Friend: How many people do you have in your team?
David: 2.300 employees working at the hotel.
Friend: You are telling me that there are 2.300 people but you are the one who has to be here, responding to business emails, right now, when you are at my birthday party?
This is a conversation that David Arraya, the Hotel Manager of the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas, had with a friend a few years ago while working at another hotel brand. If you are a Hotel Manager, you’ve probably been in this situation.
In this exclusive interview, it became very clear why David is such a great leader and why he’s had so much professional success. Like a soccer star, he understands very well the importance of teamwork and that of a great leader who brings the whole team together.
Attention: being a good manager is not the same as being a good leader.
So if you think that you are a good Hotel Manager because you are a great leader (or vice-versa), maybe you should think twice. Read this episode of Ask & Talk and learn David’s insights about this topic.
Tell me about your journey in the hotel industry.
D- I’ve only worked in the hospitality industry all my life. I went to the American school in Bolivia and my parents couldn’t afford to send me to a university in the United States. I wanted more than anything to discover the world.
I embarked in a cultural exchange program in the South of France when I was 18 years old, where I landed in a resort. That is how I got introduced to hospitality. There, I had the opportunity to really get a little taste of all the different áreas of a resort operation.
During the summertime, I started managing all the recreation programs for the resort. By the time that year finished, I was hooked on hospitality and I knew that it was exactly what I wanted to do.
Back to Bolivia. I got a scholarship to play soccer in the United States in South Carolina and got my degree in International Business and Hospitality Management. During my studies, I became the resident manager of a small hotel inside of the university. In the meantime, every summer I would get different jobs in hospitality – a restaurant, a wine bar, a country club and, of course, a hotel.
After college, I went from a 5-star hotel in NYC to a big (iconic) lifestyle hotel in Miami. It was a huge change and growth for me. There, I took the hotel manager role, coming in for special projects to tailor them to improve the guest experience.
From there, I moved to Hong Kong to be a hotel manager with Swire Hotels, a fantastic brand. I stayed for almost 2 years in Hong Kong and moved back to Miami to open their first hotel in the United States, becoming the acting GM shortly after opening.
Then the opportunity to join Four Seasons came up. To join The Four Seasons had been a dream of mine since I started in hospitality. They are what I consider the best luxury brand in the world. When the time came to join this team, I didn’t think twice. I started working on Lana’i (Larry Ellison’s private island), but now it’s been almost 2 years since I’ve been here in Austin. It’s been an amazing ride.
Wow! Do you think that this diverse experience helps you to be a good hotel manager?
D- I absolutely think it does. I never want to stop learning. It’s curiosity that led me to take risks throughout my career. Having a diverse background definitely allows me to continue having an open mind and to push the boundaries when it comes to creativity and dealing with people.
I realize that all the places I worked at have many differences. However, in all of these places, the one thing that remains a constant is that I work for people, with people and through people.
To be a good leader depends on a lot of factors. If you could choose just ONE key characteristic, what would it be?
The one word that comes to mind is humility.
Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.
You still have to have confidence and an inspirational personality. When people come to you, you have to be decisive, you have to be empathetic.
The true essence of a leader is somebody that makes the people around him or her better. Humility is the key to unlock many other things: empathy, the ability to include people and to make decisions with the people around you, instead of just one person making the decisions.
Who inspires you?
So many people! A few that come straight to my mind:
- Isadore Sharp, the founder of Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. Such a visionary! And what I take from him most is that he never sold himself out to the industry. He didn’t sacrifice his expectation of luxury and of quality to make more money or to make money faster like many other companies did.
- Ian Schrager is a big inspiration for many different reasons. I had the privilege of working in some great lifestyle properties and there you are constantly pushing the boundaries and trying new things, shaking up the market. There’s no better person to do that than Ian Schrager. He is a true visionary as well.
- Gregg Popovich, a basketball coach. I’m a big sports fan and competed in sports for many years. At first glance you might think he is not a great leader, but once you look at his work off the field, you will change your mind. His teams were successful because he always found ways to make them feel comfortable when making mistakes. Yet, always expecting them to be better.
What are the challenges of being a good leader or hotel manager? It’s not always a bed of roses…
It’s important to distinguish first and foremost the differences between leadership and management.
The big distinction, in my opinion, is that management is a role, a job. It’s something you choose to do. By being a manager, you automatically have a certain level of power and you can command things.
Leadership is different. It’s something that, in my opinion, is a verb. Leadership is something you are every day. To some people, it comes more naturally than others. There are people that are impactful leaders as line-level employees or as individual contributors. But when they are at the management-level, they have a very difficult time.
Whenever I have young, outstanding employees performing at a high level, I really spend a lot of time with them and I try to get them to understand that what made them successful as an employee is not necessarily going to make them as successful as a manager.
