The diverse career path to hospitality CEO

While at the recent Restaurant Finance Conference with my partner, Court Williams, we had the opportunity to meet with many CEOs from companies large and small, privately and publicly owned. It occurred to us how different the backgrounds were of each of these leaders, yet they all have the same goals in mind: competitively position their companies and build sales and profits through providing great customer experiences.

Historically, most hospitality CEOs came from operations, because it is an operating business, after all. Iconic industry leaders such as Wally Doolin, Dick Rivera, Conrad Hilton and Steve Wynn came to mind as examples of those who built an empire through operational excellence.

Interestingly, over the last decade, the financial and brand experts have taken over. Sally Smith at Buffalo Wild Wings, Barry Sternlicht at Starwood and Jim Murren at MGM all made their bones in finance before jumping ship. Meanwhile, Liz Smith of Bloomin’ Brands and Frits van Paasschen at Starwood built their careers in brand marketing.

It is apparent to us that there is no cookie-cutter path to CEO — the style, communication and strategic thinking skills are what matter. We also find that cultural fit and compatibility are key to a CEO’s long-term success. We call it service leadership, Robert Greenleaf called it Servant Leadership and Jim Collins defined it as Level 5 Leadership. In the end, it is about the CEO putting him or herself behind the needs of the customers, employees and partners.