Engagement is about understanding the people you have working for you

The Dorchester Hotel
Image credit: The Dorchester Collection
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This is an interview with Eugenio Pirri, Vice President, People and Organisational Development, at luxury hotel chain The Dorchester Collection, who won Company of the Year at the 2014 Employee Engagement Awards. In this interview we delve into the company's approach to engagement and tease out key learnings to help others bring an evidence-based, joined-up approach to their engagement strategies.

Q: If you had to pick one reason why you think you won the award, what do you think it was?

From our perspective, I believe we have a company-wide commitment and a real belief in our core values.  We have our five core values of Passion, Personality, Respect, Working Together and Innovation.  We underpin those with our ‘We Care’ philosophy and we align this to all of our people practices. 

For example, when we create, design and implement either a particular service or a strategy such as our learning and development approach, which is known as Dorchester Collection Academy, we ensure that it aligns to those core values. 

Life is not about making perfect decisions; it’s about making the best decision with the best available information at the time

We ask ourselves: does it display passion, does it have personality, does it promote working together, is it respectful? When you do things like that, and you have a commitment to weigh those decisions against the core values, those values in effect become gatekeepers. Keeping those values at the forefront ensures the culture of engagement remains strong. 

When new employees start they go through a two or three day induction programme called ENGAGE, where they will learn about the company culture, our vision and learn about each other. 

I say to new employees on the programme, “every single day you will be faced with making a series of decisions.” We don’t have a great deal of guidelines. Instead, we try to teach the service philosophy. 

I also tell them, “when you have to make a decision you need to ask yourself, does it promote passion, does it promote working together? If the answer is yes, then it’s the right decision.” 

It may not always be the perfect decision, but life is not about making perfect decisions; it’s about making the best decision with the best available information at the time.

Providing the common sense approach you use is based on the core values you will be headed in the right direction.   

Q: You describe employee engagement as a science. Can you tell us exactly what this means to you?

I consider myself, and many of the people who work here, as quite methodical. I believe that to have a strategy you need to understand the science behind it. In order to do this you need to have the right insight into what you want to achieve.

You have to start with that insight. It’s amazing to me that when I speak to people who are facing challenges, both inside and outside of the industry, I’m constantly trying to understand what it is they are trying to do and what they are trying to get out of it.  

It seems they are just trying to solve a problem, as opposed to really understanding the root cause of it. Ultimately to do that you need to understand the insight – what is the reason you are trying to solve this problem?

Ultimately, it’s great to have a vision and values written on the wall, but what do they mean, and have you put them into practice?

If you just solve a problem, rather than tackle the root cause, it becomes about the end solution rather than a sustainable solution. Then you will continue to face the same problem. It’s not about having a problem to solve – it’s about whether you are having the same problem as you had last year. In my view, if you keep having the same issues you haven’t got the insight right, or you haven’t figured out the root cause.

To have a sustainable solution, we always knew it couldn’t be one-sided. You have to look at engagement overall; from how we treat our employees, to how we treat our guests, to how we develop our people, or in turn how we use our talent to deliver the ultimate guest experience. 

That’s why it starts before people join through the right attraction, and that’s when you have to look at what natural talent people have because they have to fit within your organisation. Once you have them, that’s when you can provide that bespoke development in order to get organisational success.

Ultimately, it’s great to have a vision and values written on the wall, but what do they mean, and have you put them into practice? You can only do that by having the insight. Through that insight you get the science, which then allows you to have the strategy for what you are trying to achieve. 

You can also apply science by asking the right questions. One of the most important is: who is working for you and what do you and they want to achieve? A lot of people think having great engagement is about having a great staff party – in fact, it’s the complete opposite of that. It’s really about understanding the people you have working for you, and understanding where they want to go and what they want to do.   

Q: You have a significant focus on the ‘employee/guest encounter’ - can you explain the thinking behind this? Is this your USP? The intersection where you add real value?

Let me start with what our USP is. I consider our USP is to deliver the ultimate guest experience. In order to push the organisation you have to live in that intersection. That’s my philosophy. It’s only in that intersection where you can forge those new strategies into the marketplace, which according to your own industry can be internal or external.

For us, it was internal, but it had an effect externally. If you were to just look at one side of the equation you couldn’t possibly have a complete handle on the ultimate guest experience, which is why they have to work in tandem. I’ve always believed that our role as employers is to create these engaging environments for our employees so they have the right talent, the right knowledge and the right skills to deliver the ultimate guest experience. 

