Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

In business and personal life, “don’t hide an elephant”

Simon McGrath giving his talk after formal dinner

When hotel and health care executive Mr Simon McGrath visited Warrane on Wednesday 27 May 2015 he offered the College’s residents insights drawn from decades of success in business.

Mr McGrath, the Chief Operating Officer Pacific of Accor Hotels, and a Non-Executive Director of GenesisCare, explained how he rose from being one of the lowest paid labourers in the hotel business to the very top of the industry.

He said the secret to success in any big business was to recognise that all businesses are communities which thrive on good communications and solid ethical principles.

“Companies exist to achieve what one person could not achieve alone,” he said. “You see so many people in the business world who are clever but can’t communicate. So many are clever, but can’t engage.”

Mr McGrath told students that whatever their field of study, he would like to fast forward them 20 years into the future and equip them with the necessary “rules, behaviour and techniques to deal with people”.

“Start by forming yourself in an academic sense,” he said. “You have the opportunity to be great men – don’t waste it.

“Remember a company is largely a social village, no different to the community in a country town or suburb. They have leaders and support people and you have to share your resources. Be generous with your time and generous with your support.”

He said bad companies lacked values, while good companies shared a sense of community.

In his own career, the first business he worked for was the Boulevarde Hotel, sorting linen. He went on to work in the cellar, and then in room service.

He advised his listeners, as they moved up the ranks themselves, to seek to take on the best two or three qualities of each great leader they came into contact with.

“It’s easy to have values and discipline on a good day,” he said, “but on a bad day it’s a bit hard to hold your form and that is when you are going to be tested most.”

When he took over the top job at Accor, the company was operating 60 hotels with 4000 employees in Australia. Today it has 200 hotels and 10,000 employees.

“We are the biggest in the market, we’re the best,” he said, “but the most important thing is that we have got extraordinary people.”

He said he had nurtured those people firstly by holding meetings at the beginning of each week with other executives to talk about the direction of the business and to ensure everyone was working towards the same ends.

Among the principles he had always insisted on were:

1. Don’t hide an elephant. If have a problem declare it very quickly.

2. Employ great people who think outside the square and be willing to promote people quickly in order to reward brilliance and effort.

3. Always be honest with people and do not promise promotions unless you are going to follow through with them and choose capable managers who respond quickly to correspondence, tasks and challenges.

4. When interviewing people, it was always a good idea to take them for a walk while talking to them because people tend to “walk as fast as they work.”

5. Learn to say “no” to people and they will respect it: “It is really hard to do – the hardest thing you will ever learn to do in business and in life in general, but you should never lead someone on by saying ‘yes’ or trying to appease them. Get used to straight talking.”

6. Be interested in external factors and read newspapers. “Get engaged. If you are meeting people you are going to need a breadth of knowledge about what is happening in life.”

7. Understand the material nature of every decision you make each day – understand what are the big ones that matter and what are the ones that don’t matter.

8. Remember that you never make money from conflict, particularly in business. “Never go to court. Even if you are right you will lose and it will come back to bite you. Once you get to a point where you trigger anger or you trigger an emotion it is gone. You can’t retreat from that and often you won’t because of pride. Understand it, look at it and resolve anything, and if you need to give away a little bit more than you expected you needed to give away – if you think the other person is going to cheat you – fine. Let it go.”

9. When faced with a difficult decision, always make it in favour of the customer. “You might give away some profit, you might give away some ego, but make it in favour of the customer. That’s a very simple philosophy, but it’s a great philosophy when you are leading other people – one of the values you show.”

10. Recognise that it is really hard to discipline people, but always do what is right: “Never stop three metres short.”

11. Remember that hard work is essential. “Any one can be as good as anyone else on any given day. If you are a poor employee, out of 250 days you will probably put 50 good days in. A moderate person probably puts in 150 good days. An achiever in any form probably puts in 230 out of 250 good days – days that they come in and just make them count – and that’s the difference. You will never outperform effort.”

12. Embrace youth with enthusiasm and don’t let yourself get old. “Stay at the forefront of innovation and knowledge and respect youth… It is a much more exciting time in life with wonderful energy.”

13. Do the hardest task in your day first.

14. Understand how to communicate with external critics. Don’t turn away from your critics, face them.

Mr McGrath stressed the importance of resisting the urge to follow profit for its own sake.. “Focus on what is right and profit will follow,” he said. “Never ever drive a financial outcome. If you do what is right the money will flow in later – even if a strategy doesn’t make an immediate return.”

During a lively question-and-answer session, Mr McGrath addressed the question of settling disputes in the workplace. He said it was always good to try to resolve them with humour and to always try to separate the issue from the other person in the dispute.

“You can dispute the issue but still engage with the person,” he said. “You don’t play the man, you play the issue.”

Overall, he said, it was crucial to always seek to be honest and unselfish because “in this world, the devil is in selfishness.”

[Warrane College offers a lot more than just student accommodation at UNSW: find out about some of our other guest speakers.]