Autocratic Leaders Are Seldom Successful. While an idea may be right, if the CEO doesn’t have the support of his or her team, the idea won’t be successful. Building support for a common vision is vitally important.
I had the distinct pleasure to interview David Kong. David is the longest running CEO of the top 10 major global hotel chains. Since he was named President & CEO of Best Western Hotels & Resorts in 2004, Kong has led the company to its greatest growth to date. Under his leadership, Best Western has grown to a global portfolio of 16 exciting brands, comprising over 4,500 hotels across all chain scale segments. The company has consistently achieved impressive financial success with a RevPAR Index of over 109 the past seven years and unprecedented performance in guest loyalty and hotel satisfaction. Kong has been instrumental in molding the company into a vibrant and relevant brand.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I hear people tell the story of my career in hospitality they often start with my first job as a bus boy. But I believe my career was inspired long before that in Hong Kong, where I learned strength of character at a very young age from my parents.
Growing up I saw how hard my parents worked. They really taught me the value of work ethic but always ensured we spent time together as a family. On Sunday afternoons, my father would take the family out for a meal at one of Hong Kong’s hotels, where, back then, many of the nicer restaurants were located. These occasions really intrigued me and motivated me to begin a career in the hotel industry.
Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?
When I first joined Best Western, I thought that the brand had so much potential. Our hoteliers have immense passion and dedication, and I knew with their support we could take the brand to the next level. We were watching brands like Holiday Inn Express and Hampton becoming stronger by the day, and we were losing market share. While this presented an opportunity for me to focus on repositioning our brand and growing our loyalty program, there were challenges along the way.
One challenge I encountered when I first started as CEO was that our organization was not fully aligned. As the CEO, this presented a no-win situation for me, because expectations were diverse and not clearly defined. To achieve clarity and identify tangible measures of success, I worked with the Board to establish the company’s first-ever corporate scorecard. Because the measurements were specific and tied directly to desired outcomes, there would be no ambiguity on what constituted success at the end of the year.
What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?
I have always recognized that change is the one constant in our lives. The biggest learning through my tenure with Best Western is that change is taking place at a faster and faster pace. I believe that we need to be proactive in not only anticipating it, but in evolving our thinking. I have always been an advocate of thinking like a disruptor and acting like a start-up, and I believe that this mindset has afforded me opportunities for success throughout my career.
Another factor is that I believe in the power of collaboration. I have always managed with the philosophy that two ideas are better than one. It is critical that my teams have the opportunity to share their opinions, thoughts, and ideas in an open-minded environment. This allows us to express diverse opinions while coalescing around a common vision.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.
There are a few things I wish I had been told:
- It’s Lonely at the Top! Often I have to do things that may not be popular, but I believe are necessary. In addition, I have to maintain a distance from my team. I have to separate business from personal relationships.
- Innovation Can Be Difficult. Change is hard for people to embrace. As Jeff Bezos says often, “Invention requires a long-term willingness to be misunderstood.” By that I think he means that sometimes an idea could be ahead of its time. One has to be willing to pursue initiatives that others may not understand or necessarily support.
- Autocratic Leaders Are Seldom Successful. While an idea may be right, if the CEO doesn’t have the support of his or her team, the idea won’t be successful. Building support for a common vision is vitally important.
- The Power of Passion. I’ve heard many talk about the importance of an individual’s intellectual quotient (IQ), emotional quotient (EQ) and curiosity quotient (CQ) when evaluating how successful he or she will be. But I believe that how passionate a person is, is equally important in determining their success. If you aren’t passionate about your vision, why would anyone else be?
- Stay Balanced. Work in this role can be all-consuming. But I’m fortunate to have five adorable grandkids that help keep me focused on what is most important. Finding time to spend with my family, workout, and travel helps me to be a better CEO.
What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
During the start of my career I used to get frustrated when I would see others with less work ethic or less substance move ahead of me. Knowing what I know now, I am grateful I didn’t get promoted too quickly. I now recognize that my career was a marathon, not a sprint for the following reasons:
- Running a marathon requires conditioning. Likewise, a successful career requires a solid foundation. I have seen many people put into positions without the appropriate talent or substance needed eventually fail.
- Preparing for a marathon requires cross training. Similarly, we need to take lateral steps in our career to broaden our horizon.
- We need to pace ourselves in a marathon. Starting out too fast will cause us to burn out. Equally, life isn’t just about work. We need to occasionally ‘stop and smell the roses.’ Without the proper work-life balance, we can never be happy or successful.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have dedicated myself to every job that I have ever held to honor my parents. My father was the manager of a small shop in Hong Kong and worked 7 days a week. My mother was an educator and had to supplement our family income by tutoring after school 6 days a week. They scraped up their savings to send me to America so I could have a better life than them. I arrived in America with no money and I didn’t know anyone. All I had was my parent’s work ethic and the belief that through hard work and dedication, I could overcome all obstacles.
What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?
Personally, I always strive to find more balance and enjoy time with my family. Making it a priority to stay connected with my family despite a busy schedule means squeezing in a video call to the grandkids before they go to bed and building in family time when travel schedules line up. Balance is a goal that I attempt to meet every day; of course, some days are more successful than others!
From a professional perspective, I am focused on continuing Best Western’s journey of transformation by increasing our scale, diversifying our portfolio and advancing in areas of innovation. Over the last few years we have transformed Best Western Hotels & Resorts into a modern and innovative hotel company with 16 unique brands across every market segment. I believe the best is yet to come as we focus on continuing to drive RevPAR, increase loyalty and improve guest satisfaction. Just this year, Best Western Premier was named #1 in guest satisfaction among upscale hotel brands in the J.D. Power 2019 North America Hotel Guest Satisfaction Study — a testament to our commitment to our guests.
As I look ahead to Best Western’s future, I am confident that we will achieve our goals in continuing to lead the industry in superior customer care and innovate to deliver exceptional travel experiences. I am excited to lead us into the next chapter of our amazing journey.
What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?
When we’re young, no one is thinking about retirement. But everyone’s career comes to an end, at some point. So it’s never too early to start focusing on your legacy. We should think about how we want to be remembered not just in our company, or our industry, but in our family and amongst our friends. At each phase of my career (job transitions or promotions), I take time to reflect: Am I making a positive and lasting impact on my associates and customers? Did my actions inspire those around me? Am I making a transformational impact on my company, my industry and amongst those I care about?
I have carried this advice with me in my life: our career is so much more than destinations — it’s about journeys, and making a truly lasting and positive impact. I hope my legacy is one of positive influence in the lives of my family, friends and colleagues.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!
As a father of a daughter, and someone who has had the privilege of working with talented, successful women, I’m passionate about empowering women to achieve their bold dreams.
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