A Leader Shares What It Takes to Lead

NEW YORK—What defines a leader? Some say it’s service and influence, while others may say it’s the ability to collaborate, listen and engage. For Steve Shern, area managing director for Thompson Hotels, it’s about passion, continuing education and learning from leaders in the hotel industry whom he admires.

“I pull on my past work and life experience from times when I had an opportunity to be in a leadership role, like when I progressed through the Boy Scouts to become an Eagle Scout or when I got involved in the hospitality business and came up through the Four Seasons,” said Shern. “The people around me invested time in me to prepare me for the opportunities that would lie ahead, giving me to the tools to grow in hospitality.”

An industry veteran, Shern has 25 years under his belt. He was named GM of the Year for Two Roads Hospitality in 2014 and his former property, Thompson Chicago, earned recognition in many areas. Prior to Thompson, Shern spent 15 years with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in various management positions across multiple markets. He’s currently posted at Gild Hall, a luxury Thompson property in New York.

To be an effective leader, Shern believes there must be a keen focus on creating the vision, relentless interest in your team, and the ability to adapt to different personalities.

“Horst Schulze from Ritz-Carlton and Capella Hotels taught me that ‘everyone is getting on the bus, but if they don’t have an idea where they are going, they will just drive around and around and not know when they arrive.’ This is leadership in the simplest terms,” he said. “If a leader does not communicate what the goals and objectives are as well as the progress toward them, then how will anyone know if they are successful or making improvements? A leader also has to have the support of their team through active listening and by treating people the way you would want to be treated.”

The industry is rapidly changing, and hotel companies are bettering their best in order to actively compete with Airbnb, OTAs and the evolving needs and desires of hotel guests. Leaders are being tasked with keeping up with the evolution of the industry, but what must they tap into or rely upon to navigate these new waters?

Shern advises hoteliers to “stay well read, observe and always be anticipating.”

He also encourages leaders to spread the wealth of knowledge. “Make sure you’re arming not just yourself but the people around you with the knowledge and eagerness to learn that will allow them to embrace changes in the industry,” he said. “As for what leaders can tap into, never forget to nurture relationships with your colleagues. Growing your network is always helpful because you never know what people can teach you and which relationships will become crucial assets in the future.”

Over 25 years in hospitality, Shern has learned and seen a lot. Here, he outlines some of the advice he’s received on being a hotel leader:

  • Deliver authentic and genuine service at every level every time.
  • Lead with passion and excitement, even on your worst days. Let others see the passion you have for your property. Everyone is watching and noticing what you do.
  • Take care of the people around you. Putting their growth ahead of your own can often be the thing that serves you best in the long term.
  • Be consistent.

For young hoteliers rising through the ranks, Shern offers this piece of advice on effective leadership: “Sometimes you have to start out in a role or position that might not be the most ideal, but you need to understand that it is a journey and every role in a hotel is important,” he said. “Be patient and eager to learn; don’t always think you need to advance in six months. Hotel leaders need experiences in places they never thought they’d be in order to get to where they want to end up. Just because you’re coming out of school with a hospitality degree doesn’t mean you’re on the fast track to upper management. I always look for people who have that right mind-set, and who are eager to learn, honest and not afraid to make mistakes.”

Even if you’ve been in the industry a long time, there’s always something to learn.

Never back down from the front lines where change is happening and always stay ‘in it’ with your team,” he said. “Remain vigorously engaged with guests and employees and appreciate what new voices can bring to the table. Oftentimes we don’t get out of the office enough to see, feel and taste what is going on in the operation. Also, read as much as you can on what is going on in your city, region, etc., to be able to anticipate and keep the business on track.”