Antonia Hock of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center: “Be An Authentic Leader”

Be An Authentic Leader: Don’t compromise your authenticity. It’s the best superpower you have as a leader. Be visible, be tuned into your employees’ needs, and be committed to bringing your entire self to the work. I see so many leaders who are focused on what they “think” they should be, not who they are. […]

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Be An Authentic Leader: Don’t compromise your authenticity. It’s the best superpower you have as a leader. Be visible, be tuned into your employees’ needs, and be committed to bringing your entire self to the work. I see so many leaders who are focused on what they “think” they should be, not who they are. It’s impossible to inspire, build, and grow a great business if you are constantly trying to blend who you really are with a persona you have constructed for work.

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonia Hock.

Antonia Hock is the Global Head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center where she leads a dynamic advisory business focused on innovating the Customer Experience (CX) and Talent Experience (TX) for clients worldwide.

Antonia is a sought-after, author, thought leader and frequent global keynote featured speaker. She is considered a global expert on organizational transformation and building experience-based brands, creating a culture of customer-centricity, empowering employees and issues around diversity in the workforce, and innovating experiences for the future.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I came to terms early in my career that I was by nature driven towards chaos, turn-arounds, new ideas, start-ups — anything that was a “build” vs. a stable, run-rate business that needed only incremental improvement to thrive. When I came out of college, I joined an early-stage dot com and that fed my desire to build and create. It also allowed me to tap into my entrepreneurial spirit while simultaneously allowing me to experience the heavy lifting and long hours required to build a business.

I also love working with big brands that have resources and an appetite for being market-makers through innovation and calculated risk. This led me to work for fast-moving progressive companies like Microsoft, HP, and Siemens where I earned a reputation as a maverick: the one you call when you have a big challenge with high stakes attached. I also learned some important lessons about the value of culture, wellness, and genuine care in the workplace. Those are underserved areas that can break a business apart and destroy even the best financial performances.

After years of building successful business units centered on transformative technology, I was presented with the opportunity to work for The Ritz-Carlton — but with the new twist of taking that legendary service, culture, and wellness focus to market as a methodology that can be implemented in Fortune 500 companies to drive business results. Much of what we do focuses on changing the lives of employees and customers with a strong focus on care, empowerment, and a personalized approach to connection.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

I was a young high-performing, high-potential manager, and I was invited to a very important meeting with 20 senior executives who were 95% men. The meeting room was small, with a boardroom table that fit only 10 seats, and 15 seats around the outside perimeter of the table. I arrived early to the meeting, and out of respect for the seniority of others in the meeting, I took a seat on the perimeter. After the meeting was over, I was called into my skip level boss’ office where I was told that I might not make it as a leader in the business because I could not claim my rightful place at the table. In this culture, my seat choice was signaling to all of the other executives that I was deferential and not bold, aggressive or confident. I thought I was being thoughtful, but that was a wake-up call for how my actions would always signal my self-concept and my ambition. I am forever grateful to those male leaders in this situation who took the time to teach me that lesson early in my career because it jolted me from the patriarchal way I was raised, and I never made that mistake again.

Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

As a junior in high school, like so many teenagers, I was ready to consider my college path. At this time, I was attending a public high school in Indiana with good general academics and a large vocational program designed to cater to students with a variety of post-high school plans. I worked very hard throughout high school, and I was an excellent student with strong testing scores, extra-curricular activities, sports, and civic engagement. I had always dreamed of going to a school that would challenge me, and I had quietly set my heart on an Ivy League school. I thought for sure that everyone in my life would help me dream this big dream and encourage me to “go for it”. What I encountered was much different. Instead of unwavering support, I had just the opposite reaction from almost everyone in my life. I received comments like: “You aren’t smart enough.” “You aren’t Ivy League material.” “Why would a girl want to get an expensive education just to be a wife and pop out kids?” “Go to a state school and find a husband — it will be cheaper.” “You don’t have the right pedigree. Only private school kids get in.” “Your public education will doom you to fail at that level.” “Your academic skills aren’t even close to good enough.” “That dream is too big for you.” “You are too sensitive and shy to handle that type of school.” I was confronted with negative feedback across the board, everywhere I looked. But in my heart, I knew that I was going for it no matter what. Scroll forward — and on the back of my own hard work, two devoted alumni interviewers, and some grit — I found myself as a freshman at Dartmouth College. The net lesson I learned as a 17-year-old is that you must believe in your own power, you must do the work required, and never let circumstances or obstacles keep you from being resilient! The calvary is not coming. The early lesson for me was that grit and determination in the face of doubters and detractors are essential for success.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

