What Does Eating Chocolate in Bogota, Colombia Have to Do With Culture Change in Your Organization?

Whenever I travel anywhere, I observe, listen and talk to employees, and customers. I consider it part of my research into great companies that go beyond the Googles, and Zappo's where employees are specifically selected who will fit in with their organizational cultures.

I look for companies that employ good people but who are not from an already elite group. (This is not a criticism of Google, Zappo's etc. but my interest lies in diversity and organizations that are able to transform employee experiences along with the culture)

I was fortunate to spend several nights at a hotel that was such a place, The Sofitel Hotel in Bogota, Colombia. I was there to speak at a human talent management conference. My topic was "Leading Today's Workforce; creating inclusive cultures where employees love to go and customer's love to buy."

From the moment I arrived, I was treated as though I was the most important guest, and that everyone from the bellmen, to the front desk and beyond had been waiting just for me. I was greeted warmly and immediately offered a glass of fresh guava juice. In fact, any time of day, I could go to the lobby and pour myself as much tropical fruit agua fresca as I wanted. I'd return to the Sofitel today just for another thirst quenching glass of their juice.

I noticed that everyone else got the same world-class attention. I watched the way staff interacted with each other, smiling, laughing and seeming to enjoy their work. Their enjoyment was contagious. And although I'm not fluent in Spanish, everyone was patient and helped me with my pronunciation and lack of vocabulary.

I wanted to know more about this hotel, so I could use it as an example in my program. I wanted to know how they had created this wonderful environment, so I sat down with Catalina Lomanto Fernández, who is Relaciones Corporativas / Corporate Coordinator.

She told me how much she loved working there and that the cultural driver was the fairly new general manager, Mario Leite De Oliveira Junior. Before he arrived, the culture had been more hierarchical. Leite De Oliveira empowered his staff to make independent decisions that enables them to provide distinct customer service. Previously, they had been hesitant to make many decisions on their own, and everyone waited for instructions from the general manager t

Any time culture changes from a hierarchy to one of empowerment, it will take employees time to change their mindset. Leaders need to keep reminding and encouraging them until it becomes part of their mindset and way of doing business.

Employees, who are empowered to help customers, are also empowered to add to the success or the organization. One of the keys is to implement culture at every level, so everyone gets the same message.

I witnessed this happening at the Sofitel in Bogota. The housekeeping staff was welcoming, and every day someone had added an extra touch to the room without me ever asking. One of the women in housekeeping found out how much I loved chocolate so I'd find extra pieces on my pillow.

The chocolate was some of the best chocolate I have ever had. I'd go back just for the chocolate. In fact, the night before I left, I returned to my room after a huge dinner and dessert, to find that the General Manager, Mario Leite De Oliveira , had sent up a huge plate of different chocolates. I knew I was leaving in a few hours to go to the airport, and couldn't take the chocolate with me, so what else could I do? I ate it all.

While some organizations are able to create huge culture change initiatives, not all organizations have that progressive kind of leadership, or they are just too slow to understand the business value. Too often, regional or single site managers will say there is little they can do to create change, when senior leadership is in another state or country. Of course, that would be ideal, but there is no need to wait.

Sometimes it just takes one leader in one area, or one property, or one region to make a change. You have the power to create a culture in your workplace where employees are valued, engaged and empowered to provide world-class customer service. The Bogota Victoria Regia, a Sofitel hotel, and its general manager Mario Leite De Olveiera Junior is proof of how one person can make a culture change at their local level.

You don't have to wait. Ask your employees what recent decisions they've made on their own to help and retain their customers or bring in new ones. If you don't get any answers, it's time for you to start recognizing, acknowledging and empowering your employees. Give them examples of decisions they can make on their own, and reward them when they do.

Simma creates workplace cultures where people love to do their best work and customers love to do business. Read the Inclusionist blog. Follow her on twitter: @theinclusionist. Subscribe to her newsletter. E-mail Simma@SimmaLieberman.com or call 510-527-0700. Simma Lieberman is the co-author of Putting Diversity to Work, how to successfully lead a diverse workforce.

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