Why Niki Leondakis' team at Kimpton practices random acts of kindness Featured

8:08pm EDT April 30, 2011
Why Niki Leondakis' team at Kimpton practices random acts of kindness

When local airports canceled flights to Portland during a horrible snowstorm, many travelers were left stranded in Seattle hotels on Christmas Eve. One of the hotel’s guests hadn’t celebrated Christmas Day with family in three years and thought he would be missing the holiday once again.

Instead, the hotel’s bellman, an employee of Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC, offered to brave the eight-hour trip through the snow to drive the guest home to Portland in time to spend Christmas with his family.

Niki Leondakis, Kimpton’s president and COO, says that what differentiates her company from competitors is the fact that employees are always striving to create meaningful customer experiences, or “Kimpton moments,” by going the extra mile to take care of guests and show them random acts of kindness. In the Market Metrix Hospitality Index, Kimpton consistently achieves the highest scores in customer satisfaction and emotional attachment of any U.S. hotel company. This commitment to customers played a key role in the company’s strategy for dealing with the impact of the worldwide economic recession.

When your business is facing financial or economical challenges, you have to reinvest in the areas that set you apart from competitors and that make your business successful. For Kimpton, this meant reinvesting in the people who make Kimpton moments possible every day — the front-line employees at its hotels and restaurants.

Prepare for change

Easing employee fears at the start of the recession was a primary concern for Leondakis. Stressed out employees typically don’t deliver top service. Many people were fearful about the future of the company, seeing friends and family lose jobs and hearing about mass layoffs at high-profile companies. They were under a great deal of personal and professional stress that was directly related to the economy. Leondakis realized employees needed help managing this added stress if they were to overcome the new challenges placed on them.

The first step was to provide them with tools and information to better manage this stress, such as situational leadership training, stress management and self-care classes for employees to address their pain points. Easing their worries also meant keeping their spirits up, which can be as simple as cheering an employee up with a funny joke to take off some of the pressure.

“We went out of our way to create a spirit of fun and laughter and not take ourselves too seriously,” Leondakis says. “While we spent an appropriate amount of time dealing with brass tacks and business needs at hand, we also balanced that with some fun and making them laugh and just being silly. I think that combination helped keep people inspired, because at the end of the day, it’s got to be fun to come to work every day or you aren’t very engaged or motivated. We worked extra hard in the last two years to make sure we were providing our people with stress release.”

Keeping the emphasis on the vision and goals of your company is another way to motivate employees to stay committed to its long-term success. In the wake of any kind of major change, uncertainty and fear can distract people from their goals. Therefore, you want to reinforce the goals that are most important in carrying out your vision.

“I think one of the mistakes companies make is changing the focus for their employees too often,” Leondakis says. “Another mistake is having too many goals for employees to focus on. That’s why we’ve narrowed our focus to one wildly important goal, so that 6,500 employees in the organization know which way is north, what’s most important and, at any given moment, what is their highest priority.”

In Kimpton’s case, simply increasing the focus on its No. 1 goal, customer satisfaction, was much more beneficial than increasing the number of goals for employees.

“We increased the focus,” Leondakis says. “We talked about it a lot more. We got very granular with metrics around our customer satisfaction scores and set very specific targets for continuous improvement, specifically in the areas that don’t require financial investment.

“Being friendlier or more helpful doesn’t cost any more money. Focusing our people on what they can control — them and their employees and their attitudes and the way they take care of our guests — made people feel empowered in a situation like this great recession, where there’s a tendency to feel out of control. People felt like they did have control over certain things, and that was our customer experience.”

Giving employees more focused goals eases their stresses by creating more certainty about their role in the company and how to handle the changes that affect your business. In having this control and accountability, they then have more opportunities to be proactive and to act on change rather than react.

Be visible

In times of crisis, the reaction of some business leaders is to stay out of the spotlight and avoid confrontation by hiding from tough questions. However, when the head of a company is not visible and unwilling to address organizational challenges, it can leave employees fearful of the worst, which, in turn, can hurt your service level.

Leondakis says that though you can manage your company from the corporate headquarters, you cannot lead from one, especially when your business is facing potentially difficult times.

“People don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says. “They read the headlines. They read that thousands of people lost their jobs during this recession. They read about businesses closing. They want to know what’s happening with our business. Being able to answer that firsthand is incredibly valuable.”

If you want to keep employees motivated and united in your vision, you have to open up communication and show them that you are not abandoning them to ambiguity. When Kimpton started feeling the impact of the financial crisis in 2008, Leondakis knew that her presence at the company’s businesses was even more essential. In the past few years, she has spent more time traveling to Kimpton’s hotels and restaurants than ever before.

