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Morning Briefing for pub, restaurant and food wervice operators

Fri 25th Aug 2023 - Friday Opinion
Subjects: Narrative, narrative, narrative: a CEO imperative, alcohol and the origins of hospitality, in search of service 
Authors: Elliott Goldstein, Phil Mellows, Glynn Davis 

Narrative, narrative, narrative: a CEO imperative by Elliott Goldstein

Nearly 25 years after someone first showed me Roger McGough’s powerful poem on leadership, I still hear his message clearly: “I wanna be the leader, I wanna be the leader. Can I be the leader? Can I? I can? Promise? Promise? Yippee, I’m the leader, I’m the leader. Okay, what shall we do?”

With chief executive appointments in particular, there can be so much build-up to the appointment itself, but often too little thought about what comes next. This is particularly true with regard to narrative, both internal and external. Frequently, newly appointed chief executives get swept up in the process of their appointment and the company-wide agenda.

For many new chief executives, thinking about their personal communications can sometimes appear less of a priority, especially during the all-important first few months of their tenure. But upon exit – when tables can turn and communication agendas often diverge – these same chief executives are left poorly equipped and unprepared to tell their own story at a critical inflexion point.

In today’s leadership landscape, thinking deliberately about personal and corporate communication strategies – about what to say and how and when to say it – should top the list of priorities for chief executives. Paddy Harverson is an expert in this field. After spending his career as a journalist for the Financial Times, director of communications for Manchester United and then a decade as communications secretary shaping the narrative of our now King, Paddy co-founded the global communications and strategic advisory consultancy Milltown Partners in 2013.

There, he and his team of 120 consultants based in London, New York and San Francisco advise a range of corporate clients, as well as high-profile business leaders, on how to tell the right stories to cultivate and protect reputation. Last week, I caught up with Paddy and his fellow director at Milltown Partners, Dan Sacker. “We help people navigate the public sphere,” summarised Paddy. “In particular, we advise prominent entrepreneurs who now occupy a space in public life that stretches beyond that of a founder, and business leaders seeking advice at important milestones, such as entries and exits.”

While historically, a chief executive’s responsibilities began and ended with financial performance, today’s leaders are tasked with building company reputation, protecting stakeholder relationships, role modelling to the rest of the business and acting as a public ambassador for their brand. For leaders with their sights on future chief executive positions, there are ways to lay the foundations of a strong personal brand – long before an eventual number one role.

“I think about it as leaving a trail of breadcrumbs,” said Paddy. “Once appointed as chief executive, it can be valuable to have an existing body of work to demonstrate achievements and values.” For those one or two moves away, thinking carefully about your online presence, for example, or building a roster of interviews in relevant trade presses can go a long way. But once appointed as chief executive, where to start?

“It’s best to think about the two stories you’re going to tell,” reflected Paddy. “The one about yourself, and the one about the company.” These stories should be carefully aligned, the first detailing your journey and how your past has prepared you to take on the job, and the second communicating the business vision and ambitions for the future. “Getting these stories right is especially critical if you’re succeeding someone with a very different leadership style, or if there’s a new set of business challenges to face,” said Paddy.

Carefully crafted speeches and statements are just one piece of the puzzle. Leaders who step up as chief executive must commit to changing their mindset – especially if communication has not been a primary focus in previous roles. Indeed, most chief operating officers or chief financial officers (the roles often typically feeding into chief executive) will not be experts in public speaking or crafting word-perfect messages, and most won’t be accustomed to spending large portions of the week considering strategic communications. In many ways, communications is a skill set that first time chief executives need to learn from scratch.

“Harvard professor Ron Heifetz wrote about the theory of adaptive leadership, and the distinction between the dance floor and the balcony,” explained Dan when we discussed this. “When you’re on the dance floor, you’re in the weeds, in the detail, in the day-to-day. But when you’re up on the balcony, you’re concerned with vision, you’re an ambassadorial voice, and you need to articulate your company values to an external audience. Too many first-time chief executives aren’t used to being on the balcony and aren’t equipped with the tools to take a step back and really project a corporate vision.”

Getting up on the “balcony” – early and frequently – is critical to success. And once you’re there, it is possible to cultivate a more compelling communication style. Clearly, not everyone will be Steve Jobs or Barack Obama, but there are techniques leaders can use to improve their public speaking. Dan recalled working closely with one leader for whom spending just ten minutes analysing and marking up the speech text had a transformative impact on delivery. And, of course: practice, practice, practice.

Never have chief executives had more pressure to speak up. This is especially true in the consumer-facing sector, where customers are looking to buy from brands which reflect their values and have a voice on topics like sustainability, diversity and social justice. But for Paddy and Dan, knowing when to stay silent is just as important as knowing when to be vocal. “We advise leaders not to opine on every issue that crops up in public conversation,” said Paddy. “Think about the relevance to your business, your employees and your community. And then think very carefully about what you’re going to say and what scrutiny that could bring.” 

