Hospitality Industry
6 min read

The right leadership mindset and competencies from EHL Graduate School

Dr Achim Schmitt
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Interview with Dr Achim Schmitt, Full Professor and Associate Dean of EHL Graduate School. Here he explains the human-centric rationale behind the leadership mindset and competencies that drive the EHL MA degree programs, aimed at forming the new generation of hospitality leaders. 

1. Typology of leadership

Does EHL’s Grad School train for a certain type of leader? 

Based on EHL’s heritage, its brand promise, its culture and its overall positioning, I strongly believe that EHL has a future role to play in the highly competitive leadership education market. Being in the service business means dealing with human beings on a daily basis. Mutual respect, being mindful of ones’ activities and dealing with a variety of cultures, opinions and backgrounds are fundamental pillars that we've had for quite a long time in our institution.

Based on these values, we believe that we can position our Graduate School (GS) in a leadership sphere focusing on human-centricity. In fact, we initially thought to position the GS towards the fundamental skills and competences necessary to become a service-centric or customer-centric organization. However, the many discussions with alumni, colleagues, industry and students shifted our thinking much more to position our Grad School in terms of human-centric leadership style. Faithful to the motto “happy employees create happy customers”, we believe that EHL’s GS focus should not be on the customers but rather on all stakeholders.

The human-centric leadership style changes the leader’s focus from profit, productivity and output towards the employees’ needs, feelings and goals. In this respect, human centricity aims at achieving individual and collective impact towards a common, long-term goal. We have evolved through these definitions ourselves in the Grad School and try to live by these values in our daily life. From a service/customer-oriented leadership style to a human-centric leadership style - this is where we find our niche and our home. So, throughout the last one-to-two years, this is the human-centric leadership philosophy that we’d like to engrain in the GS. We believe it fits our ambitions very well.MBA in Hospitality  Apply new strategies and tools in the workplace  Designed to accommodate busy hospitality professionals, our MBA in hospitality  is delivered 80% online.  Discover

2. Skill sets

Can you give some concrete examples of the managerial skill sets that an EHL MA graduate leaves with?

What we would like to achieve is first of all a sense of self-awareness and humility. Becoming a human-centric leader starts with yourself. Individuals first need to be aware of their own biases before focusing on the needs of others. How do you deal with your surroundings? How do you manage your human interactions? How do you communicate? Do you know how to approach a specific cultural background or context that could be sensitive, or might you have easier access to other cultures and styles that are not your own? People in positions of leadership should be aware of their reference points and should acknowledge them. Once they accept their personal biases, they can start focusing on creating an open innovation culture with a loyal, engaged workforce. Human-centricity is therefore not about becoming a great leader. It is becoming a leader that focuses on individuals not on tasks. It is becoming someone that leads via empathy and the desire to make others shine instead of putting him-/herself in the spotlight.

In that regard, if you come out of one of our programs, it is our hope that you are tuned towards the collective more than the individual self. We hope that you honour and nurture a spirit that goes for collective results vs. individual results, and that you recognize the fundamental need for togetherness as the path to evolution. Again, it’s not about you, it’s about empowering others, building commitment, communicating in a variety of ways to make others comfortable. All these are attributes where a leader might sometimes develop less with the business in mind but more the human in mind.

These values equip future students for VUCA environments that look to become more and more challenging. In environments characterized by constant changes, people will increasingly seek help and advice to deal with complex tasks at hand. In these circumstances, leaders who are approachable, transparent, spur confidence and also show vulnerability will create the right climate of trust and safety to navigate the future. Your job as a leader will be to help your colleagues towards evolution, progression and success in their jobs.

In this sense, the stiff, hierarchical leader of the past has become rather an artefact of the past. The boss sitting in the “Oval Office” who is always busy, disconnected, unreachable and speaks first in meetings will not be able to fulfil future tasks. What’s required today is that your “ego” gets out of the way in order to develop a successful organizational culture. However, this is easier said than done… getting your ego out of the way is difficult to achieve because we seek recognition and immediate valorization. But this valorization of yourself transforms into an evaluation of you in a team environment. Recognizing your own success within the success of others needs to be strongly anchored in your thinking to achieve this change of mindset. I think this is really hard for many people who have a traditional management model.

3. Human centricity

How is this new style of leadership taught?

