Interviews

Kimpton Hotels' CEO on successful leadership

What does it take to be a successful leader? Mike DeFrino, CEO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, shares the essential attributes that define great leadership
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Mike DeFrino
Mike DeFrino, CEO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

The first boutique hotel and restaurant company in the US, Kimpton now boasts 68 hotels and 78 restaurants & bars. With a focus on bolstering the brand's collection of properties globally, Mike DeFrino worked his way up from General Manager to CEO of Kimpton in less than two decades— previously working in key roles at ANA Hotels and Ritz-Carlton. Here, he shares some of his successes and the challenges he has faced along the way.

Click.: What is a typical work day for you?  

DeFrino: If I’m not problem solving or dealing with issues that arise, you’ll find me in meetings, ideating new products or enhancing employee programmes. When I’m on the road, I may be going to see a new site or meeting with a new ownership group interested in Kimpton. I’ll also look at competitive hotels and try to get to know the city dynamic of where I am. If I’m going to cities where we have hotels, I always make it a point to tour the properties, meet with the employees and spend time with the property leaders to ensure I understand what they need and how I can support their success.

Click.: What has been your biggest achievement?

DeFrino: My career has been built from the ground up. I started washing dishes in restaurants when I was 14 and went to a management training programme after college. Besides the role that I have now, a few things stand out. I was once the Director of Housekeeping at a hotel when they received a 5-diamond and 5-star award, and that resonated with me as a real success. Also, my first General Manager job was pivotal, exciting and liberating for me. In that role you begin to craft the operation; you’re not only influencing the guest experience, but the employee experience as well.

Click.: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned since being in the industry?

DeFrino: The importance of the employees around you, from the Housekeeper to the Director of Sales, all of those people are a part of the mosaic that makes up the experience of the hotel - from both a business and guest perspective. I’ve always put a lot of emphasis on the selection of employees, the training, and what we call the employee journey. I get a great deal of satisfaction from seeing people move up the ladder.

Click.: In your opinion, what does it take to be a successful leader?

DeFrino: A good leader has to be fearless and confident. They have to believe in themselves, believe in their product and believe in their team. They also need to be compassionate; they need to feel for their employees and their customers to make sure they’re not just serving themselves. Sometimes, especially for young leaders, there’s apprehension about the appropriate amount of bravado needed to actually hold a leadership role. It’s important to balance motivation and hard work with selflessness and humour.

Click.: What have been some of the leadership challenges you’ve faced?

DeFrino: One of the greatest leadership challenges I’ve faced is when Kimpton was acquired about four years ago. Retaining the company culture during that time and making sure I stayed focused on what makes the brand great was crucial. I felt fortunate when the CEO of IHG told me, “we want Kimpton to remain Kimpton, we want you to protect the brand from all the influences of a big company because the reason we acquired it is because of the culture and the way you do work, we want to make sure we maintain that”. So the biggest challenge for me was making sure, first of all, that my employees stayed on and stayed interested in Kimpton, and to ease any fears they had that the brand would be folded into this larger organisation and be fully integrated physically and culturally. I had to explain and maintain that wasn’t the plan.

Click.: Kimpton has ranked highly on Fortune’s ‘100 Best Companies to Work For’ list for 10 years now, what’s the secret to this success?

DeFrino: Kimpton has a unique culture that started with our founder Bill Kimpton, who cared deeply about how other people felt and how they were treated. As the steward of this culture now, it’s important to maintain. I feel it’s necessary that everybody, certainly at the leadership level, has the same philosophy about moving people up and pushing them to be their best selves. Those are big parts of the culture of Kimpton and also why people like working here. They feel cared for and see the compassion that our leadership team exhibits.

Click.: If you could go back to the start of your career, what one piece of knowledge would you take with you?

DeFrino: There’s a lot of value in being a student of your industry. Not just having a passion for your job, but also having a passion for your entire industry is important. One thing I started recognising after I was in the hotel business for a few years was that I don’t want to just be good at what we’re doing here, I want to learn what other people are doing well too. Being passionate about your trade is something I think gets underestimated when you’re fresh out of college, but you can influence your place in the world by being open and curious.

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Hero image: credit to Rawpixel.com, Pexels

Topics
Takeaway
  • A good leader has to be fearless and confident. They have to believe in themselves, believe in their product and believe in their team
  • It’s important to balance motivation and hard work with selflessness and humour.
  • There’s a lot of value in being a student of your industry. Not just having a passion for your job, but also having a passion for your entire industry is important

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