This is also why I believe, and I see this in many organisations, that you need to have one person, or one team, doing both. If you have different people doing each side of the equation you will not be able to have a holistic approach to the end result. 

For us, the most important person in the organisation is the last person who spoke to the guest, or the person who has the most contact with the guest. 

That idea brings me on to the topic of networks and how we look at organisations. My Director of Guest Experience and Innovation says – “you hire people and you put them in a box on the organisational chart, and then you spend the rest of the time working with that employee trying to get them out of the box!”  

We look at hierarchies very differently. For us, the most important person in the organisation is the last person who spoke to the guest, or the person who has the most contact with the guest. 

In the traditional organisation structure it will normally be the general manager or director at the top. We don’t look at organisational structures – we look at it as a series of bubbles. Whoever is talking to the guest is the most important person now. For example, in our business a waiter in a restaurant takes the customer’s order and they are now the most important person because they have all the information. It’s not the restaurant manager who did the schedule for the day and who decided which table the customer was sat at; it’s the person on the floor who has the information. 

The reality is that decisions get made by people who are not directors. 

We realised that networks work differently, and that’s why we set up organisational structures which can give us the success we need. That’s why you need to look at things in tandem, and why you have to live at the intersection. The intersection changes every minute and every day - you never know who is going to be in the intersection. You never know what the guest interaction is going to be. 

Sometimes we think that large decisions have to be made by the most senior person in the organisation, but the reality, certainly in the customer service world, is that decisions get made by people who are not directors. 

People may say they are not making the big decisions, but I disagree. In our company, an average guest who stays with us for three nights could have a bill in the region of £5,000 to £15,000. That’s significant revenue, and if an employee has to make a decision as to whether that guest will receive the ultimate guest experience, that is a big decision to make.   

This is why the intersection changes and why you share information and you allow your employees to have as much leeway and as much entrepreneurial spirit as possible to make these decisions. They are the people who will make your company successful. 

Our business is about building loyalty. We want guests to be loyal to us and to choose us when they come to town among a myriad of amazing competitors. Creating loyalty happens a moment at a time. That’s why we spend so much time on the bespoke development so employees and guests can be engaged.  

Most organisations have huge binders of service interactions and standards. We are a little different. Yes, we have core standards, but for every service interaction there are a few points on just one page. 

Our business is about building loyalty...Creating loyalty happens a moment at a time. 

We hire people because we believe they can provide the ultimate guest experience.  Based on our core values we want to see that passion in how they deliver that ultimate guest experience, but we also want to see their personality. Yes, we have service standards and check-in procedures, but when you visit a place you don’t remember how the coffee was served; you remember the way in which the staff talked to you, if they smiled and if they had a conversation with you. That’s what’s important.          

Q: All your implemented projects are recommendations and guidelines rather than strict policies and procedures. Why have you adopted this approach?

For me, it’s because of our focus on delivering the ultimate guest experience. In order to do this you need to rely on the people in the organisation. We have a selection of iconic hotels in iconic locations. To this end, individualisation is everything. We provide the guidelines that are founded in our core vision and mission and therefore these guidelines act as a roadmap as to how our hotels should be managed. 

We spend a lot of time at the beginning ensuring we have the right talent in our company, therefore, if you have done a good job in doing that you will be able to deliver on the vision. Finally, for me, you can’t ask people to be visionary or entrepreneurial if you are providing them with policy after policy; that’s just putting barriers in front of them.

Q: Development is a core part of your engagement strategy and you see employees on a ‘developmental journey.’ Can you give some more detail on what you mean by this and why it’s important for long-term engagement?

The whole idea of bespoke development is key to the growth of our people. As you know, we have our Dorchester Collection Academy, and we have a lot of programmes which underpin and support it.

When you talk about development you need to understand that people are joining the organisation for a number of different reasons.

What’s important for me when you talk about development is understanding that people are joining the organisation for a number of different reasons. Some people join because they want a career, others want to be developed and learn new skills, others are happy to do a job for a long period of time and are not necessarily all that interested in being promoted. 

People are motivated by different things. Some people are supporting their families, some people want to travel, and some want a career. It’s very important you understand those different motivations by talking to your people and understanding what those motivations are. Whatever their reason, we ultimately have one role as an employer: to create a safe environment where they can flourish. 

We have our core Dorchester Collection Academy, but the developmental journey then varies from property to property. We have a graduate leadership programme, which we call our Ultimate Leaders Programme. Under the programme graduates will come in and will work in a minimum of two hotels. That provides cross exposure so they can understand that each hotel is different. 

Long-term engagement is about keeping people motivated.

