As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antonia Hock.
As the global head of The Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center, Antonia Hock 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 your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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 driven towards chaos, turnarounds, new ideas, start-ups — anything that was a “build” vs. a stable, run-rate business that needed only incremental improvement to thrive. I also love working with big brands that have resources and an appetite for being market-makers through innovation and calculated risk. When I was presented with the opportunity to work for a heritage brand like 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, I knew I had to jump. From the first conversation with leadership, I was hooked.
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 a poignant and indelible one: Right after I was hired into a new role, a very powerful and well-respected executive pulled my boss aside and told him that he thought they had made a huge mistake hiring me. I was weak, ineffective, timid, and a woman would never be successful leading an all-male team. This executive then pulled me into his office and said the same thing to me directly. I was initially shocked, embarrassed, demoralized, and filled with doubt. But that rapidly turned into anger and determination. By the end of my first year, I had taken the worst performing team in the division to the number two spot, raised our customer satisfaction scores by 30%+, and posted the highest employee engagement scores in the division. I outperformed my all-male peer group and led more than 50% of my all-male team to Top 1% Platinum Club. At this early stage of my career, I could have internalized the negative feedback and let it degrade my performance and confidence. Instead, I learned to trust my knowledge of my capabilities, tune out the doubters and the haters, and focus on delivering results.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Career, life, and personal paths are intertwined, and all involve a “unfolding” of discovery, invention, and introspection to drive success. The book Siddhartha by Herman Hesse tells a great story of discovery, loss, and the challenges we all face on the road through our lives. It is told in beautiful succinct prose, and every time I re-read it, I am reminded that in careers — as in life — the journey, the reinvention, and the path is the reward.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your 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.
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 is 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 are not changing it.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
When COVID hit, one of the first things to close down was my gym, and I was accustomed to working out 6 days a week. The gym was my refuge, my zen, my release, and my crucible of thinking. Having that abruptly taken away left a big vacancy and vacuum for me. Like many people, I had limited time to pivot. With the immediate run on home gym equipment, I quickly cobbled together some basics — a few dumbbells and a bench — hardly what I was used to. I rediscovered my ingenuity — using water jugs to replace weights, finding exercises for a single 45lb dumbbell instead of two, and learning all kinds of new lifts on Pinterest to fuel my workouts. I also decided to start running, and I hadn’t run a step in 15 years. I registered on the Nike Run Club app and built up to 15 miles a day. In April I ran the 100K challenge and placed in the top 50% of the 280,000 people running. I also registered for a yoga app, Down Dog, and started doing nightly guided yoga sessions. These are all things that I would never have done without a COVID-induced change, and they broadened my thinking. Ironically, they helped me achieve new fitness results that had alluded me before COVID. Not only did I find a way to get through the challenge, but I was able to grow through the experience.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Like many businesses, the immediate change to virtual work was a big challenge for our business. While I think we did a great job of navigating the business change — new call schedules, new technology, and engaging together to solve business challenges, we collectively worried about losing our human connections that create comradery, fun, and help us thrive. Our teams had the idea for a weekly “Team Experience Call”, and we agreed it would have nothing to do with our work. Instead we would that the time to focus on what makes us unique, how we are surviving at home, celebrate and expand our knowledge of each other, and remember together how to have fun! We have a structure that covers our culture, a featured personal spot light, a topic of the week (this week was, “When was the last time you were proud of yourself?”), and we visit a new location as our theme each week (this week was Scotland). We all love to travel, so that was an important feature for us! These video calls have been the best outcome of COVID, and we’ve not only created a virtual community that supports our connection now, we’ve actually deepened our relationships and strengthened our bonds.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We have all been placed in situations right now where we need to support others and engage in new ways to actively manage the anxiety they may feel. I have used the following strategies to show care for those around me:
- Small gestures matter. I believe that there is a lot of power in the small gesture, and those are not practiced enough today. Handwritten notes, encouraging texts, bringing someone a favorite beverage, offering to do something for the person (like pick up dry-cleaning or watching kids for an hour) all signal that you are thinking of them in a concrete way, you care, and they are not alone. Anxiety can be very isolating, so this is a great way to gently support connection.
- Offering to sit together — whether in person or virtually — and be a sounding board. This is a great time to listen and support- just resist the urge to tell someone what to do. Phrases like, “have you thought about…?” or “help me understand…?” can be important. Sometimes, just sharing a laugh or a shared memory can be therapeutic. From a mindfulness perspective, this is an opportunity to practice being fully present with the person and focus on what serves them best in the moment.
- Bring your own positive point of view and provide context for how you see your own life or challenges. This is an opportunity to share small ways that you are bringing positivity into your life in the face of a personal challenge. Resist the urge to draw comparisons or give advice based on your experience unless it is actively sought. Tell a great story that can create a connection and provide the context in a positive way. If you are personally in a negative headspace, don’t bring that with you and facilitate a “misery loves company” mentality. Your personal mindfulness practice should include how you want to show up for others and what you want to project into the world.
