How to Lead in the Hospitality Industry, with St. Justine Properties’ Dr. Jeffrey O.



Managing teams effectively and inspiring and motivating employees are some of the most challenging aspects of being a leader. In this conversation, Dr. Jeffrey O, president & CEO of St. Justine Properties and current president of the International Hospitality Institute, joins host Robin Trimingham to talk all things leadership.


Highlights from Today’s Episode

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Episode Transcript

Jeffrey O: You’re going to have to do it using morality. You’re going to have to do it using motivation, which is another pillar that transformational leadership is built on. And the only way you do that is by treating them with respect, by showing empathy to them, by being honest with them, by being transparent with them, by articulating a very clear vision and by modeling the behavior that you’re looking to see if you’re a transformational leader and you do all of these things and your team sees all of these things, they’re going to be inspired in a positive way going out. 

Robin Trimingham: Welcome to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine with weekly thought provoking discussions with the world’s leading hotel and hospitality innovators. Welcome to the innovative hotelier brought to you by Hotels magazine. I’m your host, Robin Trimingham. Any great leader understands that learning is a lifelong process, and there’s always room for improvement because they appreciate the world around them is constantly changing, and to stay ahead of the game, they must continuously expand their own knowledge and skills. In the hotel industry, however, this can be a particular challenge because there’s also a temptation for leaders to micromanage tasks and to value consistency over curiosity among team members as they strive to deliver a flawless guest experience. My guest today, Dr. Jeffrey Oh, is president and CEO of the Saint Justine Properties and president of the International Hospitality Institute. He’s an expert in the field of transformational leadership, and he’s here today to share his thoughts regarding how to inspire and motivate team members to achieve their full potential personally, while also transcending their self-interest for the benefit of the organization. Join me now for my conversation with Dr.O Worldwide. Welcome, Jeffrey. It’s great to get a chance to chat with you today. 

Jeffrey O: Robin, it’s a pleasure to chat with you. I appreciate the opportunity. 

Robin Trimingham: I was watching a couple of YouTube recordings that you’ve done in preparation for our conversation today, and I got kind of intrigued. Can you tell us very briefly what inspired you to become a leadership coach for the hotel industry in the first place? Because that’s very specific. 

Jeffrey O: It is. It is. I get I’ve got that question thrown at me a few times. It’s an excellent question. I found that there was a need. I mean, I have a lot of folks that have been fortunate to work with in the industry and in talking to some of these folks identified in need, because I ran into leaders who wanted to be more confident, who wanted to work on their public speaking skills, who wanted to know how to cope with failure. I had leaders who were trying to hit certain targets and they were struggling with getting to those targets, and they started questioning themselves like, What am I doing wrong? I might not good enough. What can I do better? How can I get better managing teams? How can I be more effective leader? So in talking to those folks, I was inspired to want to help any little way that I possibly can. I certainly don’t have all the answers. I don’t have many answers, but I can ask a lot of questions and I can have people ask themselves a lot of questions. And the key to being an effective coach is not to provide answers to people, rather is to prompt them, you know, to push them to ask questions. 

Jeffrey O: And in looking for answers to those questions, they’re going to be doing some great work on that journey of self-discovery. So it’s not really you providing the answers to people, but you’re prompting them and asking them questions that are going to get them to where they need to get to. I had a particular gentleman who failed at a particular enterprise and he said to me, Jeffrey, you know, I just don’t know how to handle this failure that’s just happened to me. It’s just a big blow to my ego and I don’t know how to deal with it. And what I said to them was very simple When you fail, it’s okay to beat yourself up, but get the beating done, get it done quickly, and then move on with a plan. Don’t just sit around and beat yourself up day in and day out. So I was inspired to do that just from my work in the hospitality industry. My organization, IHI, the International Hospitality Institute, actually has a course that’s called the Certified Hospitality Leadership Coach that teaches leaders working in hospitality how to do some of the things that I have worked with leaders on for many years. 