It’s impossible not to think back to 2020, when countless businesses made bold statements denouncing racism but failed to follow up with meaningful action. As such, the chief executives that make the best communication judgement calls are often those who make their internal audience their first priority. “Chief executives should establish a consistent line of communication with their employees and not just speak up in times of crisis,” said Dan. “And then when issues do arise, those within the company feel more involved in the conversation.”

Over the past few years, we’ve seen the pendulum swing towards a far more authentic style of leadership. Today, it’s not uncommon for chief executives to speak openly about their mental health, their families, their past trauma or missteps they’ve made. Striking the right balance here is paramount. “I think context is so important,” said Paddy. “Both for the company you’re leading and the person you are. Authenticity works if you’re at the helm of a consumer-facing or public-facing business, but it might not be necessary in other corporate settings. And it’s also about the person. I’d never encourage someone to share something personal to keep up with the current leadership playbook, it has to come from a genuine place.”

Dan added: “You’ve also got to consider the impact of authenticity on those around the leader. Chief executives aren’t just business leaders, they’re individuals with families, children and communities around them. Sometimes, revealing something personal can make a bigger impact on those around the chief executive than on the chief executive themselves.”

Perhaps the most important moment to have your story straight is during an exit. Outgoing chief executives must build a narrative which not only illustrates reasons for leaving, but also positions them well for their next role. It is at this stage that many chief executives choose to bring in professional advice – especially if their interests have diverged from those of the company.

As Paddy reflected: “Examples where a beloved leader is saying farewell after a great run of success are quite rare. More often than not, there is either some underlying tension – or worse – and then the corporate comms team stops representing the leader and has to start telling a different story – sometimes at odds, or even hostile, to the story of the outgoing chief executive. But really, it’s in both parties’ interest to put on a united front.”

Key to success for any chief executive is an ability to communicate clearly and effectively – from before an appointment to after an exit. Today, too many chief executives assume that communication is a job for their comms director or head of external affairs and fail to invest enough time and headspace into effectively telling their own story. But, in our current media and leadership landscape, those not proactive about their reputation will have it defined for them by others. Communication is a learnt skill, and it is never too late to build your expertise or bring in external support. Doing so will reap huge benefits for you personally, and for the companies you are leading.
Elliott Goldstein is managing partner at sector recruitment firm, The MBS Group. This article first appeared in Propel Premium, which is sent to Premium subscribers every Friday. Companies can now have an unlimited number of people receive access to Propel Premium for a year for £995 plus VAT – whether they are an operator or a supplier. The single subscription rate is £495 plus VAT for operators and £595 plus VAT for suppliers. Email to upgrade your subscription.

Alcohol and the origins of hospitality by Phil Mellows

The drunken monkey hypothesis, first floated by Californian professor Robert Dudley two decades ago, argues that when the ancestors of human beings came down from the trees, they scavenged the forest floor for nutritious fallen fruit. Some of it had started to ferment, producing poisonous alcohols. 

It was good stuff though, and over the following ten million years, trusty old evolution made sure that humans are now able to metabolise the poison. It’s a chemical by-product of this process in the body, acetaldehyde, that in excess, has the potential to cause us problems, from hangovers to cancer.

The next big event in the history of alcohol came a mere 10,000 or so years ago, at a crucial moment in the development of human societies, the agricultural revolution. As people began to live in settled communities, abandoning the hunter-gatherer nomadic lifestyle to grow their own, it made organised, controlled, alcohol production possible, thanks to cooperative labour and having plenty of grain.

Archaeologists have unearthed rudimentary breweries in these earliest settlements. Beer, it’s believed, was an important source of nutrition, but people must also have noticed the pleasant psychoactive effects – and the magical way in which it lubricated their social relations.

Several families living together in one spot, having to work cooperatively to farm the land and share out the produce, would have created friction. There is also archaeological evidence of meeting places in these settlements, apparently set aside for feasts in which the whole community came together to eat and drink and have a bit of a sing and a dance, no doubt. 

We talk about pubs playing an important role in social cohesion today, but the idea goes back a heck of a long way, to the dawn of human society as we know it, and beer was there at the start.

Now Oxford professor John Parrington, the author of a book titled “Mind Shift: how culture transformed the human brain”, wants to take it further. In an essay for Psychology Today (published in June 2021, but I’ve just come across it) he argues that social drinking might have played its part in changing the way our minds work.

Drawing on the research of American archaeologist Brian Hayden, who believes even hunter-gatherer societies made their own beer as long as 13,000 years ago, Parrington argues that, “consumption of alcohol in a social setting could have been important in the development of human consciousness by allowing our ancestors to become more expansive in their thinking, as well as more collaborative and creative”.

