Antonia Hock of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center

We Spoke to Antonia Hock of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center About How to Build a Successful Service Business

As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonia Hock, global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center. Antonia leads a dynamic advisory business focused on innovating the Customer Experience (CX) and Talent Experience (TX) for clients worldwide. The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center delivers award-winning services that have allowed thousands of clients to improve customer and employee engagement, transform their culture, drive brand loyalty and create an extraordinary customer experience. Under her leadership, The Leadership Center has created incredible competitive advantages for some of the biggest brands in the world. Antonia is a sought-after, author, thought leader and frequent global keynote featured speaker. She is considered a global expert on organizational transformation and building experience-based brands, creating a culture of customer-centricity, empowering employees and issues around diversity in the workforce, and innovating experiences for the future. She currently works with many internationally acclaimed speakers’ bureaus as well as directly with numerous Fortune 500 C-Suite cross-industry clients in both an advisory and speaker capacity. Prior to The Ritz-Carlton, Antonia spent twenty years as an executive in technology working for progressive fast-moving companies such as Microsoft, HP, Siemens Enterprise Communications, and MicroStrategy.

Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I came to terms early in my career that I was by nature driven towards chaos, turn-around, new ideas, start-ups — anything that was a “build” vs. a stable, run-rate business that needed only incremental improvement to thrive. When I came out of college, I joined an early stage dot com and that fed my desire to build and create. It also allowed me to tap into my entrepreneurial spirit while simultaneously allowing me to experience the heavy lifting and long hours required to build a business.

I also love working with big brands that have resources and an appetite for being market-makers through innovation and calculated risk. This led me to work for fast-moving progressive companies like Microsoft, HP, and Siemens where I earned a reputation as a maverick: the one you call when you have a big challenge with high stakes attached.

After years of building successful business units centered on transformative technology, I was presented with the opportunity to work for The-Ritz-Carlton — but with the new twist of taking that legendary service to market as a methodology that can be implemented in Fortune 500 companies to drive business performance.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?

This is not a funny mistake per se, but it is poignant and indelible one that I observed early in my career. Our entire regional leadership team was meeting for a full day workshop, and there were eight of us seated around a table. Our Regional Vice President was running the meeting. Two of us were women, and at the end of the day, my fellow female colleague had said very little. She diligently took notes and listened intently all day. At the end of the meeting, our Vice President asked her to stand up and said in front of all us that she should go clean out her desk because she failed to contribute to our meeting and our future. And that very day, she was walked out of the building. She was smart, but never found the confidence to use her voice. The lesson is to always find your contribution and make a mark. Every time, no exceptions. Everyone has great ideas and insight. Never let circumstances intimidate you, quiet your creativity, or silence your best ideas.

What was the strategic thinking behind creating the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center? How does it fit in with the Ritz-Carlton’s core hotel business?

The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center was born out of The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award wins by the hotel business. When you win this prestigious award, you are asked to share your best practices with others, and from that, the executives at The Ritz-Carlton founded The Leadership Center as a way to fulfill that requirement. Since that time, the external demand to implement the legendary best practices of the hotel business has only strengthened. As the focus on the Experience Economy grows, more and more companies across industries are looking to The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center as a source of methodology and insight. We continue to stand out globally for our ability to create unforgettable experiences that delight guests and customers in any an industry.

In a similar fashion, in Jim Collin’s ‘From Good to Great, he emphasizes the need to be the best at what you do, and not diffuse management’s focus. Is extending your brand to educating leaders veering from your core focus?

The Leadership Center operates as a distinct business exclusively focused on external clients, and like our hotel counterparts, we are exclusively and relentlessly focused on the best practices that make our hotels legendary. All of us are in the business of service, whether that is to each other, to our guests, or to our external clients. We all share one culture, the same service values, and the same commitment to excellence.

Do you see your hotel feeding clients to your Leadership Center, or both are mutual feeds for each division? If so, what impact does this have on your marketing budget for each?

We do have a guests of The Ritz-Carlton express interest in the offerings of The Leadership Center directly, but generally clients find us from articles, books, referrals, and the long-standing reputation of the hotel business. As our external client business has grown, we have developed distinct service practices for industries like healthcare, sports and entertainment, retail, automotive and finance- among others. Within our industry practices, we have a reputation for delivering excellent sustainable results, and our clients come to us more and more through that referral network. The Ritz-Carlton hotel business does an exceptional job of marketing innovation, and we benefit from that halo effect, but both businesses are distinct.

Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you joined the company what was your vision, your purpose?

The Ritz-Carlton has always been in the business of demonstrating genuine care and comfort world-wide while delivering on the expressed and unexpressed wishes of guests. The focus on employee engagement across our Ladies and Gentlemen is a root metaphor for the business globally, and the culture is studied for its excellence. As Ritz-Carlton Ladies and Gentlemen, The Leadership Center business embodies these values, and we have a strong shared conviction that this methodology can create sustainable advantages for our clients globally.

Everyone in our business believes that great service, exceptional experiences, and a culture of trust and empowerment will change lives and businesses. We know the multiplying effect of our work impacts millions of employees, their families, the customers that they touch, the communities where they live, and the businesses that they serve. When you operate with the mandate to change lives, create competitive advantages through service, and help build cutting edge experience-based businesses, purpose is central to everything that you do every day.

What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?

