Building the Team

Chapter 7:   The Art of Innkeeping

I am frequently complimented on the Sugar Hill Inn’s staff and this of course is music to my ears.  How did such a small inn in the middle of nowhere assemble such a talented team?

We have an award winning Chef and our guests tell me that Susan is the best massage therapist that they ever have had.  Karen runs the Front Desk/Guest Services as if she was trained by the Ritz Carlton and is also sewing new window treatments for the Bette Davis room, designing a new outdoor lighting scheme and so many more projects.  Jen, the head of housekeeping, along with her team makes perfection look easy and always finds time to talk with our visitors.     Debbie, in addition to being one of our dinner servers, painted the large water color hanging in the Library.   Kalli, our other dinner server is our resident expert on skiing and extreme sports.  John became our general contractor when we renovated the Perennial / Wildflower Cottage saving us thousands of dollars and doing an amazing job.  As the result of my daughter Sara’s work in the area of PR we have landed a wonder feature story in December’s Bungalows and Cottages Magazine.

Building the Team 1
Executive Chef Val Fortin giving a cooking demo at the Littleton Coop. Owner Steve Allen in background

In total, it takes a team of over ten employees and a network of independent contractors (accounting, landscaping, plowing) and venders (Dole and Bailey, Burlington Foods, Green Mountain Coffee, Franconia Gas, Irving Oil, Etc ) working together to effectively run the inn.

When I think about it, even in my past positions, I have been always lucky in finding good people.  Most business owners will tell you that finding good people is their biggest challenge. For years the only answer I had was that God was looking out for this single father.  However recently I have come to realize that I had stumbled upon practices that work and my stereotypical image I had about leadership was wrong.  You don’t need to be an egotistical, overly confident know it all to be a good leader.  In fact those qualities can get in the way.

By industry standards our labor cost are much too high.  If I was the accountant type, managing by the numbers, there would be some serious cost cutting.  Fortunately for staff and guests I have chosen a different way.  Although we are open all year the majority of our business takes place in the summer and fall months.  Unlike most lodging properties in the North County we provide year around employment for our staff and do not bring in foreign workers.  You can’t provide an authentic New Hampshire experience with a staff from the Ukraine.  In the slower months the housekeepers have a chance to do what we call deep cleaning and the chef has the opportunity to experiment with new creative ideas.   When the busy season comes in the summer and fall everyone is experienced and knows exactly what needs doing and is ready to pick up the pace.

Any personnel manual will tell you about the importance of selecting the right people.  However, that is not easy.  NH’s unemployment rate is half of the national rate so I can’t count on dozens of people responding to a job opening. Most people are smart enough to tell me what I want to hear.  I look for people that are excited about working for us.  They have taken the time to understand my vision for the inn, are self starters, and want to work for an organization that believes in quality and has high ethical standards.  People want to be on a winning team and want to be proud of where they work.

Building the Team 2
Karen Cail studying hospitality in Quebec City

If there is a number one rule of management it is lead by example.  If you have high standards for quality, hospitality, ethics and team work the staff will follow.

I have tremendous respect for everyone who works here.  Every job is important and there is no such thing as an unskilled job.  Everyone is a professional.  I can tell you from personal experience that being a good dish washer is not easy.  Every plate, glass and fork must sparkle.  That takes skill, speed and motivation.  The more fundamental the job, the more important that it be perfectly done.  The staff understands that everything that we do is about creating the perfect guest experience and it’s the guests that make paychecks possible.   I try hard to always remember to say please and thank you and to treat everyone as an equal.

I like to think of my staff as family.  Small problems such as the inability to afford a car repair can affect job performance so I like to help out when possible.  I especially enjoy mentoring my younger employees.  Everyone has ups and downs in their life and I believe in being there in good and bad times.  This has created tremendous loyalty.  If someone has a bad day, I call them at home and ask if they are ok? That one sentence works miracles.

There is a secret that every employee knows and that too few employers understand.  Most people use only a fraction of their intelligence and capabilities at work.  For the smart employer there is a gold mine of talent available.  We have discovered culinary, gardening, decorating, technology, music, management, writing and artistic skills to name just a few.  Inviting employees to contribute skills beyond the scope of their job description enriches the inn and makes work more rewarding.

Too frequently small business is encouraged to act like big business with formal job descriptions and policy manuals.  In this system employees are just interchangeable cogs in a big wheel.  It’s like forcing a square peg into a round hold.  I think that there is a better way.  As a small business we can make the job fit the employee and produce better results.   First I like to focus on individual strengths.  As long as we are balanced as a complete team, individual weaknesses do not matter.   When given encouragement and freedom from arbitrary rules it is amazing how creative and talented people can be.

Building the Team 3
Kalli, Deb and Theresa at the Sugar Hill Inn Bar

People have other needs that work satisfies other than just a paycheck.  For some it is professional recognition or feeling successful and for others it might be the desire to be apart of a family or working with friends.  It is also important to realize that employees have a life outside of work.  They have family, friends, hobbies, school, second jobs in addition to dreams and goals about their future.  The better I under this, the better we can craft a job together that meets the needs of both the employee and the inn.

I always try to hire people who are smarter than me in their area of expertise.  A business can grow only so big if it is limited to the owner’s capabilities.  While I ask lots of questions and give feedback it is important not to micro manage.  Why hire the best and then not allow them the freedom to excel.  I never prejudge Val’s menu selections even if it means serving sweetbreads.  Considering his experience it would be arrogant on my part.  By the way,  guests love his sweetbreads.  Every time I delegate responsibility the inn takes a giant step forward.   The best decision I ever made was to  create the position of Housekeeping Manager.  Jen now and April before her have total responsibility for making sure rooms are perfect and ready for check in.   This has taken a big load off my shoulders and they have never let me down.

Building the Team 4
Steve at the front desk

The environment of openness and trust has also been very important.  Comment cards and tripadvisor reviews are in the kitchen for all to see.  No one is ever afraid to share bad news with me and that’s good.  The faster we can fix a customer service, staff or facilities issue the better.

My role in the area of personnel is to communicate my vision for the Sugar Hill Inn, give feedback, mentor, listen and provide the tools needed for success.  With so many talented self-starters I am also the glue that holds everything together and keeps the team focused.  While I don’t claim perfection and realize that there is always room for improvement, I am pleased with results.  In conclusion we attract good people, treat them well and give them an environment where they can excel.

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