learn something.” Everything we do we try to make it as fun and engaging as it can be. We innovate. Constantly. We are building micro-videos of best practices. We constantly huddle and talk about if a guest or a colleague needs something special. That’s the culture. It’s one of overwhelming support and encouragement. This permits our folks to really focus on the guests, observe what they need, and take action.
Geoff: What does that look like in practice?
Nick: It’s about paying attention to the smallest details. There was one front desk agent that was checking in a family at Four Seasons Orlando. A dad, mom, and two kids ages like 6 (daughter) and 10 (son). The front desk person overheard the little girl talking excitedly about how her dad’s birthday was coming up. So, my colleague looked at the driver’s license of the man checking in and noted that his birthday was in two days. Two more families checked in who were connected with this family—turns their children were the daughter and the son’s best friends. My colleagues checked in the families and put in a special request for a birthday cake to be prepared for their special day. Our restaurant manager, once the family and their guests finished dinner, radioed up to our dining team to deliver the birthday cake to the family in the main room. We do that sort of thing all the time. What surprised us was the impact it had in this case. The next day, the father was walking briskly towards the front desk in his socks. It was 6am. That’s never a really good sign for us in the hospitality business. But what the father said was, “Are you the person who checked us in?” “Yes, is everything OK?” my colleague answered. The father continued, “I just want you to know how special that was that you sent the cake up. I was just starting to have a very difficult conversation with my family and our guests. I had to tell them that I have a terminal illness. As it turns out, I will not be celebrating my next birthday.”
Geoff: Oh my gosh. What happened next?
Nick: The father said that he invited his family and his kids’ best friends and their families to the happiest place on earth—Disney World—to tell them the hardest news a parent can tell a child. And the father said that the extra special touch of the birthday cake really made the moment special and meaningful and that it meant the world to him.
Geoff: Wow, Nick, that’s a really amazing story. And it all came from having great colleagues, who were highly skilled and caring, supported by your special culture, taking action to make someone’s life better. Thank you so very much for sharing your secrets to success, and for allowing us to share them with the world!
Dr. Geoff Smart is Chairman & Founder of ghSMART, the leadership advisory firm. ghSMART is ranked #1 by Vault for overall satisfaction in its industry.
Nick Stoyer is a thought leader on the topic of leadership and culture, and runs learning & development at Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World. Four Seasons has achieved more Forbes 5-Star ratings than any company in its industry.