This is not a mistake per se, but an indelible lesson nonetheless: I’ve always been passionate about hiring talent and unique characteristics over strictly adhering to a job description, and I’ve followed that passion throughout my career. My experience is that this is not the norm at most companies, so I have many stories involving hiring talent for a business. The one that stands out for me is a hiring experience from many years ago. I interviewed a gentleman for an account executive role on my team. He was a call center representative in a rural part of Virginia making 21,000 dollars per year. I knew after our interview that he was talented and had unique abilities that would make him very successful. Other interviewers felt his pedigree was not appropriate, his salary was a surrogate for his quality, and they recommended a no hire. I felt strongly he would be an excellent fit, and I moved forward with a hire recommendation anyway. I was told that I was risking my career and my reputation, and I should select a “safer” candidate. I had to go all the way to our CEO for an exception to our hiring practices because his salary and package were so disparate with our model. We hired him on a 90K dollars base which was our standard package, and he went on to go to Platinum Sales Club four years straight- including his first year in the role. Then he left to write a best-selling book, and ultimately went on to be an EVP at a major publishing house. The lesson I always share with leaders is that talent is talent, and everyone should be evaluated on their ability, not their current circumstances. As a leader, I have always felt strongly that it is my calling to find the best characteristics and talent, and then to help each person achieve their highest potential.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center is focused on making seismic shifts in the brand identity of some of the biggest brands in the world. We start this journey by focusing on human capital. The way each of us experiences a brand is through the humans that represent that brand — either in person, online, or through channels created and administered by those humans. Recently, we worked with a large sports franchise aspiring to be a world-class sports experience brand through their 8,000 game day employees. After we implemented a new strategy with this franchise, one of their leaders pulled me aside and said that several game day employees expressed shock that they would be able to attend sessions from The Ritz-Carlton. One lady said that this was a watershed moment in her life, “As an hourly employee, I’ve never worked for a company that empowers you, believes in you, and invests in you like this.” This sports franchise is now winning awards for outstanding game-day fan experiences delivered by these employees!

Everyone in our business believes that great service, exceptional experiences, and a culture of trust and empowerment will change lives and businesses. We know the multiplying effect of our work impacts millions of employees, their families, the customers that they touch, the communities where they live, and the businesses that they serve. When you operate with the mandate to change lives, create competitive advantages through service, and help build cutting-edge experience-based businesses, purpose is central to everything that you do every day.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

How I thrive inside and outside of the office are fundamentally the same because I believe that this is a continuum of work and life — not two separate things. The first is that I surround myself with people who inspire me, build me up, and engage me in a deep way. The second is that I make choices that allow me to be authentic, and when I am authentic, I thrive. The last is that I prioritize my physical and mental wellbeing. This means I nurture my body with what I eat and how I work out, and I focus on making time to engage my mind to think about big ideas, and profound concepts. I try to stay out of the mundane; it will pull me down and suck the life out of me. I encourage others to think about the same set of topics and be honest about what really works for you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

I had an exceptional female leader early in my career who showed me that her road to success did not require her to change her personal narrative. She had a complicated family life and a complicated upbringing, and instead of hiding that from all of us, she invited us all into her world. We all came together for a team meeting where we all stayed the weekend at her home sleeping on the floors and sharing the bathroom, and we came out of that weekend much more connected to each other. She gave me the confidence that I could be my full self and not compromise my identity to succeed. She also gave me some of my most meaningful performance reviews where she invested in the coaching and insights to help me raise my game. She modeled how a selfless leader behaves, and it changed my trajectory.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

Good companies are solid. They are comfortably in the pack for their market segment. Nothing special, not that memorable, and they might endure for decades that way or flash out over time for failure to adapt. They don’t grow employees into anything great, but they provide a standard work environment. They have customers that are satisfied enough with their offerings, and they are financially responsible, so investors, owners, or shareholders are satisfied. My overarching sentiment here would be satisfaction and solid across the board.

