Zoey D’Arienzo: “You cannot change culture overnight”

Culture, culture, culture — You cannot change culture overnight. But it does matter.One of my strengths has always been to change culture. It’s not easy and yes, it is tons of work. However, creating a positive work environment with open communication makes everyone’s life in the organization better. If there are people who don’t believe in the […]

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Culture, culture, culture — You cannot change culture overnight. But it does matter.
One of my strengths has always been to change culture. It’s not easy and yes, it is tons of work. However, creating a positive work environment with open communication makes everyone’s life in the organization better. If there are people who don’t believe in the culture, then maybe your organization isn’t for them. I encourage you to help them find a place they fit in far away from your organization.

As a part of our series about the five things you need to successfully manage a large team, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zoey D’Arienzo.

An accomplished hospitality veteran, Zoey D’Arienzo brings nearly 15 years of industry experience to her role as vice president of food and beverage at The STRAT Hotel, Casino & SkyPod, Golden Entertainment, Inc.’s flagship property. D’Arienzo, whose experience spans some of the top resorts in Las Vegas, guides The STRAT’s food and beverage team in maintaining the highest standards of quality and service. She oversees operations for the hotel’s restaurants, bars and lounges, from the 24-hour elevated diner, STRAT Café, to the award-winning Top of the World, the hotel’s famous rotating restaurant atop the tower in the SkyPod. Her most recent position on the Strip was as director of corporate food and beverage for Caesars Entertainment, where she implemented national programs and the standardization of policies and procedures, while also helping to develop new concepts. D’Arienzo held the position of director of beverage for MGM Grand Las Vegas Hotel & Casino and beverage manager for Thunder Valley Casino Resort in Lincoln, California. She started her food and beverage career with The Palazzo at The Venetian Resort Hotel & Casino, where she worked in management for the beverage department. D’Arienzo graduated from the State University of New York at Plattsburgh with a bachelor’s degree in communications. Her early accomplishments range from playing soccer at the collegiate level to competing in the Miss USA Pageant circuit. She now spends her free time in the mountains downhill skiing.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I grew up in Buffalo and yes, I love chicken wings! Go Bills! I went to college at State University of New York at Plattsburgh, where I played soccer and paid for college by bartending and managing restaurants.

In 2006 I moved to Las Vegas and started my career at The Venetian and Palazzo Resorts as a beverage staffing manager and beverage shift manager. I worked at Thunder Valley Casino in Sacramento for one year and then for MGM Resorts at Luxor, Excalibur and MGM Grand as director of beverage. While with MGM, I oversaw many corporate projects during our profit growth plan to streamline processes, procedures and products available. This experience led me to a job with Caesars Entertainment in food strategy as the corporate director of food and beverage strategic planning until I was subject to corporate layoffs. I quickly transitioned into sales with Cleveland Menus where I covered regions including Southern California, Las Vegas, Phoenix and Salt Lake City.

Missing operations, I accepted the position at The STRAT in August 2020 as vice president of food and beverage. I could not be happier to be a part of this team!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I am asked this question often and it really depends on what someone finds interesting. When you work in this business on the Las Vegas Strip you come across a lot of celebrities, which is always fun. Las Vegas casinos will fly players into town, and I’ve seen them spend hundreds of thousands of dollars without batting an eye. I love the glitz and the “only in Vegas” experiences that come with working in the hospitality industry in this city.

What I’ve found most interesting, however, is learning about due process at a union versus a non-union property on the Strip. In my previous world of stand-alone outlet experience, if you made an error as an employee you were simply, to put it bluntly, fired. In union and non-union strip properties, they have amazing due process opportunities to pursue.

  • For union — due process looks like this — union contract, grievances, article 31 meetings, arbitration.
  • For non-union — due process looks like — team member relations complaint, due process hearing, peer review.

Both have so many nuances and I have learned so much from both scenarios. They have a lot more similarities than differences. At the end of the day, the employee — team member, co-star or associate (too many different names to manage) — has an opportunity to fight for their job if they feel they were wrongfully separated. I could talk about this stuff all day. Every situation is truly unique.

I believe this process is important for all properties, no matter how big or small. Treating your teams right increases productivity and profitability. I believe this should be the standard in workplace operations.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A funny mistake was when I fell in the pool while giving a tour to our corporate team about what our plans were for the pool season that year. I wasn’t paying attention while trying to look over my shoulder explaining sponsorship opportunities and fell right in. The funny part is when I got my head above water everyone was concerned and quiet waiting to see if I was okay. Then, when they realized I was okay, they all started laughing at the same time. Lesson learned on this one — always keep a back-up suit in your car or your office.

Ok, let’s jump to the core of our interview. Most times when people quit their jobs they actually “quit their managers”. What are your thoughts on the best way to retain great talent today?

I hear this all the time and it is 100% true. I have personally lived this. I don’t regret quitting a job when I was unhappy with how I was being treated. However, I have also lived the opposite. Thankfully, I have had more great managers than terrible ones. I like to think good leaders get promotions, not the bad ones.

The best way to retain talent is to invest in it. But, not in the way many might think. It’s not about paying the better salaries, offering promotions or providing constant training. Retaining talent is about finding out what the individual values as investment. Learning about them is an investment of time and energy.

Some people are motivated by money, some by responsibility, and some by having balance. The most important lesson I learned about retaining talent came while I worked at Luxor and Excalibur as director of beverage. The president of the property, Renee West, had become a mentor. She suggested I read Simon Sinek’s book, “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.” This book teaches you to stop believing people are motivated the same way you are. It’s your responsibility to understand your people and what drives them, and then in turn what keeps them motivated. A great follow-up book is “Leaders Eat Last.”