And they need to understand that they can still be leaders even if they’re a line-level employee. Leadership is about having an influence on people and inspiring others. Leadership is about being a beacon of light where there is darkness.
Besides, with management, you can command, but you can’t build commitment. Leadership is where the commitment comes in.
We’ve often mistaken leadership and management. I challenge every leader to ask themselves:
“Are you ready to be a manager? When you become a manager, it’s no longer about you. It’s about everybody else. Are you ready to give that up?”
And the same thing for every manager. I challenge every manager to think:
“Am I really a leader? Am I really that beacon of light that people look up to?”
Plus, there are sides of management that are really tough to deal with. Accountability is one of the biggest challenges in hospitality. We’re people-pleasers, we like to be nice, we like harmony, to work together. So it’s typical to find managers that have a really hard time holding their team accountable while still keeping them motivated.
And you have to remember that, when you are a leader, your people observe your words and actions closely, so you need to make sure that you are “walking the talk”, that you are actually doing what you say you will do. Practice what you preach.
Especially in a five-star environment, you need to address things and you need to give your people very honest, straight-forward feedback. You can’t leave them hanging and wondering: “Am I doing a good job or not?” They need constant feedback and that’s really important.
Feedbacks are important, but it can be an issue if you don’t know how to do it. Communication skill is imperative.
I totally agree. I think, in business in general, mistakes often happen due to a lack of communication. Insufficient communication or a lot of assumption – people know something or don’t know something.
This is where the human element gets tricky. My team and the people that directly report to me know that I’d rather know more than less. It’s easier for me to delete an email, for example, than to spend large amounts of time finding out what is happening. The worst thing that can happen to you as a leader is to be blindsided, as it forces you to be reactive rather than proactive.
So it’s much easier to over-communicate. To do that while not being a micromanager – that’s tricky. You want to know everything, but you don’t want to necessarily be involved in everything.
I shared before in a previous interview and I will say it again. My biggest mistake as a boutique general manager: to micromanage. It was a disaster to try to control every little thing!
I think a lot of people struggle through that. And I think you learn a lot from the people that managed you and also your leaders around you. You take the things you learned from your leaders before you that worked and you also try to avoid making the same mistakes your previous leaders made as well. At the end of the day, it all boils down to one word: trust.
We are lucky in hospitality because we are a team. If you think about any good team, a good team shouldn’t lose because its star player isn’t playing that game. A good team wins consistently, with or without their top player.
Build a culture around you where you delegate effectively and empower people to make decisions. Be ok with the decisions they make. They may not make the perfect decisions, but you use them as learning opportunities. Outside of some minimum exceptions, we should allow our teams to fail and learn.
➡️ Read more about leadership with Hospitality Leader Rupesh Patel here
This feeling that we have to do everything ourselves, leads me to the next question. How do you balance personal and professional lives?
A few things have really impacted the way I see things. The first one is a great article in the Harvard Business Review that came out a few years ago that talked about how excellent leaders are just like professional athletes.
Look at the life of a professional athlete. They have a really balanced life. They eat well, sleep well, train hard, rest when they need to rest, and show up to the game. We as professionals have to do the same thing.
How do we expect to take care of other people if we can’t take care of ourselves? It’s really important to take care of yourself first.
Do you have a morning routine to kick off the day and help you keep your mental health? Maybe a tip to hoteliers out there?
I have young kids. So for me, it’s a dream to wake up on my own in the morning, sit and meditate for an hour. Maybe when my kids are older and out of the house (laugh)…
The one thing that works really well for me is to spend some time together with my kids in the morning. I don’t look at my phone anymore in the morning. Now my phone sits in a basket in the kitchen and I don’t pick it up until it’s time for me to go and take a shower.
We put on a song and start dancing together, getting our bodies moving. And from there I jump in a cold shower. I take a cold shower every morning, I haven’t taken a hot shower in a long time. It’s my reset button.
It’s something that is really uncomfortable to do and never gets easier, especially in the winter. But it’s something that once it’s done, you feel so happy you did it. And from that point on you realize your decisions determine your destiny.
The way you start your day has an impact on how you end your day. You make a good decision, and at the end of the day, it becomes easier to continue making good decisions.
Little things trigger everything.
And the other big thing for me is, before I turn on my computer, I sit and I meditate for about 5 minutes. I just close my eyes, and I try to stay in the present. I focus on my breath and really try to forget about everything that is happening around me.
Then, for another 5-10 minutes, I jot some thoughts down in my journal. Maybe what I was struggling with the day before, or simply what I want to get out of my day, or what I’m grateful for in the moment. Putting my thoughts on paper helps me structure the rest of my day.
Those small actions allow me to be more present, intentional, and open-minded for my team, to listen more, to ask better questions, to know when to shut up, and to just let things happen.