Julien Surget of Amangiri

    We Spoke to Julien Surget of Amangiri on Being an Effective Leader During Turbulent Times

    As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Julien Surget, General Manager at Amangiri, one of the world’s most exclusive hotel destination, in the heart of the southern Utah desert. In this role, the international hospitality professional oversees the daily operation of the hotel, as well as participates in Aman’s continued growth and success through community outreach and enrichment of Amangiri’s guest experience. Surget joined the hotel’s senior team in 2016 as Assistant General Manager.

    Surget comes to Amangiri from Washington, DC where he served as Director of Food & Beverage for The Hay-Adams, a five-star luxury city resort, internationally acclaimed as one of the most discerning properties in America. Surget came to Washington, DC after having held senior operational roles at Acqualina Resort & Spa in Miami, FL where during his tenure, the resort received the Forbes Travel Guide 5-star Award, a recertification of the AAA 5 Diamond Award and a Leading Hotels of the World Regional Quality Award.

    Previously, Surget held senior management roles at Bucuti Beach Resort in Aruba, The Mayfair Hotel and Spa in Miami, and The Ritz-Carlton Club in Abaco, Bahamas. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Restaurant and Hospitality from the Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne in Switzerland, where he grew up.

    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 grew up in Geneva, Switzerland. Both of my parents were classical musicians so my sister and I were raised in an environment of creativity and performance. I also played music and inherent to that discipline, came long hours of practice, rehearsing, and constant seeking for self-improvement. I think that both of those values were critical at shaping part of who I am today: on one hand being very determined and constantly looking at bettering myself and others, and on the other to perceiving my role as a hospitality ambassador, as that of a performer.

    I was not good enough for music, according to my father anyways, so opted for hospitality instead, and attended Ecole Hoteliere de Lausanne. Upon graduating, I was due to move to Hong Kong for an internship. The job opportunity fell through and I had to very quickly determine what I was going to do with my career. I vividly remember being at a friend’s house where, on a whim, I took my first job in Newport, RI. Little did I know that such an off-the cuff decision would come to shape the rest of my professional and personal life. Ever since then, most of my life’s important decisions (and by default of my wife I met during my career) have all been taken with relative levity. Less room for too many questions and second guessing I guess!

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

    In my first job, I was a young food and beverage leader and evidently my general manager felt I was spending too much time in my office. One day I got to work only to find he had changed the lock on my door and kept me locked out of my office for three days. It was my first hard lesson earned: in our business, our work happens “on the floor”. That’s where the guests are, and that’s where the staff is. I’ve since always been very sensitive to prioritizing my work and spending the rest of my career conditioning myself to be as visible and accessible as possible to everyone who may need it (guests and staff alike). I have also been fortunate to work for a number of leaders along the way who shared this important value in our industry. It is still a principle that I drive day in and day out to my leadership team.

    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 am fortunate to have worked for and with great leaders over the years, and I really believe I have been able to learn from each and every one of them in certain ways. Some were the embodiment of self-discipline, others exhibiting an uncompromising thirst for quality. Some taught me that having humor at work is important, and others that friendship can transcend workplace priorities. In my opinion, there is a direct correlation between learning and humility and I strive to always remain humble enough to be open to new teachings I can benefit from. Most of these lessons I am also able to infuse into my personal life, which is equally important.

    Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?

    A man has always had a very strong reputation in the travel industry, thanks to a group of tireless individuals that work very hard at creating ‘places of peace’ where one “arrives as a guest, and leaves as a friend”; and also, thanks to a group of adventurous, risk-taking and forward-thinking travelers who have been enjoying Aman hotels for the last 32 years.

    In recent years, Aman has evolved and has become successful by putting our cultural framework at the center of what we do. This culture is crafted around a very simple and very well-articulated purpose, our intention, which is in turn supported by our values, or how we behave. Company purpose is critical to alignment in order to ensure every stakeholder not only works towards that common intention, but also can identify in terms of values with what matters to a company.

    This becomes personal engagement. When we rely on people to delivery exceptional and intuitive service, as we do, we not only rely on skills and technical training, we also rely on conditioning and behavior. Those soft skills emanate from personal engagement, and personal engagement comes from being emotionally invested in the brand. That is a purpose’s purpose, to give everyone involved in the company a common intention and meaning to work. This cultural framework has now matured over the years and is woven into the day-to-day of our team, it translates in an intuitive service delivery, where everything “just feels right”.

    Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?

    I believe that especially during uncertain times, a number of leadership principles resonate particularly well, but the principal one is conveying an honest, clear and transparent communication. I think that the root of much dissent comes from incomplete information and giving others the ineffective need to “fill in the blanks”.

    Reopening and operating Amangiri and keeping the team safe, confident and engaged was one of those times that called for this. In the early days of the pandemic, I, like so many others with a shuttered business was sitting at home wondering what was going to happen, and I very quickly realized that everyone else on my team was probably wondering the same thing. I immediately focused on the one thing we could do then: which was to communicate. This enabled my leaders to realize that the situation was the same for all, leading to a comforting sense of camaraderie. We did twice weekly calls through the entire shutdown (shifting to Zoom calls rapidly as well), calls which were critical, especially when it came to our reopening planning efforts.

    This practice allowed us to reopen the hotel, as a torchbearer for the luxury travel industry, without missing a beat or having to play catch-up. This also inspired the leadership team to do the same with their respective team, ultimately enabling us to keep over 200 colleagues engaged for over two months, even though everyone was at home.

    When we reopened the hotel in May of last year, it really felt like no one had missed a step and we were able to hit the ground running very quickly from day one. Up until now, we continue to over communicate any changes (or lack of changes) that we are making, whether it’s things to look forward to, or more uncertainty ahead. I think that being overly communicative and honest conveyed a sense of confidence in the team and gave them the ability to trust that the hotel leadership was going to do this right.

    Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?

    No, never. As a leader, I accept the responsibility that people count on me. Now, that doesn’t mean I don’t at times feel defeated, vulnerable, exposed or otherwise at a loss; it’s all part of the humble learning process. For example, I guess it’s a good thing that I wasn’t a pro at dealing with a global pandemic that paralyzed the entire world as we know it and probably changed the way we travel for the foreseeable future. I have always considered that vulnerability can be a sign of strength as long as key learnings are had.

    I often speak very openly to my colleagues about my struggles and my opportunities, but I also emphasize every single time of growth that came from it. For me, defeat is part of the process, but I am driven by results so that keeps me getting up every single time as a better leader, professional and individual.

    What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?

    I would say to continue to be a directional beacon for all the stakeholders. More than ever in times of crisis, not only the direction, but also the path, needs to be clear. People need to know how, when and where they will get through a crisis, and if there are any unknown, what are they. This creates emotional stability, clarity of mind, knowledge and optimism to get through whatever challenge may occur.

    Another equally important role during a crisis is to be a constant cheerleader of positivity. I recently read that when leading an emotionally tired team, one must “energize everyone, everyday”. It is so true. I really believe in this and found myself to have become a lot more enthusiastic and spreading positivity than I ever had. It is contagious and comforting and frankly, so much easier to get through a crisis in a positive mindset.

    When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?

    I think setting realistic expectations is critical. This stems back to the transparency I spoke about earlier. In our case for example, when we consider our business outlook, we shifted our planning window from a few months to a few weeks, because that is the extent of visibility we have in terms of business confidence. This then allows me to set realistic expectations for the team and myself, which then enables my leaders to be effective and purposeful at work.

    It also allows us to stay much closer to the results, and to celebrate them accordingly, and loudly. If we set daily goals, then the results are immediate, and so is the gratification and the motivation to return for more. Following the proverb of “how do you eat an elephant? One bite at the time”, this philosophy can be a very effective and motivational tool to drive results and productivity during hard times.

    What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?

    In a service world, where we deal with people, emotions, behaviors and so many other intangible factors, critical conversations are not uncommon. I see a critical conversation as an important leadership tool, not as a finality. The conversation should always lead to a solution; it should not be the solution.

    For me, a critical conversation always starts with a sound understanding of the subject at hand (for example if a guest encountered an issue, or a staff performed in a way that may not represent our values) and all of its implications. I give this a lot of thought, and already have an outcome in mind that I will work towards before I even have the conversation.

    Secondly, again, honesty and complete transparency is key. This establishes confidence in the person on the other side of that message that I have their best interest at heart.

    Next, I always try to anticipate what the response will be, and to be prepared to have a solution that will anticipate this response. This allows me to close the loop and leave the conversation with tangible steps to take that can then be measured and / or inspected. That is also my accountability.