How do you synchronize large teams to effectively work together?

You MUST start by synchronizing the management team first. I work individually with my managers by having bi-weekly meetings. I work with each of them individually on their leadership skills and make sure they are managing people consistently. It would be completely unfair and unreasonable for me to assume everyone has the same management styles or skills. Plus, the number one thing I find is that these managers have no idea how they are being perceived by the staff they manage or their counterparts.

My expectation is they lead through coaching and non-punitive discipline or discipline without punishment. Setting standards is very difficult when you have a large team. I always tell my management team the same story about nametags. As silly as this is, if you can’t ensure someone is wearing their nametag, how can you expect them to execute higher level tasks.

The goal is to start small. Build on the smaller tasks, skills and expectations until you get to the big ones. Then you are truly engaging with your team at all levels.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your personal experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Manage a Team”. (Please share a story or example for each, Ideally an example from your experience)

  1. Listening vs. Hearing — There is a huge difference between listening to someone and hearing them. You must be actively listening at all times. The biggest way to lose credibility as a leader is to not listen to the people who report to you. They are going to drive a lot of the great ideas to make your business more profitable and the people that work there more satisfied.
    I have had so many hourly employees come to me and say, “my manager doesn’t listen to me”. As an employee what they see when you aren’t listening is “you don’t matter to me”. That is not only demoralizing, it is unmotivating. Employees matter to the business.
  2. Managing people up or out — As a leader, it is our responsibility to set standards for our teams. With those standards, we also need to ensure we are holding people accountable to those standards.
    From an employee perspective, if I allow someone to skate by and not contribute it sends a message to the rest of the team that it is acceptable not to work hard. If a manager is not communicating an expected message appropriately, it can destroy culture and moral. As the leader, you need to know what is going on.
    If something isn’t working for the team, you need to identify and manage it up to standard or remove it. I believe in action plans and I give people every opportunity to be successful. However, their success is not my work to do, it is theirs.
  3. As the Leader you don’t get the wins, you get pressure — Don’t take the win ever! The team gets the win, the individual who did the work gets the win, you don’t! Of course, the corporate team or the shareholders know you are running the team, but the team or the individual performing the task or who came up with the idea or executed on the idea gets the win.
    I am the queen of planting seeds to make sure we are moving in the direction I see best. I know where my team’s strengths and weakness are. When we do something great, I praise them for their hard work. I try to keep any external pressure away from them so they can stay focused on the tasks at hand.
    Think of your team like your children. You protect them from the pressures of day-to-day life, but when they succeed you take them for ice cream. Then, in return, they support you and have your back. As parents we feel the win with pride, but we give them the credit.
  4. Know how you are perceived — Do you know how people truly perceive you? Have you asked? I love working with people who think their teams love them to come and find out the team doesn’t.
    When you are a leader, you are in a position of authority. This authority often creates fear instead of true cooperation. Understanding how you are perceived helps you connect with different individuals on your team.
    In my past I have worked with people who have favorites, are harder on others, or are just complete work passers. They make others do the work, they aren’t respected and to be honest, shouldn’t be leaders. The best leaders care about how they are perceived and work hard to make sure that perception is a positive one. I have always believed you don’t dump your garbage on your team. Save that for your therapist or bartender.
  5. Culture, culture, culture — You cannot change culture overnight. But it does matter.
    One of my strengths has always been to change culture. It’s not easy and yes, it is tons of work. However, creating a positive work environment with open communication makes everyone’s life in the organization better. If there are people who don’t believe in the culture, then maybe your organization isn’t for them. I encourage you to help them find a place they fit in far away from your organization.
    When I once arrived at a new job, the culture was that management didn’t like employees or the union. I got pretty beat up the first few months. Even to the point of employees telling me I wouldn’t last six months. I was able to prove everyone wrong.
    My team received a ton of leadership training and we went on a full grassroots effort. We listened to the employees, we partnered with the union and we thanked the people who were working hard. The shift happened in less than a few months because the employees saw that there was care and they mattered.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

The advice I would give to other CEOs or founders would be to invest in yourself. We don’t have all the answers and we often need a little support at times. We cannot help our employees thrive unless we have the energy and mental peace of mind to do so.

I personally love to read. I am constantly pushing myself to understand my business and the people who work here. I have attended an unbelievable amount of conferences and training seminars. I worked with a life coach and yes, a therapist too. All of which, I got a ton of understanding about myself and how to interact with others.

When employees would complain to me in the past, I used to roll my eyes and get frustrated. Now, I take all the emotion out of the interaction and put myself in their shoes. My ability to acknowledge and validate people is high. I understand now that it isn’t about me, it’s about them. That’s how you help your employees thrive. Let them talk to you so you can understand them as individuals!

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire 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. 🙂

“Acknowledge Them” — As leaders, we sometimes forget to always acknowledge hard work. We expect people to come to work every day happy, forget all other challenges in their lives and give their lives to the company they work for. I think it would be amazing if we started acknowledging hard work and saying “thank you” a lot more. And not just a “thank you” but a genuine and specific “this is what you did great.” Making someone feel special should be the standard for a job well done.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Work until you no longer have to introduce yourself” — Anonymous. This quote is so relevant to my life because I believe in reputation above all else. In every job, every relationship, every interaction you have a chance to build or destroy your reputation. I take so much pride in how I am perceived by others. I like that people in my industry know and respect me. I’m proud of that.

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