Robin Trimingham: You have a very interesting approach. It really resonates with me personally. What you’re doing is commonly called transformational leadership, and as a rule, transformational leaders have clear vision and they inspire others to achieve it for themselves. So that’s all well and good Once you have the be all and end all clear vision yourself. But what’s your advice regarding how to let go of the personal weaknesses that are holding you back from getting there in the first place? 

Jeffrey O: Excellent question. I think it starts by us being willing to do a self-inventory You mentioned personal weakness. People have to know what their personal weaknesses are and knowing your personal weaknesses, it can be your biggest strength. Just knowing what areas you fall short, where you need to improve upon. So it starts with us doing an inventory, self inventory, finding out what. We need to improve upon before we can even work on them. And to do this self-inventory you can do it on your own or you can have people around you participate in the process. My wife is great with telling me what areas I’m spectacularly bad at. She tells me that you talk too much, Geoffrey. You dominate conversations. A lot of things that I’ve learned just by listening to her and doing that. Self-inventory So you’re going to get there by doing it on your own or having people that you trust in your circle. You can do an anonymous self-inventory where you send them a quiz and they fill it out electronically. They don’t have to attach their email addresses or names to it, or they go to a Google survey. When they go in, you don’t require emails and they tell you, What are the ten things about Geoffrey that you don’t like? What is the one area that Geoffrey needs to improve upon? What is the worst thing that Geoffrey has ever done, in your estimation, professionally mean all of these things? You’re looking to tease out information and once you get that information, you can use them to work on yourself. But what I always say to folks is this Don’t be afraid to look in the mirror. You know, there may be days you look in the mirror and you don’t like what you see because for whatever reason, but never be afraid to look in the mirror because you have to be able to do introspection. If you really want to grow as a leader and as a human being. 

Robin Trimingham: You’ve just hit the nail on the head right there. A really great leader is requires bravery and also wanting to be better yourself tomorrow than you are today and not really worrying so much about being the boss and things like that. One of the questions that comes up a lot in the hotel industry where we’re working with people with very diverse cultural backgrounds. How will helping a leader gain a better understanding of diversity of culture ultimately create better guest experiences? And the part the hoteliers care about generate more revenue as a result? 

Jeffrey O: Yeah. Cultural competence is very important. And what you mentioned transformational leadership. You’ve got folks like James Burns who really expanded on the concept. You’ve got the guy who originated the concept himself, James Downton, and you’ve got guys like Bernard Bass who really did great work on transformational leadership. So transformational leaders understand that to get to where you’re trying to get to the positive outcomes that you’re trying to get to in motivating people and inspiring people, individual consideration, providing that to people to do all of those things, you have to be able to have a wide tent. You have to be able to bring a lot of people and you have to have an umbrella that’s big enough to accommodate folks from diverse backgrounds. Right? If you’re not able to do that, you’re not able to embrace diversity. People come from different cultures, different backgrounds. If you’re not able to do that, you’re not going to get the results you’re looking for. Cultural competence is very, very important, and any leader who consider themselves to be transformational has to understand that. And I’ll give you a very specific example. In the hotel industry where you and I have worked for many years, if you go to Japan and you go eat a meal in a restaurant and you decide to tip the server, that’s considered rude because it seems to imply that the person who’s serving you is not doing what they should have done, or you’re disrespecting them or you’re giving them a tip. That’s the culture. Now, when you’re dealing with a guest in your hotel and the person happens to be from Japan and, you know, aware of this, if they don’t tip, you don’t get offended because it may not be plugged into your culture. 

