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When everyone wants to be you, you know you’ve achieved something very special. Such is the case with Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts, one of only two companies I hear clients say they want to emulate, the other being management consultants McKinsey and Company. ”We want to be the Four Seasons of our industry,” they will say, or “We want to be the McKinsey.”
It is no wonder. Across a global portfolio of more than 80 hotels, Four Seasons charges the highest room rates of any sizable chain in the business. And years ago, McKinsey was charging north of $1,000 an hour for its top consultants, so I suspect it is not too different now. Four Seasons is legendary for providing the highest possible levels of personalized customer service, and McKinsey is renowned for having the smartest, most driven people, capable of handling the most absurdly intense work and travel schedules imaginable.
But Four Seasons stands out as the brand to which customers are deeply emotionally connected. It is a brand that they love, respect and admire – and reward with their deepest loyalty.
I’ve had the pleasure this week of reading the memoir of Four Seasons’ founder, chairman and CEO Isadore Sharp: Four Seasons – The Story of a Business Philosophy. I can’t recommend it highly enough as a blueprint for leaders who aspire to appoint themselves CBO: Chief Brand Officer. Sharp doesn’t refer to himself as a CBO, but he is the prototype. Simply because there is no better example of a business leader deciding on what his brand was to be, and then ensuring every person in the organization acted in accordance with that brand each and every day – the very essence of CBO leadership.
In Sharp’s case, the Four Seasons brand was to rest on the foundation of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Based on his conviction that elite travellers would gladly pay the highest rates for flawless personalized service, Sharp realized that Four Seasons’ success or failure rested squarely in the hands of the lowest-paid people in the company: front-line employees. And that these employees would treat guests at the required level of service only if management treated employees in just the same fashion.
In other words, only if management treated front-line employees as management itself would like to be treated: ”For without complete rapport between top and bottom, complete rapport with our customers was impossible.”
While it is difficult for us to imagine a time when anything but superlative service was delivered at Four Seasons’ properties, in the 1970s Sharp in fact had to drive a complete turnaround in the company’s culture. This is where CBO fortitude comes in. Because when he introduced the Golden Rule credo to his managers – people trained in the command-and-control management ethic of the day – they laughed.
But not for long.
“What happens to people who don’t live up to this?” they asked.
“I guess they’ll have to leave,” I replied. ”This is what we stand by. Anybody who doesn’t believe in it – anybody – doesn’t fit in.”
And summing up: ”Enforcing our credo was the most far-reaching decision I ever made, a painful process, often personally distressing. It’s perhaps the hardest thing I ever did. But the fastest way for management to destroy its credibility is to say employees come first and be seen putting them last.
“Better to not profess any values than not live up to them.”
BOOK: Brand: It Ain’t the Logo is now available at all TARGET stores in Canada.
NEW: interview on CBC Radio One about unhappiness with Microsoft Windows 8
TV: BNN interview re. Lance Armstrong’s brand (starts at the 3:30 mark, after the ad).