Recruitment Lessons from The Savoy
We are lucky enough to have just enjoyed a weekend at The Savoy in London, to celebrate my wife’s Birthday. Of all the uber-premium hotels in London, The Savoy ranks high on anyone’s list, especially after a £220m refurbishment ready for it’s 125 year anniversary this year. Coupled with arguably the coolest list of former guests of any hotel, the place has the very best of reputations.
3 days there and it’s clear that reputation is truly well deserved. We were fortunate to enjoy a 6th floor suite with views over The Thames and The Shard beyond. Every aspect was as near faultless as I have ever seen. Small touches to huge features – all designed to offer the best surroundings possible.
But there is more than just the quality of the Art Deco building and fittings you are surrounded by, more even than following in the wraithlike footsteps of Monet & Whistler, through Edward VII to Sinatra, Monroe, Hitchcock, Chaplin (Charlie!), Hepburn, Olivier, Chanel & Brando. And yet the real difference is almost ethereal.
The difference is the people. Sat having breakfast each morning, with the unusual luxury of having time to reflect as a family, no pressing appointments/engagements/business/ballet classes to cloud our minds, we were able to observe, reflect and engage with the myriad of people serving us. People whose attention was second to none, but who had a presence that was virtually none-existent.
From the second we arrived under the world famous Savoy Stainless-Steel sign (added to the hotel in 1929, one of the first ever uses of Stainless Steel along with the Chrysler Building in New York), we were greeted by doormen and concierges before being passed over to one of the welcoming hosts, before in turn being passed over to our private butler. The personalities and levels of service were impeccable, but it was the whole demeanour and aura of every single person that struck the chord.
Likewise in all the bars, restaurants and even those just present in general areas; the standard of employee was unlike any I have seen. Some were interns, some had travelled around the world just to take up the job. Some were still at college, some were months away from retirement. Some had been there less than 2 weeks, some had been there (significantly) more than 2 decades.
We got talking to one of our breakfast waiters about his induction and the level of training he received. Most premium hotels we have stayed in will place new recruits onto intensive training programs to ‘turn them into’ the nature of employees they, and their customers expect. Our favourite hotel in Edinburgh, the overtly opulent Prestonfield, where we not only got married but have spent countless birthdays, anniversaries and Christmases since, takes great pride in ensuring that every new recruit is fully ‘Prestonfield–ed’ and approved by owner James Thompson before they are let loose on guests.
We were staggered then that our breakfast waiter told is that he was literally thrown in at the deep-end (resplendent in his freshly provided tailcoat) on his very first shift despite no previous hospitality-sector exposure, straight into serving breakfast (at £70 per couple)…..before the top-pressure serving of The Savoy’s famous Champagne Afternoon Tea (£138 per couple).
That story was replicated by the young lady that served our afternoon tea, and again by our dinner waiter in the Savoy’s riverfront restaurant, Kasper’s (who also also took the time to explain the legend of Kasper the Cat [see below for details]…and then bring our daughter a soft-toy Kasper of her very own to keep). Our butler had the same tale of his introduction to his Savoy career…etc.
On our last morning, the hotel’s ‘Thames Foyer Manager’, Rajat Sabharwal came over to thank us and ensure everything had been satisfactory – once again with perfect customer engagement skills. We took the opportunity of asking about their ability to attract, recruit and retain such class leading talent, and ‘let them loose’ with no real training. He spoke of just one skill – their ability to recruit and select staff that were intrinsically the right fit for The Savoy. Even where the individual has no relevant experience, or if there are no roles in the area for which they have applied; if they ‘fit’, they are offered employment.
Their process was thorough, 2 or 3 meetings, various psychometric profiles and a number of ‘taster’ days, where selected recruits got to see the service levels The Savoy expects. All this on hospitality staff that are interns and/or paid minimum wage. The strength and power of this process is abundantly evident. Every single team member is outstanding, so much so that my 5 year old daughter spent much of the taxi journey back to Euston station in tears as she was already missing “all the wonderful people she had met”.