Great companies stand out. They are known for something extraordinary, and they work collectively to evolve their advantage. They too are financially responsible, but they have higher growth or growth potential, so they stand out to investors because of their distinct competitive advantages. They understand they have to delight existing customers and expand their base through extraordinary service and products. They also actively grow talent and develop passionate advocates who adore their brand and deliver that love into the market at every consumer touch. They have leaders that stand out for their acumen, results, and ability to motivate employees, customers, and engender envy from the competition. Great companies are distinct in their market and differentiated across the board from the pack.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. It’s All About People so Hire the Right Ones: It sounds simple, but so many people get this wrong every day. Every business ultimately comes down to the people and their intellectual property, creativity, and business acumen applied in the service of others. To build a phenomenal business, you must take the time to hire people who believe in the mission, are likable, and have a passion for service. They must have the intellectual horsepower, work ethic, and integrity to deliver at scale. Hiring the wrong people will destroy the business from the inside out.
  2. Be Highly Differentiated or Perish: I see a lot of leaders who think that their business is special simply because they run them. In any business, you must be ruthlessly honest about your position in the market. Are you offering a highly differentiated, important offering that your clients cannot get from any other company? Can you tell that story from a client point-of-view in less than 90 seconds? Be honest and think hard about the answers to those questions. If they aren’t clear, crisp, and specific, you will struggle to survive.
  3. You & All Employees are the Brand so Live it: Every interaction with a client or customer, any public image, and any interaction big or small demonstrates your brand value and image. You cannot have a bad day where you don’t show up on-point for what your brand stands for or what you deliver in the market. I see many companies who believe if they deliver in front of customers that will be “enough”, but the culture of your company, the way everyone conducts themselves day-in-and-day-out at every interaction must be “on-brand”. You are your brand. Nothing will be stronger in the market than your constant conduct.
  4. Be An Authentic Leader: Don’t compromise your authenticity. It’s the best superpower you have as a leader. Be visible, be tuned into your employees’ needs, and be committed to bringing your entire self to the work. I see so many leaders who are focused on what they “think” they should be, not who they are. It’s impossible to inspire, build, and grow a great business if you are constantly trying to blend who you really are with a persona you have constructed for work.
  5. Operational Excellence is Mandatory: All businesses thrive on operational efficiency and optimization. The systems, processes, and infrastructure needed to run an effective business may not be glamorous, but they are a mandate to run a profitable business of any kind. Invest in process optimization and grow an operations team that is passionate about wringing any inefficiency out of the system.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

Consumers today want to have a meaningful connection to the brands that they endorse. This means that they are proud to be affiliated with your brand, they stand for the same things you stand for, and that there is a deep connectedness to the way that they experience your brand. To create this magic, you need to be disciplined about your brand pillars, know your consumer’s deepest desires, aspirations, and goals, and then innovate carefully around how you express your identity in the market. The payoff is loyalty from your base, potentially lower attrition, and more organic referral business.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill? From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

I firmly believe in the principle that, “Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.” High growth, high impact businesses require agility, constant innovation in process, strategy, and output, and strong focus on human capital development, leadership growth, and change management. I focus on the change that needs to happen in every part of our business with our leaders — because any time we miss a critical opportunity to make change happen, we are choosing the status quo. Sometimes that’s the right path, but that should be a deliberate choice — because every decision, passive or active, leads to an outcome so we make sure it’s an intentional choice. You are choosing it if you aren’t changing it. When you find yourself off course, it is time to innovate. Tap into your best employees and have honest dialogue about new ideas, course correction, and what they believe is driving the change in the business. As a leader, you may not have the answers, but if you have hired smart people who are deeply engaged in the work, they will have interesting concepts you might never create on your own. Tap into that creativity and energy, and let those ideas re-inspire you!

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

I believe in three guiding principles for thriving in turbulent times:

  1. Be Operationally & Financially Sound: This should be the bedrock of any business. If you run a business that is built to scale up and down at the drop of a hat, you can weather most market conditions. I see companies get in trouble when they overextend in good times and lock into commitments that can never be operationally or financially maintained in a downturn. Turbulence will happen in any business, so plan ahead.
  2. Have a Bias for Action: When market conditions change, do your research quickly and act. Be swift, definitive, and pivot fully if needed. Too often, companies take too long to act, and it costs jobs, market position, or worse. When you see the sky darkening, get everyone focused on what needs to happen next, and act.
  3. Look for Adjacent Opportunities: This is an underutilized strategy in my opinion. Often, there may be a business opportunity that is very near to something your company already makes or provides. If offered to your install base, it would be a quick source of additional income. Regularly, I see business leaders believe that a radical move into a new space is best, but those moves can be risky in turbulent times. Instead, something much closer to home is often a faster, easier lift to success.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Human capital investment is the most often underestimated aspect of running a company. Most leaders understand the importance of investing in operations, functional areas, finance, branding, and market strategies, but growing, nurturing, and caring for employees gets token investment. Ironically, unmotivated, lower quality, disengaged employees can sink a company, yet dialogue on how to stand out here is often last on the priority list.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