Jeffrey O: You go to a country like Iran and Afghanistan, you give someone a thumbs up. It’s considered very, very rude to do that. Right. But we are used to doing that in the US where we’re based and it goes on and on and on and in some countries, hugs. I mean, it’s all right to hug people, strangers hugging, hug each other and some countries, some other countries. You don’t adopt that level of familiarity with someone unless they’re very close to you. So these are cultural norms that we need to be aware of. And by teaching our teams to know all these things and be sensitive to them, we’re going to be more effective because in hotels we deal with folks from all walks of life, from different different backgrounds, different countries. If you know, plugged into those things, then you’re going to struggle in terms of making your guests happy. It doesn’t mean that you need to know all this happening in China or Japan or Namibia or India or Uganda, all of that. You don’t have to. But it does help to have some passing familiarity, some passing knowledge of the norms, the cultural norms that apply to different places. It does help. It certainly doesn’t hurt if you’re going to be servicing gas, serving guests from different countries and different backgrounds. 

Robin Trimingham: A lot of what you’re talking about is building relationships. And at the core of building relationships, we’re talking really about simply building trust, building long term trust between team members, building trust for an instant, very quickly when you’re serving a guest in some capacity or other. In a recent interview that I watched, you talked about your own journey to overcoming the idea that you have to do everything yourself. Talk to us a little bit about that. 

Jeffrey O: Yeah, I look at my younger self now and I cringe because it’s just. 

Robin Trimingham: So we all do. 

Jeffrey O: Yeah, I was absolutely dreadful. Really? I thought I knew it all and I wanted to show people how smart I was. So looking back now, I realized that I was insecure as a leader and I was driven by my ego and I thought I needed to. If there were such a procedure as ego reduction surgery, I was a prime candidate for it because my ego was this massive. I thought I knew it all. You couldn’t tell me anything. And I wanted to let people know how smart I was. So I dominated conversations. I was a terrible listener. If you were talking to me, Robin, I wasn’t listening to you. I was preparing my retort. I was preparing my response to you and I wasn’t listening to what you were saying. That’s how I was. And I wanted to do everything by myself. You know why? Because I wanted to keep all the credit. I wanted to be the guy who figured out that solution, who got it all accomplished. And underlying all of this, I did not have enough trust in the people who worked with me to believe that they could get the job done and get it done. Well, I thought the only way the job was going to be done properly was if I did it. 

Jeffrey O: So I took it on myself. Of course, I worked longer hours than I needed to work and I was stressed out more than I needed to be. But I caused all of this problems to myself, so it was really arrogant and not knowing what leadership really is about. Leadership is not about shouting at people from the mountain top. It’s about helping people get to the mountain top. You know, you can sit there on Mount Olympus and say, Hey, you need to do this. You need to do that, but you’re not going to achieve the kind of results that you’re looking for unless you’re able to draw them in. And that’s what’s so magical, amazing about the concept of transformational leadership. And that’s why I actually studied that in one of the things I studied in my PhD dissertation was transformational leadership. My dissertation was actually on leadership, ethical leadership and looking at the various leadership styles. So excellent point you bring up and I’ve learned a lot since those days. I can tell you I’m not where I need to be, but I’m not where I used to be. So I’m making progress. I’m a work in progress. 

Robin Trimingham: You know, like the journey. Yeah, I would agree with that sentiment entirely. It was pretty interesting. A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to interview a CEO who is still in his 20s. He’s with one of these high tech startup kind of things, and I was asking him about what’s it like to be the boss, the leader? And he said the most insightful thing to me. He said, I realized that I was making all kinds of mistakes and I had to be patient with myself. And then I had the big aha moment, which was basically, Oh, I have to be patient with my team too. And, you know, I’ve talked to guys in their 50s who haven’t really got it that clearly. And this guy’s just at the beginning of his career. 

Jeffrey O: He gets. 

Robin Trimingham: It. From your perspective, what do you feel is the greatest misconception about effective leadership in the hospitality industry and why do you say that? 