We have academic course content that is tuned towards human-centricity via our focus on service operations. Managing intangible businesses requires to put stakeholders at the center of the academic content’s DNA. While each course focuses on a specific area of expertise, the common theme remains human-centricity. When comparing our program to other programs in the industry, we are emphasizing slightly more on organizational behavior and leadership aspects. Managing across cultures, nurturing collective performance and creating powerful teams are some course examples where we feature leading scholars in their respective fields.

However, the before mentioned “mindset shift” won’t happen by just focusing on academic content. Instead, we try to work with students on an individual and team level to ensure a personal development. For example, via a network of international coaches, we help individuals to work on certain personal traits throughout the duration of the programme. These sessions enable an increase in self-awareness and to better understand individual biases.

As another example is the way we assess and evaluate academic performance throughout the curriculum. Group work and different working mentalities can create stress and tension between students. These are excellent moments to develop and work with our students on their personal traits. Naturally, individuals have a tendency to help when in comfortable situations. However, human-centric leaders need to remain human-centric when outside their comfort zones. Being uncomfortable with individuals not pulling their academic weight, having different ideas on how to approach and deliver an academic project, and being threatened in the overall achievement of a personal academic goal - these are the so-called “moments of truth” for applying competencies, techniques and skills for human-centricity. These are moments where the individual versus the collective success is tested. These are also the moments that reflect well what will happen later in the real world.

Leadership is at its best when people are under pressure in tough situations or in non-performing situations. How individuals deal with these aspects is key for creating a human-centric work culture. It is much easier to display human-centric leadership when faced with success instead of when faced with decline, failure and stress. Think about it: if you are under stress and if somebody comes and needs a hand, how often do you let your stress go, focus on the needs of the individual and provide guidance? This is the moment when you are truly engrained in human-centricity. It is the moment when you put the collective interest over your individual interest. And this is what we aim to anchor in our courses.

Instead of academic performance and individual success, it is important that students create meaningful connections with their peers and colleagues. These meaningful connections will become solid support structures afterwards. Mutual respect, shared values and commitment towards creating a joint cohort experience are key drivers of success. This cohort feeling and the group interactions throughout a program experience are therefore equally critical next to the academic and individual learning journey.

 

4. Evolution of leadership styles

What has changed in today's leadership styles?

Well, first of all, the environment changed: Covid, new platforms, ecosystems, AI/VR, the mixing of generations in the workforce and changes in the geopolitical landscape – all this has had and will continue to have an impact on how we successfully lead organizations and individuals in the future. While things are hard to  predict, I believe that future success in the private and public sector will be measured according to the degree of how success is shared among others, i.e., how it is collectively measured. Future success of working in a business environment is therefore defined by the collective success and, as a consequence, traditional working models need to open up.

In fact, working in isolation with the traditional ideals of competitive advantage won’t cut it anymore. Today, it is not about outperforming others. It is to “add value” compared to others while simultaneously helping them to strive as well. This evolution of the “co-opetition” mindset has become a strong anchor in the recent debate on ecosystem functioning. In this regard, I feel that the concept of human-centricity cascades naturally from market dynamics, over institutions, towards teams and finally individuals. On all these levels, the idea of collectivity in the future is set to become a main critical success factor. How well and agile you can react in an increasingly uncertain world depends on how well you’re connected and how well you understand your teams, and how you then implement this change of mindset among them. So, I think this is a natural market dynamic that forces us to go there.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also made us very well aware of this shift in attitudes. It forced us to slow us down, focus on our individual realities, and some of us realized that our life is not determined by the rhythm our jobs demand from us. When speaking to younger generations, they always mention the high burnout rates of the last 20 years and refuse – quite rightly – to subscribe to such a poor work-life balance. For instance, I recently asked a 25-year old engineer graduate from a really good school about this topic. Her response was that this degree and the reputation of her Alma Mater will allow her to secure a job in which she “can work a 70-80% job with a good work-life balance”. These are very important attitudes and objectives for the new generation right now. 

These societal signals and trends force us to rethink how we treat ourselves and what we expect from those around us. It’s not all about the hierarchy and the business card - but rather how you are seen in the collectivity of your team. Leaders might want to measure their success by considering if people around them are happy and smile when they arrive at the office in the morning or rather if they look away and are silent.

 
Written by

Full Professor and Associate Dean of EHL Graduate School

Beatrice Venturini
Written by
Beatrice Venturini

EHL Content Manager

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