This conversion strategy depends on the type of company. If your company is focused on success at scale, then focus on the most frictionless, intuitive, informative, fast, and customized service experience you can provide. When married to a strong differentiated branding strategy, we know that this can deliver success. If your company is a niche market provider (whether B-to-B or DTC), you need to do all of the above plus know your individual customer preferences, so you can tailor surprise, delight, and wow moments to consumers at a personal level. When carefully connected into upsell and cross-sell opportunities, this personalization can produce a deeper brand connection that drives incremental revenue.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

  1. Invest in Passionate Advocates: No matter what channel you choose, a brand without passionate advocates will fail to connect. Invest in building a great culture first where passion and commitment are cultivated and supported. That will translate directly to customer engagement. Chick-fil-a is a great example of a brand that has passionate advocates driving brand success every day. I recently had a customer tell me that she pulled up to a store in the pouring rain, and she was waiting for the storm to subside to come inside to eat. A Chick-fil-a employee noticed and came out with an umbrella to escort her into the restaurant. She could not stop smiling, raving, and posting all over social media about her experiences. In her own words, she is now a “Chick-fil-a customer for life!”! This underscores that the way a consumer experiences a brand will drive loyalty and, in turn, results.
  2. Be Specific and Disciplined about your Identity: Consumers want to connect with brands that have a specific identity that speaks directly to them. As a brand you cannot be generic, appeal to all, and be successful. Take a stand and have a focused, disciplined identity that appeals to the specific demographics you target. Peloton has done an exceptional job of focusing on consumers that are passionate about fitness, but crave a connected, yet private, community experience. They have built a platform that supports and engages this specific demographic, and their reward has been stronger growth and an enviable social media following of passionate consumers.
  3. Be Honest and Authentic in your Connections: Research shows that the coveted Millennial and Gen Z consumers want to engage with brands that have a definitive point of view on social, business, and environmental topics. As a brand, you cannot be non-committal or neutral on important generational issues. Part of being authentic is to find a way to consistently express your brand values, so you connect with your desired consumer. Athletica is a great example of a brand that is leading with a core social statement. When you log into Athletica’s app, the first screen you see is that they are a “Proud Certified B Corp”. You do not see products, offers, or other advertising. Instead, you see this strong statement about their commitment to a social movement that balances their supply chain, employees, and environmental impact with their profit. This is another way to connect with the heart of your consumers and drive that authentic brand connection.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

  1. Create Indelible Human Experiences: In a world of constant stimulation and options, the strongest brands are creating authentic connections that support meaningful memorable moments. As a consumer, if I share some important information with you, and you fail to turn it into a “moment”, you devalue your brand and you devalue consumer trust. A brand that gets this right is The Ritz-Carlton hotel company. If you share your birthday or anniversary, a special moment, a tiny detail of your stay, or simply give us an opportunity, we will find a way to turn that into a “brand defining moment”. When I joined the brand, I checked into The Ritz-Carlton in Dallas from a long day of difficult meetings, a rain-soaked flight delay, and a quick turnaround in the morning. I was on my last few squeezes of toothpaste — just enough to get through the night and the morning. When I returned to my room late that next day, I had a full new tube of toothpaste on my sink. I did not ask for that toothpaste. It was given openly by another human who saw my need. I was “wow’d” by the housekeeper’s thoughtfulness. Years later, I still love to tell that story.
  2. Personalize your content & anticipate desires: The brands with a devoted following know that creating personal connections with consumers drives loyal behavior. The next step beyond this personalization is the anticipation of needs that demonstrates genuine care and connection. Brands that can show this degree of “commitment” and “relationship” create a 1-to-1 rapport that drives organic followership’s. Nike has invested heavily in technology that creates this type of connection to the individual consumer. As a NikeID member, when you approach the Nike Melrose store in California, the geo-fencing picks up your presence and alerts the sales associates to pull items that match your preferences in your size to present to you in store. This behavior not only personalizes your experience, but it also anticipates your tastes, and acknowledges that, as a loyal consumer, you matter to the brand.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I see many founders make the mistake of broad-based arrogance and ruling with an iron fist — simply because they came up with the original idea, foundation for the company, or they have a title on their business card. The strongest growth companies hire the best talent they can afford as early as possible, and then they vest those people with the power to create, grow, and design the future.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Investing in young adults has the potential to create such change and momentum for all of us and the world we live in. I see so many teenagers and young adults struggling with tough circumstances, difficult home challenges, and social and economic adversity. The infrastructure to help make change is so limited for this group of young people. I would like to see more programs like YearUp that are exclusively focused on opportunities and support for young adults. Giving this group real life skills, career support, mentors, and hope that the future can and will be different makes a real difference to an entire generation. I would love to see more major corporations come out in support of this program, and I would love to see more people give their time, skills, and leadership in the service of our young adults.

How can our readers further follow you online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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