Jeffrey O: Actually, I have a couple of points that I think relate to that. One of them. It’s a style of leadership that folks in hospitality should adopt. I’ve run into many leaders who said to me, If you work in hospitality, you need to be tough. You need to lay down the rules. You need to tell people what to do, how they need to do it. You need to hold them accountable. And that’s sort of autocratic leadership, in my estimation, doesn’t work well. Your leadership style does not have to be directive and autocratic. It doesn’t have to be. I think it should be participative. You should pull people in. And I’ll use the example of Steve Jobs and Tim Cook, who came after him. Steve Jobs, God rest his soul, was a brilliant, brilliant mind. No one is going to dispute that. Absolutely brilliant mind. But his leadership style, from what I have read, was autocratic, Right? He surrounded himself with people who were, you know, that he was comfortable with and people that he wanted to deal with. And he dealt with them in a certain fashion. Some have said he was very, very tough. Right. Brilliant mind, an amazing human being. But his style was sort of autocratic. That’s what’s been written about him. And never worked with him. So I don’t know how true that is. I’m simply going based on the account that I have read. But then you’ve got Tim Cook who took over and Tim Cook’s style, from what I have read also is sort of more Democratic style rather than an autocratic style, where you draw more people in, you solicit people, solicit people’s opinions before making decisions and all of that. So I think the misconception is that you have to be tough, you have to be autocratic, you need to lay down the law and hold people accountable. 

Jeffrey O: You can do all of those things and still have a style of leadership that’s democratic, that’s participative, that most people want. It’s not a zero sum game. That’s how I look at it. So I think the second misconception I’d like to touch upon relates to charisma. You know, people always say that if you work in hospitality, you have to be charismatic, You’re dealing with guests, you have to be able to have the guests like you. You’re dealing with your associates. You don’t have to like you. But I am saying this you can be charismatic and still be a lousy leader, a terrible leader, and you can be non charismatic and be a great leader. So you don’t have to be charismatic to succeed in hospitality. You need to know how to treat people. You need to be kind, you need to be humble. You need to be transparent. Right? You need to be caring. You need to empathize. You can be all of these things and not be charismatic and still deliver results. We know about some leaders in history who were very, very charismatic, but they did really horrible things. You know, you’ve got Hitler, you’ve got people like Jim Jones and many others who did terrible, terrible things. But from all accounts, they were charismatic leaders. So my point is, you don’t have to be a charismatic leader to lead in the hospitality environment. Number one. And number two, your leadership style does not have to be autocratic for you to be successful. So those are the two points I’d like to make. 

Robin Trimingham: I think your second point is particularly true. It’s great to have a friendly, welcoming, inspiring boss, but if they’re never in their office because they’re out meeting clients, walking the floor, whatever it is that they’re doing, if they’re never available, is that a good leader? 

Jeffrey O: I think a good leader has to be able to lead. I think a good leader has to be present. I think a good leader has to be visible. I think a good leader has to engage. You can be present without being visible. You can be visible without engaging, but that’s not going to be effective. You have to be present, but it’s not enough to be present. You have to be visible and it’s not enough to be visible. You have to engage as a leader. 

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Jeffrey O: If you’re not willing to give up the old ways you are, you are sitting on the Titanic on the deck. Having your drink and the ship, your ship is going down, you have to be able to evolve. The hospitality industry at the leadership level is still largely male dominated, like you rightly pointed out. There’s been improvement. You know, there continues to be improvement, which is great. But you look at a report from the Coastal Project, an organization that’s done some great work on bringing more diversity into the hospitality field in 2020. For every woman who was in the C-suite, there were 5.7 men in the C-suite. That’s a big gap. That’s a disparity. So there’s still a lot of work that needs to be done and it can stop. Project has put out some great reporting in that regard. Optum Mind Partners, based in the UK, has also done some great work in that regard. So we’ve improved. We’re now, we’re used to be, but there’s still opportunities to improve, to bring more diversity into the C-suite, into the leadership levels of hospitality. 

Robin Trimingham: Yeah. And I think a lot of this stems from realizing how important it is to do a mixture of promote from within, train from within and nurture, encourage, build, lead from within. The leaders that you’re building today are the people who will be the leaders tomorrow. They will be the ones best suited, most qualified and all of that. 

