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Teaching as a Leader in Hospitality: How Pinnacle Hotels USA’s CEO Barry Lall Takes a Transformational Approach

In order for an organization within any industry to achieve its goals it must have a vision, and an effective leader is one who has the ability to not only recognize and outline those goals, but also inspire those who work for the organization to follow.

They need to be able to help each member of the team understand how the visions will affect themselves as well as the company as a whole, going beyond a written organizational mission statement and working to ensure that it permeates throughout all levels of a company, manifesting into actions and beliefs. It is therefore up to hospitality leaders to set and clearly communicate a vision, as well as inspire those around them to share and implement it.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

Leaders who are best able to achieve this are those who use a transformational leadership style. Going beyond the day-to-day management of employees, transformational leaders focus on team-building, motivation, and collaboration with employees at different levels of an organization to accomplish change for the better. These are the people who regularly remind their team members of the purpose of their work, and acknowledge their position of role model within the team by showing integrity in all of their working relationships.

They set high expectations, but also “walk the walk” to demonstrate the standards that they expect. They are charismatic, empathetic, motivating, and possess strong ethical values. As a part of a team, transformational leaders have an innate ability to understand people, define each team member’s goals and aspirations, and bring everybody together to make a difference. Their strong communication skills allow them to not only articulate their own thoughts clearly, but also do so in a way that is inspiring to others.

Barry Lall, president and CEO of Pinnacle Hotels USA, has spent over thirty years within the hospitality industry honing his transformational leadership skills. Born and raised in the East African country of Nyasaland (what is today Malawi), Lall believed all his life that his destiny was to be a doctor. He attended college in England, earned his medical degree from the Glasgow University Medical School in Scotland, and immigrated to the United States with the intention of starting his career in the medical profession. However, the allure of the American dream proved to be a strong one, and he soon made the decision to pursue his long-suppressed dream of running a business. Starting his portfolio with the acquisition of a single 12-room motor lodge, today Lall’s company runs nine properties that are licensed under eight brands and boast a total of 1,790 keys and seven restaurants.

The success of Pinnacle Hotels USA can be boiled down to Lall’s ability to create an inspiring vision for the future, as well as motivate people to understand and deliver that vision. Below are some of the ways in which Lall has implemented the transformational leadership style into his hospitality business.

A singular vision when opening a new hotel

For Lall, when he has purchased a new asset, transforming the cosmetic and capital improvements such as renovations are one of the furthest things from his mind. Instead, his foremost concern is creating a strong business plan that is simultaneously unique to the property and yet still fits in with Pinnacle Hotel USA’s greater vision. First, an in-depth look needs to be taken as to whether a change in branding would significantly improve the value of the asset. The next question is one of what changes may need to be made within the current staff of the hotel. He knows that in order to have success the hotel employees must embrace the company’s goals and vision, and it is instrumental to ensure that those running the hotel are aligned with such ideas from the start. However, he also makes sure to never pull too far back from his hotels, even if he has the best general manager and subordinates in place.

“These hotels are breathing life too, and they are full of life, or they can be more than that, but for them to be full of life we have to nurture them. We have to nurture them with adequate fluids and nourishment, every day, whether it’s the building itself, the grounds, or the people. If we don’t provide that regular nourishment then complacency will set in and the likelihood of failure will also be increased,” said Lall. Indeed, Lall exemplifies this in his willingness to serve “in the trenches” with his staff. Erik Chabala, a project manager for Pinnacle Hotels USA said of Lall’s leadership “I believe he doesn’t ask his employees to do anything that he himself is not willing to do himself. When the leader shows humility, and the willingness to get in the trenches with the troops, the emotional bond is reinforced.”


Teaching financial discipline

When it comes to financial discipline, Barry Lall has worked hard as a leader to make it a part of his company’s culture rather than an order that must be followed. He knows that with nearly 1800 rooms in his company’s portfolio even the smallest expenditures can add up fast, and as a result every penny can potentially save thousands of dollars. He has said “It’s not about affordability — yes I can afford to buy thousands of these  pens, but when I’m even buying this one  pen if I can pay 10 cents less for it, why not?” Rather than acting like a miser and saving money to the detriment of his hotel’s livelihood, he seeks to educate those who work for him that it’s not about being afraid of spending the dollars, but being thoughtful and smart about how you spend them. “If the whole team understands that it is not somebody else’s money, it is not some big corporation’s money, it is our money, we’re all in this together to achieve significant results, then generally people will respond,” said Lall.