Long-term engagement is about keeping people motivated. If they are motivated they will deliver on those core strategies. That’s why bespoke development is so important to the strategy itself. You have to attract them well, and you have to develop them in order to get engagement.       

Q: You’ve made a lot of changes and implemented a lot of new initiatives. How did you ensure employees were not just drowned in an ocean of new communications? What was the driving force behind your comms strategy?

We have a great core base. We have great employees with great hotels and great management. We are very fortunate in that regard. Our core communication strategy was to take people on the journey with us. Also, we don’t expect every hotel in the company to be at the same place at the same time. That’s really important; just as each of our hotels are different, so are the teams and the people who lead and work within them. 

Just as each of our hotels are different, so are the teams and the people who lead and work within them. 

We are sensitive to hotel culture, to local environment and to country specific differences. Depending on the location of the hotel, it might take one month to implement a proposal or it may take six months. That’s why we have a five year strategic plan, as opposed to a two month plan.  

We visit the hotels regularly and we bring people together a lot. In addition to myself and my Learning & Talent Director visiting each hotel on a regular basis, I also have a Director of Guest Experience and Innovation who visits every single hotel at least five times a year. That’s 50 trips a year. She really ensures employees are on the journey and that they understand the data. We do some of that for them so they can spend more time delivering the ultimate guest experience. 

We hold an executive forum every year where we bring the executives together and we talk about the strategy. I hold a people forum, where I bring members of the L&D team, the HR team, innovation champions and performance improvement people together in order to ensure we are all on the same page. 

We are fortunate to have a company- wide video system. On my desk in my office I have a video screen and if I want to talk to HR, or to one of my employees, I can just video the hotel and we can talk face- to- face.  Every hotel has a conference board room with video and all of the executives will have a video screen on their desks.  That’s very important because you get so much more from the conversation when you are able to look at someone when talking to them.   

Q: For organisations starting on a developmental journey do you have any tips?  

If you are just starting on the path to creating an L&D programme, first make sure you are bringing in the right talent. A lot of companies think that they need to fill the job and so will hire someone who may not be right. I think you are better off waiting in order to get the right person for the company, rather than bringing in the wrong person. 

You need to make your senior leadership understand what your vision is and how they are going to get the best out of people. 

We have seven levels to our Academy, but I think the first level is the vital one– when somebody joins the organisation we get them to understand who we are, what we are trying to create, our vision and values, what their role is in it and why they were hired. Therefore the initial induction stage is key.

Secondly, you need to make your senior leadership understand what your vision is and how they are going to get the best out of people. We no longer live in a world when you can just tell people what to do. Old school thinking was that the boss is the boss, and you do what the boss says. That approach hasn’t worked for years. The new generation is more knowledgeable than you. They may not have the experience, but they have the knowledge, the speed and the insight. Getting your senior leadership to understand how to lead and how to bring the vision and the mission to life and how to create an engaging environment is key.

The line manager needs to have a lot of development as they can get stuck in the middle. 

The third aspect is the person who is between the leadership and the employee, i.e. the supervisor/manager. They need to have a lot of development as they can get stuck in the middle.  

Having those three elements as your core is a great way to start. 

Q: How do you ensure that you keep momentum going in your engagement strategy?

This is not just about doing your course and then expecting it to happen. If I think about INSPIRE, which is our senior leadership course, it’s a five day programme. We fly our senior leaders to a different location each year and each day of the course is dedicated to one of our core values. We spend a lot of time on 360 degree reviews, one-to-one coaching and trying to understand where we are now and where we want to see the company in 10 years’ time. 

It doesn’t end there. We then continue after INSPIRE with everyone getting one-to-one coaching assigned to them. You just can’t do a class and expect it to happen. You have to keep it alive, and you have to keep the momentum going. This is why it’s so important that you have the right relationship with finance. This sort of thing costs, but the return on the investment is huge in relation to achieving your core strategies. 

With our ENGAGE programme for new employees they are in the classes for two or three days. In London, for example, it is three days. We have three hotels in London and so we do a day in each hotel. Even if you are working in just one hotel you will visit the other hotels as it’s important you understand each hotel and the individualisation and the region. We then do a follow up on day 30, day 90 and after day 365 – one year later how has it been? You have to keep the momentum going and you have to keep it alive.

About Matt Evans


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02nd Apr 2015 13:04

Yes, I agree employee engagement is a science which should be backed by right analytics which could help organizations to derive right insights in long run and that's why we feel its time to integrate employee engagement with bog data analytics.

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