by Sloan Dean
CEO, Remington Hotels
Sloan joined Remington in 2018 and was with its parent company Ashford for 5 years prior. Before that, Sloan held several senior positions with Interstate Hotels, Alliance Hospitality, Noble Investment Group, IHG, and Oliver Wyman.
I joined Remington Hotels as President and Chief Operating Officer on January 1, 2018, and did a lot of listening during the first few months. If you want to be a great leader, you have to first listen to understand. You need to know what is really going on instead of making assumptions.
I had worked for Ashford, Remington’s parent company, for five years before I started my role at Remington. Probably the most concerning stat in early 2018 was that our turnover of key positions was much higher than industry standards. So the business outcome I wanted us to achieve was driving turnover down, particularly in key leadership positions.
Understanding where we came from
As I started listening to people, I realized we had some great things going on as a company, but we also had some problems.
We hired a company to help with employer branding because I was concerned about the types of applicants we were getting for our open roles. They were not of the quality we needed. Even when we retained A+ talent for a general manager or operations leadership role, turnover was much higher than it should have been – especially in the first couple of years of employment.
When you go through employer branding, you look at strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT).
Our SWOT analysis highlighted a strength for us was the people who had been with us a long time were really proud to work with us. We had a very results-oriented culture and often promoted from within. The opportunities and weaknesses we had to overcome were burning through people. We were a little too authoritative and weren’t as collaborative as we should’ve been. We had a bit too much of a “hero culture” and a few people in our organization had become bottlenecks for information.
As we went through this process, the word “passionate” started to resonate. We realized we’ve always been a passionate organization from our start in 1968 and we’re passionate about our associates, our guests, and delivering results. But sometimes that passion can be overkill and it can feel like the results are all that matter.
I didn’t want to lose that focus on results, but we needed to honor who we were as an organization as well as evolve into the type of organization we needed to be.
We ended up choosing the word “thrive” because we wanted it to be representative of both our results and our culture over a long period.
We also settled on the tagline “where passionate people thrive“ because not everyone is passionate, and not everyone is a fit to work at Remington. We say no a lot of times when there’s not a fit. We want to stay focused on being passionate about our associates, passionate about guests, passionate about our owners, and overall becoming a place where passionate people can thrive over the long term and deliver great results.
Succeeding over the long term is important
Succeeding over the long term was – and is – important for me. I was 36 when I became COO and wanted to be proud of the work we did over decades. I didn’t want to manage a business where every quarter we had to rethink our strategy and make short-term layoffs to get certain earnings results.
I’m a believer in conscious capitalism, and that means sustaining success over a period of time.
If a company grows too slowly, it dies. If a business grows too fast, it implodes on itself. We’ve seen countless examples of that. For me, the key is “steady Eddie” improvement and an attitude that success is never final.
I want Remington to be one of the best employers and hotels, period.
What culture means
Everyone wants to work for a high-culture company, but what does that mean?
Culture is your people and your relationships with them. I host a coffee session twice a month and invite every single corporate associate to join me at those at least once a year and sometimes multiple times a year. I also run through a “foundations of Remington” training every month. I call every GM that joins us to get to know them. I interact with every Assistant GM and every Director of Sales that joins the company – either one on one or in a classroom setting.
Culture is created in the space between other things we do. It’s the water cooler conversations.
I’ve learned more and more in my career that individuals matter. That’s why we hire for balance, and culture fit. I’m looking for people that value relationships and value the people that work for them. I’m looking for people that wouldn’t ask someone to work weekends if they weren’t willing to do it themselves because that is how culture is defined.
On an organizational level, culture is the priorities and principles that transcend departments, rules, and responsibilities.
At Remington, we see ourselves as a place where passionate people thrive and that means housekeepers into general managers and developing analysts into CEOs. Are we perfect every day? No. You’re never perfect, but it’s pursuing perfection over the long term that delivers exceptional results.