In other words, it may have made the agricultural revolution possible. But this could be an unnecessary leap. It’s enough to understand that beer, and getting a little squiffy, was central to neolithic hospitality, and it had a value in making people feel a part of the new, wider social groups that were emerging.

It may not only have been alcohol that did the job. Remote communities even today use psychoactive substances as part of the rituals that hold their societies together, give them meaning and make them one. Perhaps it’s only in the fragmented modern world that the consumption of alcohol, and other drugs, unhitched from social grounding, becomes problematic. 

Canadian psychologist Bruce Alexander, most famous for his “Rat Park” experiment in which he demonstrated that happy, social rodents shunned the freely available morphine eagerly consumed by their lonely, isolated fellows, has more recently, in “The Globalisation of Addiction”, put forward the notion of dislocation to explain why people get hooked and fall into difficulties.

So, if alcohol is part of the problem, might it also be part of the solution in helping to heal that dislocation? In bringing people back together again? The experience of the past few years – when our hospitality spaces, after 10,000 years, have been threatened by pandemic – has certainly sharpened our appreciation of their role.

Yet there’s a debate still to be had around whether drinking is a necessary part of the experience. Alcohol-free beers, wines and spirits, currently enjoying a burst of popularity, and the emergence of dry bars, raise the possibility that we can have fun and socialise without that subtle loosening-up that happens in the drinker’s brain.

Some societies manage without alcohol, of course, and change is always possible. But there’s a lot of human history, and indeed pre-history, to shake off there. Quite honestly, I’m not sure of the answer. I’ll keep thinking though – ideally over a pint down the pub.
Phil Mellows is a freelance journalist

In search of service by Glynn Davis

Every couple of years, my family enjoys a short stay at The Grand Hotel in Eastbourne, where we enjoy the sort of old-school ambience and service that is something of a rarity at UK coastal hotels. It is no surprise that an episode (The Body in the Library) of Miss Marple was filmed at the hotel, involving Joanna Lumley lounging around in what was probably The Presidential Suite. 
During check-in (not for The Presidential Suite) on our recent visit, we were asked if we would require our beds to be turned down in the evenings. We declined on the basis that we don’t live in an episode of Miss Marple or Jeeves & Wooster, and from what I heard, most other people also deemed this activity to be unnecessary too.
The fact that this service was not undertaken automatically this year is maybe a result of staffing shortages and is part of a review of what services are essential to maintaining the high five-star standards at the hotel, and what are superfluous. Clearly, turning down beds is not one of the vital activities. This strategy appears to be working, because we found no fall in overall standards during our stay and we are already looking forward to returning to this haven on the south coast. 
Having to turn down my own bed was not such a hardship, but I’m getting the feeling that the definition of service in general is being overhauled – or mauled – because so much more of what we buy, whether it be goods or services, involves us, the customer, doing increasing parts of it ourselves. We are entering an increasingly self-service world where the provider offloads ever more of the work onto the customer.
This manifested itself in the worst possible way with the widely publicised case of Ryanair charging an elderly couple £110 for failing to check-in online and generating the relevant boarding passes ahead of their flight. They argued they had accidentally printed the return leg by mistake, but Ryanair characteristically held its ground and simply highlighted its rules – failure to check-in online incurs a fee of £55 per person. That’s the rules.
They are correct, of course, even though genuine mistakes can sometimes be made, and we all know that Ryanair and other low-cost airlines will continue to thrive through their competitive pricing. But this episode suggests service is effectively being dragged into the gutter. There is no humanity in this type of engagement. This is especially the case for people who are not online and don’t have access to email or a printer. 
We are clearly talking predominantly about older people, but it is too simplistic to say that it is only this grouping that is being persecuted for not being able to jump onboard the new DIY world of service. 
I suspect the issue affects a much broader base of people, judging by The Grocer 33 annual survey, which found customer service levels in supermarkets have fallen to a new record low, and the single reason for this is the soaring levels of queues at the manned checkouts because many have been replaced by self-service checkouts. Clearly, many people would like to be served by an actual person. This is what they call service.
This is supported by a survey from Zonal and CGA. Although it found a majority of customers now prefer to use technology in venues compared with a minority pre-pandemic, the bulk of this usage is pre-dining, involving the likes of booking and enquiries. In contrast, when people are actually in the venue, three-in-five prefer to place orders and settle bills face-to-face. Visitors to bars and restaurants enjoy an enhanced experience when dealing with actual people and not having to live their lives through a smartphone.
If I ever find a QR code on the table replacing the physical menu in The Grand’s Mirabelle restaurant, then that will be time to bring in Miss Marple to solve the case of The Body in the Hospitality Industry.
Glynn Davis is a leading commentator on retail trends

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