“Part of my strategy for dealing with the recession was to be more visible, to be more hands on,” Leondakis says. “I’ve always been pretty visible and out there, but I just felt that now, more than ever, people need to know we’re in this together, and we will get through it together. If you have problems or barriers, I want to be there to help you.”

Increasing your face-to-face communication and personal interactions with employees also increases organizational transparency, which is an important part of building trust between employees on the front lines and the corporate side of the business.

“It’s modeling the behavior, and if I do that, then my direct reports do the same thing, and then it trickles through the entire organization,” Leondakis says.

Whether it’s holding formal presentations or conducting fireside chats with employees in a relaxed setting, Leondakis has increased opportunities for direct communication with employees. By doing so, she’s given them more opportunities to share their ideas, goals and barriers, and ultimately, ways to add value to Kimpton businesses.

“When I travel, I do fireside chats with employees and ask them, ‘If you owned this hotel or this restaurant, what you would do differently to better serve our guests and to make it a better place to work for all of the employees?’” Leondakis says.

“When people see you being honest and genuine and authentic, they begin to trust you, and they will talk to you and tell you what’s happening.”

Being responsive to employee insights and feedback is incredibly valuable because it can give you ideas to improve your business that you may never have considered.

“We take that feedback very seriously and we share it with our senior leaders; we share it at our operations meetings, and we actually put action plans to that feedback to implement,” Leondakis says. “As a result, some of the best ideas, some of the most iconic ideas at Kimpton have come from our employees.”

One example is Kimpton’s well-known goldfish program, where its hotels deliver live goldfish to the hotel rooms to keep guests company while they are traveling. The idea started with one employee at one hotel but was developed into a brand program.

Reinforce your values

Because what separates the Kimpton brand from its competitors is its customer experience and the emotional connection the company’s guests have with its employees, reinforcing operational excellence has always been a key part of the company’s business strategy.

“We could, like a lot of other hotel companies, compete on geographic distribution, but that would require significantly more hotels and much more markets than we have today. It would take a long time, just to compete on, ‘We have a hotel in every primary, secondary and tertiary market in America,’” Leondakis says. “Rather than compete on, ‘We have a hotel where you go,’ we’re competing on operational excellence as a point of differentiation. And that operational excellence is really defined as the way every Kimpton employee interacts with every Kimpton guest, creating an emotional connection. We create a loyal following that way.”

In lean times or times of growth, achieving operational excellence always begins with the hiring process and always bringing on people whose values and personality align with your company’s core values. These are the employees who will strive hardest to carry out your vision, because they truly care about its success.

“To see how a potential employee might treat another potential employee is a very good indicator of how they would treat a guest; it’s just how they react and respond to other human beings,” Leondakis says.

“I’ve never believed in the idea that, ‘OK, we’re on stage, everybody get on stage.’ You hire genuinely kind people and you inspire them to be themselves and be their best selves. I’ve never supported the idea of, ‘OK it’s 5 o’clock. The shift’s starting. Doors are open. Everybody put your smiles on.’ It’s a more authentic and genuine approach hiring people who are genuinely caring people, not people who are great actors.”

She says you can always train employees to execute job processes and set targets for continuous improvement, but you can’t train them to have self-initiative, like the bellman that drove the Kimpton guests through the snowstorm or the Kimpton employee who stayed up until 1 a.m. to help a guest deep condition her hair after she burned it with a blow-dryer.

By hiring employees who are committed to Kimpton’s core values, then providing them with stress release, a clear vision, priorities and increased communication, the company has helped employees continue to achieve success and create Kimpton moments for guests every day.

“It’s an opportunity to pay it forward,” Leondakis says. “We believe in treating our employees as though they are guests. The idea is, if we treat our employees as individuals and we take care of them in a personal way, in an individual way, and see them as our customer, they will go the extra mile to take care of our paying guests.”

HOW TO REACH: Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC, (800) 546-7866 or www.kimptonhotels.com

The Leondakis File

Niki Leondakis

President and COO

Kimpton Hotel & Restaurant Group LLC

Born: Springfield, Mass.

Education: University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Mass.

What was your first job?

Working the fry station at a Hardee’s when I was 15

What do you think are the keys to building a successful culture for employees?

It has to be unanimous. Every individual at every level has to be committed to this culture and has to be in agreement about what the tenets of the culture are and how they are brought alive. Every individual has to see themselves as an ambassador of that culture. It cannot be viewed as human resources job.