When you see passion, whether it’s from the CEO or the housekeeper, it starts to permeate the culture. If you go into a really well-run hotel, you can feel the difference. People are smiling more. They’re asking you questions and they’re listening for your answers.
Training is so critical because there’s high turnover in the hotel industry. For any hotel that we take over, we make sure training is a cost item on the P&L because if we need to take a front desk agent away from the front desk to train them, that takes time and money. But it’s also an investment into the culture and performance of the hotel in the short and long term.
We’re building a lot of programs to support the development of our culture. We’re doing things to make sure diversity and inclusion is a big part of what we’re focused on. We’ve created mentorship and training programs because the employee experience from onboarding onwards is really important.
You can think of culture as a quadrant
There are high culture/high performers – and those are the ones you want to promote. There are low culture/low performers, who you need to part ways with. But the cancer on the culture is the individual high performers that abuse people or are heavy-handed or can’t partner in projects. You need to get rid of them or your culture will suffer.
This is one of the biggest changes I had to make from 2018-2019. I had to fire a lot of people who are very high individual contributors but were authoritarian and held on to information for power. They didn’t want their subordinates to be as well-developed as themselves. There was no bench strength because they hadn’t developed people. They had become bottlenecks to our growth, and we ended up eating to part ways.
If you want to change the world, change yourself
The biggest catalyst for how I think about culture now was a journey I went through.
Ambition has always been one of my greatest strengths, but also one of my greatest weaknesses. Young executives can want to climb the corporate ladder so quickly that they think they need to crawl over people to reach their goals.
This became clear to me in an annual review nine years ago. At that point, I had been at the company for a year or two. In the past, I had changed companies nearly every three years. I’d get promoted once or twice in that time, and then leave for the next challenge. But this pattern of behavior often led to some conflict with a couple of key officers and my ambition and ego would get in the way.
I sought out some executive coaching and got 360-degree feedback from the people I worked with.
After reviewing this, my coach said to me, “You need to let go of thinking you’re always the smartest person in the room. You’re analytical and intelligent but that’s table stakes at this point. Everyone who is a VP and above in your organization is smart. The feedback coming back is that people feel you always need to be the smartest person in the room and speak in a strong tone to show strength. You’re listening to respond instead of listening to understand.”
That was hard to hear, but it was a real epiphany for me. I’ve always cared for people, but I realize that my ambition had become more important. So for the past eight years, between that coaching process and fatherhood, I’ve tried to bring empathy and vulnerability into the workplace to counterbalance my ambition.
After leaning into this, I found I was promoted again, even after operating in a new way. This led to my opportunity to lead Remington five years ago. If I didn’t make that change in my style, I don’t think I would be here now.
If you want to change the world, you need to change yourself.
What we’ve been able to achieve by focusing on culture
Today, Remington Hotels is one of the highest-rated hospitality companies on Glassdoor.
Turnover is lower than it’s ever been – even lower than before Covid. We’re also bigger than we’ve ever been.
Most importantly, our associate engagement surveys are showing 92% of our associates are highly engaged, very proud to work for us, and highly willing to recommend us to others.
That engagement score used to be in the 70s. Today, we’re in the 90th percentile: the top 10% of food and accommodation providers for associate engagement.
I want to stay there and continue to improve on that.
Closing reflections on culture transformation
Starting our culture’s turnaround with our employer branding was key because it gave us a common language that we keep coming back to. It helps to have an overarching value statement that everyone in your organization subscribes to.
Individuals matter, but I think one of the most destructive things you can have as a company is where you say any one individual defines the culture. Even as CEO, I’m just an ambassador for Remington Hotels. We’ve invested so much in systems and business processes and culture that I am replaceable. And that’s how it should be. It’s the Amazon or Apple way.
The brand and culture stand above any individual. But individuals feed the culture. If you do enough bad hiring over time and don’t have great individuals, the culture itself gets eroded. Both matter and you have to constantly work to improve your culture.