The Ritz-Carlton service values are present in everything that we do. As a company that is “culture-first”, we constantly demonstrate our values to our employees and customers. Our values are how we run our entire business. We come together each morning everywhere in the world at the start of every shift to execute “Line-Up” where we discuss our culture and our values for 15 minutes. These values guide our interactions with each other and our guests all day, every day, so we demonstrate them 24/7, 365, globally. Every interaction, through every channel is an opportunity to demonstrate our values, and we do. This applies equally to our external interactions and our internal interactions through every level of the business.

Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?

I firmly believe in the principle that, “Whatever you are not changing, you are choosing.” High growth, high impact businesses require agility, constant innovation in process, strategy, and output, and strong focus on human capital development, leadership growth, and change management. I focus on the change that needs to happen in every part of our business with our leaders — because any time we miss a critical opportunity to make change happen, we are choosing the status quo. Sometimes that’s the right path, but that should be a deliberate choice — because every decision, passive or active, leads to an outcome so we make sure it’s an intentional choice. You are choosing it if you aren’t changing it.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

At one point in our growth, I hired an incredibly talented external executive from a top tier consulting firm to help us build out some important components in our business. It was clear early into his tenure that, even though his intellectual horsepower, experience, and work ethic were exceptional, the cultural fit was not present. During his short tenure, he created dissonance and discomfort in our business that disrupted our operation and slowed our growth. Fortunately, this was short-lived, and he exited the business quickly, but this could have destroyed years of carefully built infrastructure and success. For me, the drive to persevere has always come from the incredible leaders and talent in this business. Without exception, our team rises in the face of set-backs and challenges. We are perennial optimists who all have the grit and drive to innovate and grow, and we have the heart to bring each other along with grace and compassion.

So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?

Our business is thriving, and more importantly, our clients are thriving. We have delivered some of the biggest brand innovations, service transformations, and customer experience implementations globally in 2019. We focus on sustainable, long-term outcomes for our clients, and we continue to watch them win JD Powers awards, Fan Experience awards, Patient Experience awards, CX/EX Awards, and Best-Places-To-Work. The guiding values of The Ritz-Carlton are not only how we operate internally, but the methodology continues to drive exceptional results externally as well.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.

  • Services are All About People- Hire the Right Ones: It sounds simple, but so many people get this wrong every day. Services businesses are about people and their intellectual property, creativity, and business acumen applied in the service of others. To build a phenomenal business, you must take the time to hire people who believe in the mission, are likable, and have a passion for service. They must have the intellectual horsepower, work ethic, and integrity to deliver at scale. Hiring the wrong people will destroy the business from the inside out.
  • Be Highly Differentiated or Perish: I see a lot of leaders who think that their business is special simply because they run them. In services, you must be ruthlessly honest about your position in the market. Are you offering a highly differentiated, important service that your clients cannot get from any other firm? Can you tell that story from a client point-of-view in less than 90 seconds? Be honest and think hard about the answers to those questions. If they aren’t clear, crisp, and specific, you will struggle to survive.
  • You & All Employees are The Brand- Live it: In services, every interaction with a client, any public image, and any interaction big or small demonstrates your brand value and image. You cannot have a bad day where you don’t show up on-point for what your brand stands for or what you deliver in the market. I see many firms who believe if they deliver in front of clients that will be “enough”, but the culture of your firm, the way everyone conducts themselves day-in-and-day-out at every interaction must be “on-brand”. You are your brand. Nothing will be stronger in the market than your constant conduct.
  • Be Visible, Be Humble, and Serve Your Employees: Leaders in any industry should be willing to do any job, roll-up their sleeves and prove that they walk the walk. You must be visible, accessible, and highly invested in your employees. As an example, our team knows that I am accessible 24/7 via text. If you are stranded in Marrakesh, and it’s 4am in my time zone, I will be on text ready to help. Also, be humble. The team is building client success project by project. They are doing some heavy lifting. You are there to support, clear the path, provide air cover, and make sure everyone flies in formation. Always give the credit to your team for the work and be prepared to always take the body-shots on their behalf. Finally, make sure that everyone in your business has what they need to grow, deliver, and thrive. That extends beyond business basics. Do you know what they hope and dream of? Do you understand how they want to show up in the world? If not, it’s time to think about whether you really serve them as a leader.
  • Operational Excellence is Mandatory: Services businesses thrive on operational efficiency and optimization. The systems, processes, and infrastructure needed to run an effective business may not be glamorous, but they are a mandate to run a profitable services business. Invest in process optimization and grow an operations team that is passionate about wringing any inefficiency out of the system.

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 had an exceptional female leader early in my career who showed me that her road to success did not require her to change her personal narrative. She had a complicated family life and a complicated upbringing, and instead of hiding that from all of us, she invited us all into her world. We all came together for a team meeting where we all stayed the weekend at her home sleeping on the floors and sharing the bathroom, and we came out of that weekend much more connected to each other. She gave me the confidence that I could be my full self and not compromise my identity to succeed. She also gave me some of my most meaningful performance reviews where she invested in the coaching and insights to help me raise my game. She modeled how a selfless leader behaves, and it changed my trajectory.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Investing in young adults has the potential to create such change and momentum for all of us and the world we live in. I see so many teenagers and young adults struggling with tough circumstances, difficult home challenges, and social and economic adversity. The infrastructure to help make change is so limited for this group of young people. I would like to see more programs like YearUp that are exclusively focused on opportunities and support for young adults. Giving this group real life skills, career support, mentors, and hope that the future can and will be different makes a real difference to an entire generation. I would love to see more major corporations come out in support of this program, and I would love to see more people give their time, skills, and leadership in the service of our young adults.

How can our readers follow you on social media?