Leon Yong – W Hotel General Manager

April 17, 2008
Posted in interviews
April 17, 2008 brett

Interview: How To Become a General Manager of a Hotel

I was playing ball in college for maybe six months when my son was born. I needed to provide for him. I think everyone has that crossroads that you come to where you decide to either be someone they respect, and look up to, or continue just being someone that’s a post teenager. So at that point, I really made that decision that I wanted to provide for him and be someone he could be proud of.

One of my mentors, he was one of those people who said you either learn how you want to do stuff, or you learn how you don’t want to do stuff. He was one of the guys who showed me exactly how I wanted to do stuff.

Once a week I’d walk in and give him his report because he wanted it fresh off the presses. And he’d say, “Do understand what you just did tonight?” And then he’d walk me through it, so then I started understanding how important it was, and how important it was to him to make decisions based on this report.

Personal story. My grandmother had come out from Akron and while she was here she had a stroke. I was the only one with a car in my entire family. So I spent all week long taking everyone from the house to the hospital. So by the end of the week when I would go to work at my overnight job, I was completely tired. Just pooped. I finished my work and went into my front managers office and feel asleep.

Wayne, who absolutely would have been within his right to terminate me, because falling asleep on the job is a terminal offense. He asked me what had happened. “It didn’t seem like you based on the interaction I’ve had with you.” I told him what happened. He said, “You know what? Just come back, be ready to work, but go be with your family.”

For a lot of people that’s no big deal. But for me, I never wanted anyone to look back on Wayne for him making a bad decision and taking a chance on this kid only for him to get fired a week later. I never wanted anyone to question his decision.

Pretty soon, I applied for the next position that opened up, which was the night audit agent. Then the supervisor. And then, I really…just had a passion for it. I think whenever you really have a pride about your work it just shows. People recognize it. And you’re able to progress from there.

I started being a graveyard security guard at 23. I was playing ball in college for maybe six months when my son was born. I needed to provide for him. The only job that I could take care of him and still go to school was an overnight position. Which is when I found this security guard position.

I started helping the night auditor, and I found out I really liked it. I wasn’t a math major, but it came naturally to me. And then you add the service component, which I liked. I applied for the next position that opened up, which was the night audit agent, then the supervisor. I just really had a passion for it.

Typically people look at an overnight position as a role where no one sees you. Or you think you don’t have any value to the property. I look at it just the opposite.

One of my mentors, he was one of those people who said you either learn how you want to do stuff, or you learn how you don’t want to do stuff. He was one of the guys who showed me exactly how I wanted to do stuff.

Once a week I’d walk in and give him his report because he wanted it fresh off the presses. And he’d say, “Do understand what you just did tonight?” And then he’d walk me through it, so then I started understanding how important it was, and how important it was to him to make decisions based on this report.

Everyone’s a great general until wartime. Then you separate the leaders from whoever else there is.

I think everyone has that crossroads that you come to where you decide to either be someone they respect, and look up to, or continue just being someone that’s a post teenager. So at that point, I really made that decision that I wanted to provide for him and be someone he could be proud of.

For most of your twenties, you spend your time figuring out what you want to do. I wasn’t afforded that luxury. I was responsible to him. I was lucky to find the hotel industry.

It came down to- he runs out of diapers, or I learn how to keep my temper under control. The hotel industry as opposite as you would have thought it would have been for me, because in this industry, you spend most of your time conceding to other people. You’re in a service role. You’re there to help them enjoy their experience. Sometimes you take flack, sometimes you’re rewarded. You’d think it was contrary to my personality, but it really kind of saved my life. Because it helped me swallow my pride. I had to learn how to develop a thicker skin. Learn right and wrong. To stop saying, “I hate my job. I need to quit.” To saying, “Today was a bad day. Doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad job.” Isolate those incidents and find the good in what I was doing and what I enjoyed.

At some point you will have a bad boss. Or be in a bad situation.

What was different about a general manager. If we were going out to recruit a general manager, what would we look for? Beyond having hospitality 101. You have to be an entrepreneur. You have to be someone who looks at a blank wall and says, “What else can I do with this?”

The biggest challenge is ingraining the culture with the talent we have. The biggest thing for me is making sure that everyone understands what direction we’re going in. However you get there is cool. It’s up to you. But as long as we’re all going in the same direction, toes and our feet are pointed that way, then you can’t help but be successful. It’s constantly reinforcing that.

The work-life balance is super important to me. I’m here normal, average amount of time. Ten to twelve hours. But because of the entrepreneurial spirit of the position, I think I’m always working. I go somewhere and I see something and I put it on my inspiration wall. I keep a digital camera with me and if I see something cool, I take a picture and bring it back to my marketing team. Or a piece of furniture. Or I keep a talent card in my pocket, so if someone is giving exceptional service, they might not be looking then, but I let them know that they’re just the type of talent we would want. So esoterically, it’s always in the back of my mind.

Crazy. I am. For me, once I’ve said something, we’ve moved on from it. We’ve chosen our course of action and already on to next week. You really have to understand your role in the equation. It’s not about you, and you’re an enabler. You have to be the ultimate cheerleader. As unrealistic as it sounds, to have a bad day for you resonates through so many other people. Whereas if you’re at the Welcome Desk and you have a bad day, then you have a bad day. If I have a bad day, then it affects a lot of people. Because people start thinking, “Was it something I did?” You really have to be conscious of it. Maybe not be false about, but know when you’re having a bad day and be able to discuss it. There’s nothing wrong with saying, “Now is probably not the best time to meet on this, let’s circle back later on.” You really have to be conscious of your prescense, who you are and what you are doing.

Again, for a W GM, you have to be progressive. And not be afraid to color outside of the lines. That’s what’s cool. We try a bunch of different things, sometimes it sticks, sometimes it doesn’t. But we never looked at as doing as last year’s stuff. We say that we’re on trend, but never trendy.

One piece of advice?

Education obviously is fantastic. Although I didn’t go that route, I respect where college can take you. But you have to temper it with work. Work experience. While you’re going through and picking your major and figuring out what you want to do, that you’re trying different positions. So that when you find something that you love, rather than just going to school for something you want to invest yourself in, and when you get out it’s completely different than what you thought it was going to be. I can’t tell you how many people have gone to some of the best hospitality schools in the world. Whether it be Cornell, UNLV, Switzerland…and they come out and they were so vested in the templated, textbook version of what a hotel is, that when they actually introduced to people, they decide that even though they’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on this education, but this is nothing like what I want to do. I don’t even like people. I want to go be an artic researcher somewhere. Really test the waters in the areas you want to be in. There’s tons of work programs, specifically for hospitality. It’s not always what it’s cracked up to be. Sometimes it’s better, sometimes, it’s worse.

I wish I would have the opportunity to talk to myself when I was eighteen because the hardest part of the road that I took is learning how to think analytically. Because that’s typically what college teaches you. You’re not worried about how you actually solve a math problem at that point, or knowing what French researcher discovered glass, but it’s more the process of getting the answers. That was the hardest part for me.