Leadership lessons from a champion coach

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 15 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 15 October, 2011, 12:00am


Mark Conklin's first exposure to the service industry was probably doing shifts as a dishwasher when he was a 14-year-old kid growing up in Washington, DC. Judging from his built, it's safe to guess he was a college jock, which explains the college football scholarship. Although there was no family role model, Conklin ended up with a degree in hotel-restaurant management from the University of Denver. Eventually, he would add an MBA from the Washington State University, and an Executive Programme from the University of Virginia.

Conklin started his career as a hotelier at the flagship Hyatt Regency Atlanta in the 1970s, a 40-year career that would take him all over the world, initially in Europe, North America and parts of Asia, as an executive with Marriott International. It was during one of these postings in Europe, when Conklin found himself and his wife alone together - their three daughters having grown up and moved to the US for studies - that the couple decided on something radical: move back to Asia.

Conklin is now into his second stint as general manager of JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong, where he has worked with more than 750 'associates' to score several highly coveted best-employer awards.

Conklin's mantra, handed down by founder John Willard Marriott more than 75 years ago, is simple: 'If we take care of our employees, they will be able to take care of our customers and the customers will come back.'

But an even more resonant counsel comes from his late father: 'Your word is your honour. Nobody says life is fair so you'll get bruised. Just pick yourself up. And don't be afraid to tell the truth - and to hear the truth.'

Conklin will be one of the speakers at the forthcoming Classified Post Executive Summit. He shares a preview of his talk on effective leadership.

Is playing football the same as running a hotel?

That's a great analogy and it's in terms of coaching. Coaches have to inspire and motivate their players. As a hotel general manager, I certainly have to inspire and motivate a team of people to provide world-class service.

It's also in many ways very competitive and you have to keep a scorecard. In our case, we have a very defined matrix - guest satisfaction, sales, profits, market share. I think if you're very competitive by nature, you will excel in the hotel business.

What is this concept of internal and external customers?

That was something I picked up early in my career. I use the term reverse organisational chart. You don't want people focused on the GM or the president. You want to focus on the customer. And the ones who touch the customers - our guests - are my internal customers - our associates.

We use the word 'associates' instead of 'employees' because I think the latter implies that somebody works for you, that they are beneath you. In contrast, 'associates' work together, they are part of a team and are equals.

In the reverse organisational chart, our external customers are on top. But the most important customers - the internal ones - are our frontline associates: the doorman, the concierge, the front desk officer, the room attendant who is cleaning the guest room.

Then you have your frontline supervisors, your management team, the leadership team, and at the very bottom of this chart is the general manager.

What is it like working in Hong Kong, especially in HR terms?

I've been around the globe in 15 different locations and I think Hong Kong is the greatest city in the world. Running a hotel in Hong Kong is a dream job because there is a real spirit to serve. People here serve with a sense of pride - there is something very genuine about serving others that comes out very clearly in the Hong Kong culture.

Can you give us an overview of your talk at the Executive Summit?

I think it's really about leadership. When we talk about staff retention, of the needs of different generations, when we think about inspiring and motivating a team, when you think about creating service excellence - I think there are lots of ways that you can accomplish these. But I think the crux and core of it is about leadership. So in my talk, I will focus on basic leadership principles that I think are enduring and translate across cultures and across generations.

Event details

Classified Post Executive Summit: CEO Challenges in 2012
Date October 31 (Monday)
Time 2:00pm - 5:15pm
Venue JW Marriott Hotel Hong Kong
Fee HK$850
Registration classifiedpost.com/summit
Enquiries 2680 8232