- Offer a ritual suggestion or option — Ritual and pattern are powerful ways to create mindfulness by bringing intention to life through these choices. Sleep machines, lavender aromatherapy, favorite books, a great meditation app, a meaningful podcast series, can all be suggestions that can give respite from anxiety and help establish a meaningful daily habit focused on the individual.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I am not thinking about the future in terms of “post-COVID”. Instead, I see a stabilization that will just continue the innovation patterns that this pandemic has accelerated. In terms of new business models, there will absolutely be changes in the future of work and the way that businesses model their structure:
- We will see an increase in planning for “resiliency” as a business principle. That will give rise to a new set of businesses that can help companies de-risk and rethink how they are planning for broad social, economic, and unforeseen change. Before this, too many businesses were built for best case scenario, not worst.
- The way we work is never going back. I know that this is hotly debated, but the new world order will blend the need for human connection with absolute flexibility. We won’t speak about “work from home” — instead we will start to speak about “work from your most productive location”. That might not be your home. It might be the rental you have in London for the month, or your RV parked outside Rincon beach in California, or your multi-generational camping trip in Wyoming. The new sector of businesses that will drive this capability and innovation is just starting to emerge. And platforms like Zoom are just the beginning.
- The move to human-centered, integrated experiences will define the next wave of success. We are already seeing COVID drive innovation in new ways that put the “experience” at the heart of the company. Product features are not sufficient or even that interesting right now. As we sit in our homes, we crave experiences, and that’s getting hardwired into our psyche. The companies that will thrive are remaking themselves to put the human experience at the center of every decision. The losers are moving slowly, approaching this as a trend, or treating it as a “COVID-survival strategy” — waiting for this to pass so they can roll back the stop-gaps. The winners see this revolution happening, and they are using the emerging consumer behavior as a springboard to create lasting differentiation.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
There are certainly lots of macro trends and movements that are emerging: kindness or lack of, the focus on health: mental and physical, tele-medicine/ tele-learning, the true need for human connection. Additionally, the pandemic is changing behavior and preferences as well as even permanently altering consumer habits. As we navigate and build this new consumer world together, there are some common items and trends that are rapidly accelerating to become mainstream and others that are dying a fast death:
- Mask use is changing beauty and skincare: we are just at the start of this trend, but the rise of products to combat “maskne” and skin irritation from all-day mask wear is creating a new category of skincare and beauty. Consumers are snatching up tea tree oil wipes and rethinking antibacterial face products. Masks are also obsolescing items like sticky lip gloss. No one wants to have sticky gloss stuck to the inside of a face mask. Manufacturers will rapidly look to reformulate lip products, and consumers may forgo this category all together — dramatically changing a big category of beauty. As an avid devotee of liquid eyeliner, I predict we are entering the era of “the eyes” for beauty products!
- Free live dance and music parties are here to stay on social platforms: Online fitness, dance, and music apps have been mainstream for a while, but the new breed of online is all about live events that stream for free over Instagram or YouTube. These events connect large groups of like-minded people to share an emotional AND physical experience, and this trend will only expand as we look for more “live” free organic events from the safety of our homes. This has been an important connection for me during lockdown, and my favorites include nightly live DJ dance parties “Club Quarantine” from @dnice, daily dance grooves “Sweatfest” from @ryan.heffington, and “Quarantine Qoolout” from Questlove of the The Roots on YouTube.
- Plants, pants, and jigsaw puzzles are enjoying a renaissance: COVID has created a surge in our love of indoor plants and outdoor gardening as we all seek to reconnect with nature at home. Any form of non-stretchy pants is officially dead. COVID has permanently killed the dress pants forever, so if you are still holding onto these, it’s time to clean out your closet. And jigsaw puzzles are enjoying a huge resurgence — as a return to slower, thoughtful, mindful hobbies counterbalance our online obsessions. All of these trends are here to stay!
- Lifestyle trends are driving dramatic changes to personal insurance: As consumers stay home, work from home, and enjoy more multi-generational living, it’s time for everyone to dust off their homeowner or renters insurance policy to ensure that coverage is on-target for the way we live now. Likewise, as we drive less or more, it’s an important time to reexamine your auto policy for opportunities to save or ensure proper coverage. These new living and driving trends will have long term implications for how we insure our primary assets.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Before COVID, our service lines were focused on being in-person with our clients. Global consulting projects, workshops, and client engagements drew on ideation and collaboration fueled in boardrooms, conference rooms, and meeting venues. In the new world order, we now deliver all of these service lines in a virtual environment, and we’ve actually seen incredible gains in productivity, speed to market, and collaboration with our clients. We’ve also created new offerings and consulting methodology to help build the future of retail, fan experience, the future of work, new ways to digitize physical experiences and so much more. I expect us to continue to be at the forefront of innovating as we create the future with our clients.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
I personally believe that large disruptive events create opportunity if you can bring a critical eye, creative spirit, and bias for action and speed. I encourage businesses and people to look past the anxiety, fear, and daily chaos of the news cycle. As hard as that may be, the opportunity exists in seeing what is needed, what will be different, and what opportunities have opened up for new entries into the market. Those that triumph will focus on building the future right now.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love Vincent Van Gogh’s message, “Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow.” Essentially, the most beautiful things happen outside of our comfort zone. Being comfortable is easy, but I love operating in a constant state of discomfort. That’s how I know I’m growing, exploring, innovating, and taking risks. All of my biggest breakthroughs have come from taking an unconventional path where innovation grows.
How can our readers further follow your work?