Controlled Chaos: the valley’s service industry, Roaring Fork Valley – Colorado

It has been suggested to me that the valley is so overwhelmingly based in “service industry” that leadership is not an important topic to be considered.

“We have seasonal workers, and it is hard enough to get them to come to work,” the argument goes.

Or, “It is impossible to build a culture in the service industry because the turnover rate is so high.” This recently was expressed to me by the executive team of a prominent Aspen luxury hotel.

These are facts of life in the service industry and are the very reasons a focus on leadership is paramount, not irrelevant. Hotels, bars, restaurants and our beloved ski community work in controlled chaos. Much like combat, you can only control certain things and the rest is left to how you react to stressful situations.

Combat and running a hotel or restaurant are the same? Really?

Yes and no. The concept around recognizing that chaos exists and that it must be dealt with in an unemotional and methodical manner are paramount in both industries. This was pointed out to me by one of the valley’s most prominent luxury hotels that I recently had the pleasure of working with.

They came to this conclusion not because they think running a hotel and engaging in war are the same things, but because the principles of leading people through chaos are the same. This discussion came to light after I was describing how I built the culture of my Navy SEAL platoon as a young and inexperienced officer.

As I described the trials and tribulations of working through a training exercise that focused on how to deal with being ambushed — about the worst thing that can happen in combat — I noticed a keen recognition in the eyes of the hotel leadership I was addressing.

As a Navy SEAL platoon, we had very standardized procedures for contact with the enemy regarding the commands we gave, what we prioritized and how we moved and communicated with each other. What is more, we perfected these “standard operating procedures,” or SOPs, with countless hours of repetitive work so when it did come time to execute them, they were done automatically, with very little thought.

Yes, I told them, SOPs were vital. As leaders we must standardize as much as we can. This makes for consistent operations that allow for repeatable success and allow us to recognize where and why things went wrong or right. These lessons have been born in blood on the battlefields all over the world since the beginning of time.

However, while necessary, SOPs only serve as the basis for successful organizations. What separates the great organizations, like the Navy SEALS, is how we adapt to the unknown. How we adapt to the unknown is deeply rooted in the culture in place. And the culture in place is implemented and enforced by the leader.

“Contact right!” is the first thing you will hear upon being ambushed. Everything that happens after that is reactive but based on standard operating procedures. In other words, how the leader implements the SOPs and then makes decisions outside the SOPs are what will create victory and save lives.

Creating victory and saving lives can be relative terms when we are comparing combat to the service industry. Citing combat examples to illustrate my leadership points serve a great purpose in that they are clear and unambiguous. You either win or lose, live or die. The good news is that the leadership process implemented in combat is applicable to all walks of life.

Where is victory in the service industry?

Everywhere! Did we meet an unruly customer’s needs? Did we have a contingency plan for an unreliable vendor? Did our service continue unabated after a key employee called in sick at the last minute? The list goes on and on. But we can all agree that a “yes” to any of these questions is a victory.

Saving lives? It can be the death of morale. The death of a career. The death of a reputation. The death of a service. This list goes on and on as well. Small, seemingly insignificant “deaths” will eventually take their toll.

So what is the answer to creating victory and saving lives in the service industry? The culture established by the leader.

Great organizations find and tweak how they do business from a leadership perspective. That is what the area’s top hotel did while I was working with them. They realized they were missing a couple of ingredients to create an even better culture.

The first was the recognition that turnover is a fact of life in the service industry and, as such, is not worth complaining about. Therefore, a new mantra, or cultural behavior, was established: “Turnover and chaos happen no matter what. We simply deal with reality by having a plan to deal with the chaos each day and turnover each season. No more drama, just unemotional and methodical professionalism.”

Things like this don’t just happen. A leader creates this new way of thinking. A leader creates this new adjustment to culture. Because leadership is the only thing that effectively helps an organization to operate in controlled chaos — like what happens in the service industries, right here in our beloved Roaring Fork Valley.

Article published in the Aspen Daily News on Feb. 18, 2023.

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