From ITC Maurya to Marriott’s Top Echelons: Rajeev Menon Shares His Career-Making Moments and Leadership Mantras at HOSI
WE ALL have our career-changing moments, but the kind Rajeev Menon, COO (Asia Pacific – Excluding Greater China), Marriott International, has had in his 27-year career as hotelier have not always been, to put it gently, a walk down the garden path.
Back in 1989, when he was a management trainee at the ITC Maurya in New Delhi, Menon was asked one day to pack up his bags and leave for Mumbai along with the others in his batch. The Searock Sheraton‘s 1,100 employees had just struck work and the management trainees (45 of them from across the country, along with 47 managers) were required at once to replace them at the historic hotel. In the next four months, it was like going to a boot camp — from washing dishes to doing the laundry, Menon got his hands dirty and learnt more about how hotels work than any other management trainee could ever hope to.
Recalling his early days in an inspirational speech at the opening session of the day-long Hotel Operators Summit India 2016 (HOSI) organised by HVS Consulting at the JW Marriott, New Delhi Aerocity, Menon, who grew up in Delhi and is a IHM-Pusa graduate, recounted his next major career-defining move. He moved to Australia in 1992 in the hope of launching a career in hotels Down Under.
What he did not know was that the country’s was in the throes of the early 1990s recession that was so severe that the then Singapore strongman, Lee Kuan Yew, had predicted that Australia was headed to become the next “basket case of Asia”. Menon was rejected in all of the 25-27 interviews he was called for and in each case he was struck off because he had no experience in dealing with the Australian market. He therefore decided to begin at the beginning — he applied for a receptionist’s position, but after a process that took a month, he became the banquet manager at a 300-room luxury hotel.
A shock awaited him. On his first day at his new job, Menon asked to see his team and just one person showed up. He was the banquet captain. “Where’s the rest of the team?” Menon asked the captain. “It’s just the two of us. We hire the rest every day according to our needs,” the captain replied. Menon was then informed that the hotel’s new general manager had just pared the staff to 90 (for a 300-room establishment with a fairly large banqueting set-up). It was back to the boot camp, so Menon was planning during the day, making sales calls in the afternoons, and ensuring nothing went wrong in the evenings.
“When you are thrown into the deep end, you learn to either lead or follow,” Menon, who’s now the senior-most Indian executive of an international hotel chain, said. Predictably, Menon chose to lead and early in his life he chose to be led by the following five leadership principles:
- Ability to Listen
- Having a Clear Vision
- Ability to Communicate Effectively
- Team Success (attributing your success to the efforts of your team)
- Treat People with Respect
And a leader must have five mindset traits: Action Oriented; Analytical; Collaborative; Contextual (you must understand the social fabric and nuances of the destination you are in); and Reflective. All these traits were put to the ultimate test in Menon’s third and most important defining career moment.
In 2001, Menon came back to India after a fairly successful career in Australia to take charge of Marriott International’s flagship property in the country — Renaissance Powai, on the banks of the lake, and then, far removed from Mumbai (there was just one road leading up to it and there was more wilderness than human habitation around it). As if all these challenges weren’t enough, the hotel opened on 15 September 2001, four days after 9/11, so it lost bookings worth a million dollars even before it could welcome its first guest. Menon’s peers at the Taj and The Oberoi gave him just one year and advised him to start planning his next career move. “Things were not just difficult. They just got more difficult,” Menon said, remembering those grim days.
He was confronted with two choices — to run the 9%-occupancy, 300-room hotel with half of the 700 employees hired for it, or to each one of the associates into assets. Menon chose the second option and the Rahejas, the owning family, backed him to the hilt, instead of panicking. After a “collaborative brainstorming” with the staff, Menon established two principles that would drive their efforts — Bring in Revenue and Bring Down Waste, and everyone, down to the lowly commis in the kitchen, was involved in the process. The result was heart-warming.
Menon remembered how even a chef de partie, during his off-duty hours, would visit potential clients with boxes of muffins. And how the hotel surprised everyone by landing the Singapore Airlines account by holding out the bait of three complimentary months and at the same time insisting on a 27-month contract in place of a 24-month one.
To celebrate such ‘wins’, Menon placed an old-fashioned desktop bell (used in the old days to summon peons) outside his office and invited every member of his staff to ring it anytime he or she scored a win. In the initial days, it rang only once, but by the 40th day, it was ringing 20 times a day. Renaissance Powai not only survived, it eventually added 300 rooms and a convention centre, and is today considered a Marriott success story. It turned out in fact to be the first step in Menon’s steady rise to the top. His philosophy is best expressed in his own words: “It is not about the job you have, it is about the career you want.”
At the end of his talk, he shared the Marriott International ‘Balance Scorecard’ with his audience, comprising mostly general managers from across the country. Used to assess the performance of Marriott International GMs, it consists of the following indicators:
- Market Share
- Profit Contribution
- F&B Revenue
- Guest Satisfaction Scores
- Associate Satisfaction Scores
- Owner Satisfaction Score
And as the Marriott saying goes, “What gets measured, gets done.”
Menon closed his talk with an acronym for GMs to measure themselves with: PIE, or Performance (ability to deliver great results); Image (how people view you, especially your body language); and Exposure (how you engage with people). Such sage advice is needed in an age when general managers are expected to be Superman with the following bouquet of qualities: Financial Acumen; Profit Contribution; Mortgage Repayments; ROI Related Projects; Be An Entrepreneur; Top Sales and Marketing Person; Revenue Management; Operational Excellence; Associate Relations; Owner Relations; and of course, Great Leader. Is there any other job going in the market?!!!