    Lastly, follow-up is key. Ensuring that all parties involved are satisfied and that there are no unaddressed issues. The above is also the basic principle of any conflict resolution situation.

    How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?

    As mentioned earlier, it’s about adapting to the circumstance and setting realistic expectations. If I can’t plan 3 months ahead, then I will plan 3 weeks ahead. If I can’t plan on quantitative results, I can plan on qualitative ones.

    Being agile and prompt is very important, and being able to determine at any given time what is a realistic output, versus one that is not. This does not negate the need to push boundaries, or as we say often at Amangiri “to move the goal post”. But it’s about being realistic and reasonable.

    Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?

    I think any organization should have a number of principles that guide them through any times, whether good or challenging. As mentioned, we have a very well-articulated and relevant company culture, which defines the way we live our work life. This applies both in good times and challenging one. So, the number one principle, would be to have principles. If directional guidance may not appear necessary in times of feast, it will definitely be required in times of famine.

    Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?

    Everyone has different set of circumstances and it would be presumptuous of me to provide judgment on others. I think the worst thing that a company can do in times of crisis is to devalue their brand as I think it erodes the consumer confidence.

    From the onset of the crisis at Aman, we always committed to not cutting short on value. In different context and with different practices, we have reopened with an intangible experience that had not changed from when we were operating prior to the pandemic. It has been inspiring to see companies pivot and reinvent themselves in ways that were so creative and yet did not cut their brand short, brands they have worked so hard at creating.

    Other companies have had to pivot completely due to COVID-19 and the nature of what they do, and have done so incredibly well. I would say that particularly in times of crisis, again I would lean more than ever into those guiding principles of honesty, transparency, communication and accountability. Those who shy away from those principles may not be able to instill the confidence to survive a crisis as well.

    Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

    For any company working towards growing their performance, I believe one of the key factors is to be relevant, especially during uncertain times. Identifying an issue and normalizing a solution is critical to show intent. So in the wake of Covid-19, visible sanitation was a major opportunity that conflicted with our practices (and by that I mean the “visible” part, as Aman is known for a discreet and intuitive service). Immediately, we recognized that if we wanted to be in the game, we had to switch how we did things by exhibiting in public our typically invisible services. Someone recently coined this as “housekeeping theater” which I thought was very true.

    As another example, I believe 2021 will be a year of healing (whether it be health, loss time, or celebrating missed milestones) so we are putting a lot of efforts from public relations, to sales and programming into those general themes, to stay relevant and be ahead of that demand when it starts to comes so when it does, we won’t be reactive to it. I think that focusing on damage control during a recession period is very important in order to manage the immediate impact, but equally focusing on recovery is critical because when it actually comes, we want to be the first ones out of the gates.

    Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.

    In no order of priority:

    1. Honesty. Now more than ever during uncertain times, people will look towards a leader to lead. This can’t be done if the team does not trust the leader and is not absolutely positive that the leader has everyone’s best interest at heart.
    2. Adaptability: Being agile and adaptable is paramount. Trying to squeeze an old way of doing business into a new set of circumstances is ineffective and will yield disconnected results.
    3. Positivity: In a crisis affecting business where quantitative results cannot be used to motivate, sometimes inspiring people can be one of the few tools available to keep people to perform. Ideological guidance can be a very powerful tool.
    4. Empathy: Empathy is so important to understand how employees may feel when driving a business. The pandemic for example has affected our staff in so many different ways and remaining emotionally close to them was paramount to continue to motivate them to perform, whilst being sensitive to the unique set of circumstances they are subject to at the same time.
    5. Accountability: more than ever during hard times, results matter. Accountability is not only to others but to oneself. I hold myself to very high standards, which allows me to be the best I think I can be. The same applies to others. And the sense of fulfillment is that much more intense one you know you have been accountable to result.

    Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

    As a long-distance runner, when the miles get tough, I start repeating to myself “I can do this all day”. Grit and determination are very strong principles of mine and repeating that mantra to myself helps me get through tough times. The same applies at work. I just don’t give up, and the harder the circumstances get, the more focused I become to drive results.

    How can our readers further follow your work?

    By visiting Amangiri and seeing in person the values I try to instill to my team for the enjoyment of our guests and staff alike.