Jeffrey O: So true. 

Robin Trimingham: But some hoteliers continue to judge everything, every investment in human capital in terms of the ROI. Where’s the revenue? If I pay for training, how quickly will I recoup this in room rates or revenue or whatever increase they’re using to measure all of these things? So help us out here. How does mastering transformational leadership ultimately allow leaders to set high standards and expectations not just for themselves, but for the people that they’re leading in such a way that it increases profitability? 

Jeffrey O: Excellent for the transformational leadership really is built on some really solid pillars. You’ve got individualized consideration, you’ve got immorality component. All of those things are involved. I mean, if you want to inspire people to give the best of themselves, you’re going to have to do it using morality. You’re going to have to do it using motivation, which is another pillar that transformational leadership is built on. And the only way you do that is by treating them with respect, by showing empathy to them, by being honest with them, by being transparent with them, by articulating a very clear vision and by modeling the behavior that you’re looking to see if you’re a transformational leader and you do all of these things and your team sees all of these things, they’re going to be inspired in a positive way and they’re going to be able to relate to your guests, your customers, and give the best of themselves because they are getting the best of you. It really does spread that way. So if you’re a transformational leader and you really embody transformational leadership, you’re going to do things that inspire your team, that motivate them, you’re going to recognize them. You’re going to also focus on fairness. Because if people perceive that they’re not being treated fairly or the work environment is not fair and they’re going to be bitter, they’re not going to give the best of themselves. So if you do all of these things, you’re going to create an environment that’s very conducive to achieving success because people are going to help you achieve success. You cannot do it all on your own. Contrary to what my younger self thought, you can’t do it all on your own. You’re not an island. You’re going to need people around you to succeed. You’re going to be able to get them there. If you truly are practicing transformational leadership. 

Robin Trimingham: I always say when there is a problem to be solved, who do you really want handling that problem? A calm, confident person who’s friendly and thinks on their feet. And that’s what transforms. Leadership will nurture in people. 

Jeffrey O: Absolutely. Absolutely. 

Robin Trimingham: Let’s change the conversation a little bit here. There is all kinds of talk. AI, ChatGPT, virtual reality, everything in between. I’m fortunate. I talk to a lot of the people developing these kinds of things. From your perspective, how do you see foresee AI applications will impact leadership roles in the near future in the next five years? 

Jeffrey O: One of my quotes that I often say is that when it comes to technology, I see that technology is like a moving train. You can get inside of it or you can stand in front of it. So you can take the approach that you want to take. Ai is here to stay. It’s not going anywhere. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. You’ve got people saying, Oh, we need to regulate AI, we need to stop AI. Well, you can’t stop. I know. At this point, it’s already out there. I don’t know how you’re going to stop it. Maybe it’s possible. I don’t know how you’re going to stop it, I think is going to enhance leadership. I think I provides leaders with a suite of tools that they can use to make themselves more effective As a CEO in a company. I is going to allow you access to predictive analysis tools that you can use. You’re going to have natural language processing tools that you can use. You’re going to be able to do a bunch of things using AI to augment or supplement or support what you’re doing. So I am not deluded by any means. 

Jeffrey O: I embrace AI 100%. I think it does make sense. We have to find ways to use it for the betterment of mankind. Now, could I possibly have some devious, sinister use it? Sure it can. You can say the same for just about any application or invention or innovation that man has come up with. It has a flip side to it, but ultimately I think is a good thing. I think it’s a great thing. You’ve got 25% of companies in the US already using AI and you’ve got another, I think almost 40% saying that they’re planning to use it in the near future. And Brookings Institute did a recent study which shows that 25% of jobs in the US are actually endangered by AI. So what we have to do is find ways to use AI without really displacing people or disrupting lives. And there are so many ways that AI can be helpful to leaders. I find it to be very useful. I’m already adopting it, looking at different ways to build it into my work processes, and I think I think it’s a great, great thing. 

