Tips From The Top: One On One With Mike DeFrino, CEO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

I spoke to Mike DeFrino, the Chief Executive Officer of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, about his best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Mike: Growing up in an Italian-American household, food took center stage at many gatherings, which sparked my passion for the restaurant industry. During college, I took up multiple bartending and server positions at local five-star restaurants to break into the business. I was a struggling student, so it wasn’t unusual to see me riding my motorcycle to and from work in full black-tie attire (that was bought in a thrift store somewhere, no doubt).

Adam: How did you get here? What failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Mike: After college, I was accepted into the management training program at the Ritz Carlton in Atlanta. I started in the housekeeping department as a manager and worked 70-hour weeks while juggling two bartending jobs to stay afloat.

After eight years, I noticed coworkers getting promoted above me and started questioning myself and whether I was a fit for the company. I was irreverent and had a sharp sense of humor that not everyone appreciated. I refused to become complacent, change who I was, or wait around for my golden opportunity, so I decided to take a leap of faith and ended up at Kimpton – an inclusive, empowering work environment that embraced my individual quirks and work ethic.

Through that experience, I learned that it’s important to recognize your own potential and acknowledge when something isn’t serving you anymore. I wasn’t their guy, and that was okay.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Mike: It’s important to find courage, conviction and have a little hubris to inspire and motivate teams. Building credibility is also a vital component to earning the trust of employees.

In my early days at the Ritz, I gave a motivational speech every morning to our entire housekeeping team to psych them up to clean the 500-room hotel. After my speech, I would be in the trenches cleaning toilets, stripping rooms, and taking inventory. I’ve found that getting some mud on your boots and involving yourself in every level of the business helps provide a holistic view of the job while building credibility, trust and loyalty with your teams.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them?

Mike: I’ve been fortunate to have had many different bosses in my career, all of whom I’ve learned something from. Even in my early days in the hospitality industry, I would study the leaders around me and take mental notes on their leadership styles and which attributes I wanted to exemplify in my own career.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Mike: Leadership skills take practice and time to develop, and often require throwing yourself into uncomfortable situations to continue to learn and grow. Even today, I tell young managers not to miss the opportunity to lead. I had just as much fear as the next person but embracing the unfamiliar and taking risks was the fastest way to figure it out.

Next-gen leaders should study industry-leading companies that are driving conversation and inventing new ways of thinking. We all can take notes on their successes and their pitfalls and glean insights on best practices to inform and inspire our own leadership decisions. Many leadership qualities are learned skills and I’m a firm believer in being a perpetual student.

Adam: What is the best advice you have on building, managing and leading teams?

Mike: You can teach skills on the job but you can’t teach passion and empathy, two defining characteristics that makes the Kimpton experience so memorable for employees and guests alike. That’s why I believe in intentionally hiring for heart, celebrating individuality, and encouraging employees to bring their authentic personalities to work.

I take a more egalitarian approach to leadership, which is why you won’t find as much hierarchy among our employees. I value transparency and open lines of communication, which means empowering employees at every level of the organization to be involved in business decisions and take ownership of how they live the brand. This approach fosters an innovative, entrepreneurial spirit and inspires collaboration.

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they impacted your development as a leader?

Mike: Growing up, my parents instilled the notion that everybody should try everything once. That’s how I ended up dabbling with soccer, waterskiing, mountain biking and wrestling – all risk-taking activities.

Those adrenaline pumping extra-curriculars have a direct correlation to my leadership style in the workplace. I lead loudly, with purpose, and take risks in the boardroom. I embrace the unknown and the spirit of fearlessness sparks innovative ideas on how to continue engaging and inspiring our guests in new creative ways while preserving the unique, heartfelt Kimpton experience that employees and guests have grown to love.

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