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Suite Talk: Raffles Hotel Singapore’s GM on how to be a mentor, friend, and boss

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Christian Westbeld, general manager, Raffles Hotel Singapore, gives insight on the top qualities of a good leader, and how a well-run HR team is an incredible competitive advantage for the hotel, in an interview with Jerene Ang.

Q You’ve been in the hospitality industry for nearly 20 years now. What drew you to this industry?

The answer is very multi-layered – most significant for my decision to enter the hotel industry was the desire to work in a people and human capital focused industry. Then the charm and excitement to travel to new and unknown destinations, to have the chance to explore the world while working and to understand, as well as learn from other cultures and nations. It was also the desire to prove myself overseas and see that I can create my own success that – a bit of the aspiring page boy to GM story motivated me to carry that thought.

Q You were with Raffles Hotel from 2007 to 2015 before your stint at MGM. What drove your decision to return in 2017?

Being part of Raffles Hotels & Resorts from 2007 to 2015, including four years with Raffles Hotel Singapore, the opportunity to return to the most iconic hotel with such a reputation for service, heritage and luxury, during its first restoration in three decades, was one of the easiest professional decisions I’ve ever made.

There are very few hotels that are truly irresistible to work with and for. The draw to the Raffles brand is undeniable.

I’m honoured and simultaneously humbled to return at an important period to oversee the hotel through its careful and sensitive restoration and into its highly anticipated grand reopening. Holding the general manager position at this time of the journey, including the responsibility for its stewardship, is one of the most rewarding jobs in the industry.

Q Having worked across Germany, Dubai, Singapore, Beijing, how do you adapt your leadership style according to the region or country?

I would describe myself as a global citizen, who was lucky enough to have been a guest in many countries. It is crucial for me to understand each destination, including the unique predominant customs, sensitivities, etc before starting to work on an assignment. I strive to be a role model at all times and to lead from the front, relentlessly supporting the team on their way to success and the next level.

My philosophy is to focus on being transparent, straightforward, honest and empower the team, which allows me to become a mentor, friend, and professional superior at the same time while dedicating all my energy and time to the goals on hand – at least this is what I hope for as the team stands above the individual.

My philosophy is to focus on being transparent, straightforward, honest and empower the team, which allows me to become a mentor, friend, and professional superior at the same time while dedicating all my energy and time to the goals on hand – at least this is what I hope for as the team stands above the individual.

If the team shines, it automatically reflects positively on the property and its leadership. It is also important not to compromise on quality, as being simply good is not good enough at the level we work at. This has allowed me to build long-lasting relationships with all stakeholders.

Q What do you think are the top qualities of a good leader?

To be a good leader it is important to have the following qualities:

  • Supporting creative and passionate talents to succeed. This ties in with hiring the best/right people for the job – and appreciating these team members, who may know more about their job than you do. It is often the best way to gain new insights.
  • Being a good listener and anticipating what is coming next.
  • Having in-depth knowledge about the business and industry you are operating in, as well as keeping abreast with technology and other defining trends.
  • Honesty, perseverance, patience, and transparency.
  • Continuously striving for improvements and excellence.
  • Always thinking in the form of solutions and alternatives, instead of focusing on the problems.
  • Being people-focused.

Q People are often crucial assets in a hospitality business. How do you engage and motivate staff on a day-to-day basis?

I have been fortunate to work for some of the most outstanding hoteliers over the years. Having learned from these mentors, I take pride when I see former team members and colleagues of mine progress in their careers. Engaging colleagues come through support and development by providing opportunities within the right framework of empowerment and direction.

It is important to demonstrate to all colleagues that senior leaders are visible and leading from the front, providing the right direction, vision and support.  Trust, passion and commitment will foster a climate of positivity. This commitment from the leadership team thereby creates confidence and engagement within the colleagues.

Q What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make as a boss, and what did you learn from it?

While tough decisions are unavoidable, it is important to always adhere to the values and principles that determine a respectful relationship among all colleagues and teams. Often the challenge is not the decision itself but the way it is implemented, communicated and how the consequences are managed in the long term.

Raffles Hotel Singapore has been built on values and principles that are embodied by all teams. For example, the current restoration of Raffles Hotel Singapore involves the full closure of the hotel, which naturally meant that we had to look at our headcount and human relations status. We have a family-oriented culture at Raffles, which is especially more so with our many long-serving colleagues, where transparent one-on-one conversations were conducted with each and every colleagues to reassure them of our short and long-term plans. We take conversations like this very seriously as our colleagues are the hotel and brand ambassadors, they are at the forefront of our business. With AccorHotels being the largest hotel operator in Singapore, we have worked closely with our numerous sister properties for seconded colleagues to return to Raffles when the restoration is complete.

We have a family-oriented culture at Raffles, which is especially more so with our many long-serving colleagues, where transparent one-on-one conversations were conducted with each and every colleagues to reassure them of our short and long-term plans.

Q What would you say is the biggest talent challenge in the hospitality industry today? How has this changed over the years and can the industry tackle this challenge?

The biggest challenge that any hotel today faces is to anticipate and exceed the changing expectations and needs of the traveller, as well as to build young, passionate and dedicated teams around this fast changing environment. Hotels are not competing with hotels alone anymore but with every service provider that is able to offer that special experience or story.

Hotels must develop a deep understanding of the types of guest they want to attract and provide them with a collective experience that does not just cater to but accurately predicts their needs. Hotels need to understand this crucial factor of keeping up with the times and competition. Formal behaviours have evolved gradually to a casual yet high-quality environment in which we engage with guests and colleagues today.

It is the same for talent discovery, nurturing, retention and development. Expectations have changed drastically over the last years. My personal experience included a number of management trainee positions in Asia, all of which were unpaid and I was very excited about being housed in the hotel and entitled to laundry privileges for work attires. Nowadays, hotels compete for the best talents as the market is driven by shortage in hospitality talents. Therefore, it is our responsibility to create a work environment, which offers the best combination of teamwork and camaraderie, fun, work-life balance, working at a special place with meaning and purpose, competitive remuneration and specialisation, as well as learning and development opportunities. In order to meet these requirements, Raffles has created new levels of engagement and development for talents in its butlers, culinary, as well as our wine and bar teams.

Q What is your view of human resources as a function? And how do you think the HR function can contribute better to organisational goals?

The ability to effectively attract, engage and retain top talent is crucial in any organisation – even more so in service-oriented businesses like hospitality.

The HR team needs to understand what drives and motivates our team members to then incorporate these findings into our strategies and retention/development plans.

From my perspective, a well-run HR team is an incredible competitive advantage as the right talent strategy ensures that we always have access to the best talent and we can motivate and empower the team to perform at their best. The HR team needs to understand what drives and motivates our team members to then incorporate these findings into our strategies and retention/development plans.

As we get closer to the reopening of the hotel, for instance, the ability to attract the most talented and fitting team members will become critical as we are looking at expanding our service team by more than 40% compared to pre-restoration numbers in line with the increase in our service offering. Our world-class reputation also means that we are dedicated towards equipping our team members with the necessary tools and resources,in order for everybody to deliver the unsurpassed service guests have come to expect from Raffles.

Q If not this career, what alternative career path might you have chosen?

I would have opted to become either a diplomat/politician.

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