Troubleshooter Sir Gerry Robinson reckons all businesses can achieve success with a few simple golden rules. Nic Paton caught up with him at a recent management masterclass for hospitality operators in the South-west
It's a cloudless evening and the sun has almost set over Exeter's imposing 12th-century cathedral, now bathed from all sides in spotlights. "It's a lovely setting, isn't it?" says Sir Gerry Robinson admiringly, as we sit down in Abode Exeter, formerly the Royal Clarence hotel, overlooking the city's Cathedral Yard.
Robinson is best known to the general public for his hit troubleshooting TV series Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS? and I'll Show Them Who's Boss. In his time he's worked for Coca-Cola, Grand Metropolitan, toy maker Matchbox and car hire company Lex. But it's his background in hospitality that still makes him "one of us" to many industry professionals. Robinson, along with Charles Allen and Francis Mackay, led the management buyout of Compass from Grand Met as director of Granada successfully took over Forte, and was chairman of motorway services group Moto Hospitality.
Robinson has ventured into the South-west to hold a management "masterclass" organised by the Tourism Skills Network. And, it seems, the chance to hear a man of his stature is an opportunity not to be missed, attracting some 150 hoteliers and restaurateurs from across the region - one of the biggest turnouts, explains the network's Wendy Samuel.
In the flesh, it's clear why Robinson's TV programmes have been such a success. Perhaps it's his Irish heritage - he was born in Donegal and still retains a soft accent - but, unlike some management "gurus", he lacks any hint of pretension or grandness. He comes across as engaging and informal someone whom you feel is genuinely interested in and able to get along with people whatever their level.
This lack of complication, the sense of no-nonsense straightforwardness, is also at the heart of his management message. "I really hate the tendency to mystify management. There are books written that talk about it in a sophisticated way, yet 99 times out of 100 it's extraordinarily straightforward," he explains. "It's just about setting out in a logical way, day after day, to do the things you know need to be done to make the customer feel good. It's not sophisticated and it's not complicated, but it's amazing how often it doesn't happen.
"The hotel here, for instance. It feels nice and it works very well. But none of that happens by accident. Somebody has really thought about it. They've got the front desk organised, they have someone to greet you, to open the door, someone has thought about the detail," he enthuses.
This approach is that it doesn't take loads of meetings, brainstorming away-days or expensive consultations to achieve. In fact, you can do a lot of it with just two pairs of words - "thank you" and "well done".
"The difference between doing it well and doing it badly is often quite small. Very often - and it's one of the things I talk of a lot - it's about follow-up," Robinson stresses. "If you ask someone to do something, you need to follow it up. And that's not negative, it's actually very positive. If I ask someone to do something difficult and they've done it and I never ask them about it again, they'll feel pretty annoyed because they've put effort into it."
Similarly, he adds, if the person you ask doesn't do what you wanted and you haven't checked up afterwards they'll probably wonder if it's ever worth doing anything you ask of them. "That kind of attention to detail and that follow-up is 90% of what management is about," he says.
Does having worked across so many sectors give him a different perspective on the hospitality sector now, I wonder? When you've faced intransigent NHS managers, say, is it easier to see the answers to the management challenges faced by the average hotelier?
Not necessarily, he argues, because so often the problems - and solutions - are exactly the same anyway. "I genuinely believe much more is the same in business than is different. Whatever business you're in there are a number of issues that will cut right through it - getting the right people, motivating them properly, following up on what you do, getting people enthusiastic about what they do, making them feel special.
"I moved into Granada [he joined as chief executive in 1991] when it was a basket case. The feeling was that the whole thing was going to fall on its sword and people were going to lose their jobs. It was a terrible place to be and morale was extraordinarily low," he recalls. "But within a month that had changed. It had changed simply by saying to people, ‘no, no, no, that is not happening, this is what we're doing come on, get on with it'. It was by getting people to concentrate on what they were doing," he explains.
Robinson believes that in business you're rarely in new territory. "It's just about the same issues over and over and over again. It doesn't require regular, brilliant brainstorming sessions. Of course you need to step back and take a look at the business every now and again, to think about the long-term stuff, but most of management is pretty laborious. It's just about detailed attention day after day after day after day."
Then there's the challenge of change.A business, particularly when things aren't going right, will need to change. But too often change is done for change's sake, or the simplest solutions are overlooked, Robinson believes. "When you find businesses that have failed - and heavens knows I've spent more of my time looking at those than any other for the various TV series - they nearly always fail on the simple, everyday things such as making sensible decisions and following them through and giving people a sense that the business is going to be around for a while," he says. "If you're changing something you need to do it in steps. Constant change unnerves people. In some organisations where you get all that management gobbledegook it frightens the living daylights out of people."
The message Robinson wants hospitality managers to take back to their businesses is ultimately a simple one - get the detail right at each appropriate level, follow up, listen but also lead. "Most businesses that are successful in my experience have always had the capacity to listen to what people say," he stresses. "People down at the sharp end know a hell of a lot more - they also know a whole load of rubbish, so you have to filter. Having listened, someone has to say ‘look, this is what we're doing', and take that final decision."
Robinson's top tips
- Articulate your vision clearly, simply and consistently.
- Set out in a logical way the things you need to get right in order to keep the customer happy.
- Make sure the details, at each appropriate level, are being got right day after day.
- Follow up your decisions, tell people when they've done a good job, give them guidance when they haven't - but always notice what they're doing.
- Help staff to feel enthusiastic and special about what they do.
- If change is needed, make sure it's consistent, staged and clearly communicated.
- Listen to what people have to say about the business, particularly those at the sharp end, but don't be led by them.
- Make your decision, tell staff where you're going and follow it through. Be a leader.
Case study: Dart Marina Hotel & Spa, Dartmouth
The simplicity of Robinson's message has struck a chord with Chris Jones, operations manager at the 49-bedroom Dart Marina Hotel & Spa in Dartmouth, Devon.
"It's very much about ‘let's not spend too much time on strategy, let's just get it done'," he says. "You don't need to spend three days writing plans. If you know what you want to do, just do it. For instance, we've just promoted our assistant restaurant manager to bar manager and have a big event coming up. I'm now going to give him a large station and table to be in charge of."
The need for consistency in what you do also left an impression. "If someone is doing their job right, doing it really well, you should tell them. But at the same time, if they're not doing it right you have to say so," Jones says.
He also agrees about the need to be up on the details. "I should come in at 3am sometimes and see what the night porter is doing. I should phone up at 8pm and ask to make a reservation just as the desk is closing and see what happens," he says.
"You need to make the team feel part of something. If they don't know where you're going, then you've failed. I think everyone would probably be surprised, when they step back and look at their business, at how many achievers they have within it."
Case study: Ramada Plaza Hotel, Bristol
The need to have a vision and articulate it clearly and consistently is one important message that has been embraced by John Dowling, general manager of Bristol's 201-bedroom Ramada Plaza hotel.
"There were, for instance, 101 things he could have done at Rotherham General [the hospital featured in Can Gerry Robinson Fix the NHS?] but he concentrated on reducing waiting lists. He concentrated on the thing he thought was important," Dowling points out.
"You need to concentrate on six or seven real priorities. You need to have a clarity of vision and make sure all the team know what it is. It's about being passionate and having a vision, but keeping it simple."
Another key issue raised was how to manage your talent, particularly workers from eastern Europe, and the need to look not just at the sort of posts they can fill now but how they can be developed in the future. "In 10 years' time these people will be having a serious impact on the business," Dowling says.