Staggering then that businesses in all sectors take a significantly less serious approach to recruitment of their key members of staff, especially at management, senior management and executive levels.
Equally staggering that so many HeadHunters focus exclusively on skills and experience, all but ignoring personality and chemistry fit in favour of needless formality and ‘control’ in a process.
With few exceptions, businesses structure interviews to be more formal than the usual working environment. First interviews typically conducted in a closed office, over a desk, a very one-sided interrogation of the individuals career-to-date and experience in the quest for the interviewer to cross-examine the interviewee and contrast answers given with the supplied CV, that the interviewee is discouraged from having in front of them. Even modern competency-based techniques are one sided and interrogatory. “Tell me…”, ‘Give me….”.
Little wonder that interviewees are overcome by nerves, or do not give a good account of themselves with such a defensive and intimidating situation.
And yet…..on the basis of such a one-sided, formulaic, impersonal interrogation, majority of the interviewees will be rejected, usually citing ‘fit’ as the reason.
Some businesses will blindly assume that because they have engaged a recruitment business, or a headhunter, or worse still used a web-based selection tool/database (wittingly or unwittingly), the cultural assessment/selection has been made. Seldom the case. Client pressures on time & cost have turned the majority of contingent/database recruiters into CV-factories where, in a competitive environment, CVs are sent simply as soon as possible, time being the sole focus. Even those few recruiters that do meet all candidates will seldom really take the time to get to know the individuals on their databases so as to assess the fit with each different client company, and will still be more focused on ensuring they send CVs before their competitors.
This is where retained executive search comes in; Or should do. Each candidate subjected to a specific criteria-based interview tailored around that specific recruitment process. And yet, majority of Search Consultants/HeadHunters will adopt that similar personality-devoid assessment. A formal (usually overly formal) interview, in an office, in an intimidating environment again focusing on just skills, experience, the ‘whys’ and ‘whens’ of the individual’s career moves. The interviewer sat in a suit, protected in their kingdom behind a desk, often a boardroom table for maximum intimidation. They may throw in a half-hearted “Tell me about you away from work” style question in the last 5 minutes of an interview, but the truth is, the decision has already been made. Others may introduce a Psychometric Profiling exercise, or a ‘lunch’, but again, only after the experience/skills interrogation has been concluded and potentially filtered out those great fits.
Sad fact is, majority of interview and selection processes work against understanding chemistry fit, focusing solely on backgrounds and skills/experience. Almost everyone we spoke to at The Savoy that surpassed even the high expectations we had, would have failed selection processes based on background and experience – indeed many had been rejected from positions with other, lesser hotel chains.
Businesses neglect Chemistry Fit at their peril. Virtually every great hire is great because of their attitude, their personality…..their chemistry fit. Assessing this is very easy. Turn your recruitment process into a less formal, more human based structure. Start the selection process with a conversation. Choose a less formal, less intimidating environment. Understand the person’s fit. Get that right and, within reason, the skills and experience becomes academic.
…..however, ignore that chemistry fit and you risk recruiting a Kasper. Great at making up the numbers, but not much else.
The Legend of Kaspar the Cat.
The story begins in 1898 when Woolf Joel, a South African guest at the hotel, gave a dinner party to which only 13 were able to attend. He laughed off the old superstition that tragedy would fall upon the first guest to rise from such a gathering, and so the dinner continued. His friends’ fears were soon justified, when Woolf was fatally shot following his return to Johannesburg.
After this incident, the hotel always provided a Footman if a party had 13 guests to balance the number. However, as some of the dinner conversations were often of a confidential nature, Kaspar (a 3 foot high ‘wooden-eared’ black cat scuplture, made by Basil Ionides in the 1920s from a single piece of London Plane tree.) was conceived to become a convenient 14th guest, a tradition which remains to this day (Kaspar can be seen in a glass cabinet just of the main lobby area, when he is not dining).
When hosts find their private dinner parties attended by the unlucky number of 13 guests, they can request the pleasure of Kaspar’s company as the “14th guest.” The handsome cat is seated in a chair, draped with a dinner napkin, and is served each course as though he were one of the diners.