Lall is always on the lookout for teaching moments where he can not only lead by example but help those who work for him understand not only what they are trying to accomplish, but also why. During one of his weekly calls with the vice president of operations and the vice president of finance, they were reviewing payables when he came upon a line item that he believed was an obsolete expenditure. Rather than simply telling them to cancel the expense, he asked them whether they felt that it was necessary, and together they all came to a decision together.

Sue Russ DePascale, the vice president of finance said “I still tell stories about [Lall] and how he took the time to review with not only the GM but also the controller – to ask questions that made us think about what we had done (or are doing) – challenging us to making the best decisions.  Getting the hotel teams to think about their business as if it was their own ‘pocket book’ they are spending is a great way to teach them to ‘slow down’ and think and care about the decisions you make.”


Leadership from the top down

Leadership is a requirement at Pinnacle Hotels USA. DePascale noted that while there can often be high turnover within the hospitality industry, it was thanks to Lall’s encouragement of a culture that involves teaching, guiding, and showing the way for their staff. “At Pinnacle, we have the support from the top to be hands on, visit the hotel teams and show them how to prepare their daily work. It makes our jobs easier to do follow-up questions and also know that they can ask any question at any time and we will show them the way. I welcomed feedback from our teams and shared many stories about why we need to do things a certain way.”

Lall expects everyone to have the ability and power to be able to say and correct right from wrong, whether you’re a department head or working the front desk. He makes an effort to ensure his company’s culture provides his employees with the empowerment to be able to see if something is going wrong even if it’s outside their department and to be able to have a voice in fixing it. It all goes back to the motivational nature of Lall’s transformational leadership style, helping employees understand that it’s not just somebody else’s business, everybody who works for the company is equally important and the business is just as much theirs. Says Lall “Leadership is obviously about leading people, but for us it is about leading with respect instead of with fear, and being compassionate, showing kindness, but at the same time, having the ability to be a servant when necessary.”

Hiring with emotional intelligence

When it comes to hiring, Lall believes in finding good people to create a great company. He uses the interview process as a means to not only understand a candidate’s background and prior work experience, but also who they are as a human being. Rather than stick to standardized interview questions, Lall makes sure to discover things such as their aspirations, level of drive, and what they are most passionate about. For him, these are all questions that you need to find out the answer to before you can adequately decide whether or not they are a good fit for the position they are seeking. In order to make sure he is not just hiring “good actors” who know the right way to answer questions, Lall will often try to get a good idea of a candidate’s upbringing, as that is often a good indicator of the values in which they were raised, saying “once you have established their qualities, for me the qualifications are not as important.

It is valuable, yes, to understand what education they had, how they began their work career and what progression they’ve had, but that is not the most important. What’s most important is the human side of this individual.” Case in point, Chabala had little experience within the hospitality industry when Lall hired him, but he knew that he possessed the work ethic and determination to successfully grow into the role. “As I’ve applied my knowledge set and experience to the hotel world, which was new to me,” said Chabala. “I’ve really appreciated how Dr. Lall methodically, and patiently teaches me in a way that builds my own confidence and momentum, because when taught this way, I not only feel that I’m growing with the company but growing internally, as a person.”


A team-centric workplace


Whether you are working as an associate within one of Pinnacle’s hotels or in their corporate office, Lall seeks to ensure that his entire company feels like they are an essential part of a larger team. This works on many levels, meaning they must know how to work within the greater Pinnacle team, but also within their individual hotels, and the unit they serve within that hotel such as housekeeping, the front desk, administration, or food and beverage. This means that you are able to respect and understand a decision made by a superior even if you do not agree with it, barring it does not violate any of the company’s values. He compares working for his company to being a member of a family, saying “just like at home your family can irritate you, but that is momentary and the true love, respect and caring supersedes any other friction you may have.” Within the hospitality industry specifically, there is a level of personal responsibility that comes with respecting your team.

A hotel must be a well-oiled machine to run properly, and whether it be issues with punctuality, not wearing uniforms and name tags, or attitude, the weakest link can easily break the chain. DePascale said that it is Lall’s patient transformational approach to leadership that keeps those within the company motivated to succeed. “The nurturing style allowed for stronger teamwork and gave us extra motivation to do the best we could on a daily basis because we cared about not only our success but also the company’s.”

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