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Hotel director has room for views

Published on Friday, 25 Jun 2010
Jean-Jacques Reibel
Photo: May Tse

Jean-Jacques Reibel has over 30 years’ experience managing some of the world’s finest hotels and currently oversees the InterContinental Hong Kong. As managing director, he has been the visionary and driving force behind the renovation of all 495 guestrooms, including the creation of “Asia’s most spectacular presidential suite”, and the launch of the highly acclaimed Nobu restaurant. He talks to Jan Chan.

In 24 years with the group, he has worked at InterContinental properties in Washington DC, Miami and Paris. While stationed in the United States, Reibel took the chance to develop productive partnerships with a broad spectrum of leaders in business, the arts, government, charitable organisations, and even the military. 

What characterises your style of leadership?
I’m very approachable and willing to listen and learn from my team. I also understand that they may need support and guidance from me, so I go out of my way to provide that. At the same time, I’m very demanding and make a point of ensuring that details are correct and standards are consistently high.
Every morning at 9am, I have a 45-minute executive meeting to review the business and keep up-to-date with what’s going on today and tomorrow.
Our industry is very much about people and service. That’s why I talk to guests on a regular basis to find out what they expect and if there are any ways we can improve.

I also believe that, as a leader, you must be able to change course very rapidly. So, if you made a decision yesterday and things didn’t turn out well, you should rethink it immediately and change without delay. 

How did you train yourself to be a better leader?
I realised that I had to learn to listen to criticism and find out what people think. Otherwise, I would never be able to improve myself or grow professionally. Like everyone else, I am not perfect and I make mistakes. But every day, I learn a lot from my colleagues in this hotel. They are very honest and genuine when giving their advice and opinions. That is important for building mutual trust, and I recognise that if you don’t accept feedback, people may think you don’t want to hear the truth.

Which aspects of being a senior manager are always tough?
Being a senior executive, you have to be very honest if you want to be respected. However, in some cases, being honest is not always as easy as it should be. For example, if someone is not ready for promotion, you have to find a way to explain that without causing the person to lose heart or become demotivated. You have to take the time to explain the situation and then work together to overcome areas of weakness and help the person reach their goal next time around. Sometimes, telling people where they are going wrong is difficult. You need to be very compassionate, but very honest at the same time.

What is the secret to building a successful team?
There are thousands of books on management in libraries and bookstores. However, I believe you can’t really learn about this subject just by reading books or listening to various business “gurus”. You have get out, observe, talk to the people around you, and make them feel involved. To build a good team, you also need to be humble, have a genuine interest in helping others, and be a positive example for the people working with you.

Which period has been the toughest in your career?
It would have to be when I was working in Washington DC after the 9/11 attacks. It was a human tragedy and, at the same time, terrible for the hotel business because occupancy rates dropped to levels we didn’t think possible. Our hotel was located next to the White House and it was undoubtedly a very challenging time for all of us.

What does your near-term planning focus on?    
It is to ensure we are able to maintain consistently high standards, while also being ready to change when necessary. As a flagship hotel, it is our task and duty to train managers for the mainland where more talent is needed. We feel that it is a privilege to be training many young executives to support the group’s development in China development. I have to plan for that accordingly as we expect open quite a number of new hotels in the mainland in the next few years. 

What advice do you have for graduates interested in the field? 
They should be willing to travel the world and work on as many continents as possible. That is how they will learn about different styles of management and come to understand that what works in one place may not be suitable in another. Of course, it is also the best way to meet people from other cultures, something which benefits everyone, no matter what profession they are in. The sort of experience helps you choose the right partners and the right people, which paves the way to success.

Good listener

  • Reibel believes that a good leader must be responsive to employee expectations
  • Emphasises the importance of career development and team building
  • In 1995, he established the Hotel InterContinental Miami Ball to benefit the Make-A-Wish Foundation, raising over US$8 million and helping terminally ill children

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