Robin Trimingham: Yeah, I think it’s interesting that it really makes the sky the limit when it comes to new ways to work, new ways to get your job done, new things that you can do or explore that an individual person might never have been able to do before. So true. But I do believe that we are in a phase of big experimentation, you know, and seeing what works and what’s not a great idea and how to best proceed with all of this. So, sure, you serve the world globally as president of the International Hospitality Institute. Why do you feel that there is a need for global trainings and standards for the hospitality industry? 

Jeffrey O: I think there is a real need because we are serving customers who are getting more and more discerning. More and more savvy people are traveling to different parts of the world experiencing different things. They’ve got high expectations, post-pandemic. We need to be a space where we’ve got practitioners who truly know what they’re doing and are able to maintain a certain consistency because in our industry you can have folks come into hospitality without a college degree, which is amazing. I love that, right? People can come in from different backgrounds. How do we make sure that people who are delivering the service, let’s say a food and beverage manager, how do we know that it’s a fab manager, has a basic understanding of what their role entails, what it’s supposed to do, how it’s supposed to interact with guests, how it’s supposed to look out for stakeholders, how do we make sure that that person has got the training that they need to have to be successful in their role? I’ve run into a lot of people. Every now and then people were in certain positions that you would expect, know where they’re supposed to do. But like you and I know that’s not always the case, we think that standardization is going to help. It’s certainly not going to hurt. So we’ve got many programs at IHG for different positions, general managers, the GM program, food and beverage program, a ton of courses and certification programs that actually help establish a baseline or a benchmark in terms of learning that key leaders, department heads, senior leaders should have in order to be able to equip themselves well for their stakeholders. 

Jeffrey O: So we think it’s very, very necessary. It’s actually important. Education is very, very important in our industry. If people are educated and they know what it’s supposed to do, they’re going to feel better about themselves. They’re going to feel great about themselves. They’re going to feel that the company is concerned with investing in them as people. So all of these things are important. So we think it’s really important. There’s a certain level of standardization. If I’m looking to hire someone as a food and beverage manager or a general manager, I’m going to feel better knowing that it’s certified as a general manager. They certified as a food and beverage manager. They’re certified as a restaurant manager, just like you want to have surgery. If you’re going to have surgery, are you going to go with a doctor who doesn’t have a certification in surgery? Or are you going to go with one who is certified to do surgery? Therein lies your answer. 

Robin Trimingham: I think that’s an interesting point. If you are working for one of the global brands and you’re listening to this conversation, you’re probably saying, well, this isn’t necessary. Our brand has all of these standards in place and that might well be the case. But I think sometimes people forget. That there are thousands of independent and boutique operators all over the world in all different kinds of countries and situations who don’t have what I’m going to say, the luxury of brand standard training. So for all of the rest of us, I think that’s really a great idea. So. What’s your key message for everyone who views this discussion? 

Jeffrey O: Great question. I love that. I don’t think I’ve had someone ask me that before. I love that key message. I think that’s a brilliant one. I’ve got two things that I would say. I think the first one is what are you doing to improve yourself on a daily basis? What are you doing to make yourself a better person? As the first question I’ve got, the second question is what are you doing to make the world a better place? These are questions. I think that on a daily basis we should ponder as we go about the business of life. What are we doing to improve ourselves as people and what are we doing to improve the world that we live in? 

Robin Trimingham: I think that’s a great way to end, and I couldn’t agree with you more. Sometimes in this world with billions of people, we lose sight of the fact that we all have two roles to play a local, personal individual one and a global one. Yes, we are one raindrop in the clouds, but if you want a rain shower, everybody has to help. So true. Geoffrey, I want to thank you so much for your time today. Very interesting to chat with you. You’ve been watching the innovative hotelier. Join us again soon for more up to the minute insights and information specifically for the hotel and hospitality industry. You’ve been listening to the Innovative Hotelier podcast by Hotels magazine. Join us again soon for more conversations with hospitality industry thought leaders. 

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