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It's Story Time: Changing of The Bulbs
By Steve Cokkinias
As a new hotel General Manager, or as a new leader in any industry, it is always important to take the time to develop relationships with the existing team. In the hotel business, unless the property is newly opened, the incoming G.M. always inherits a group of leaders and a team of senior executives who will determine his/her success or failure. So when I took over as General Manager in Kuala Lumpur in August 2003, I tried to take the time to get to know each and every member of my team, and ensure that we were aligned in the goals that I was setting for the property. However this process was not nearly as easy as I thought, and a big reason for the troubles I encountered was communication.
Malaysia is a country with a unique communication culture, and it is very different than in the USA where I am from. In the USA, most people speak directly, clearly, and say precisely what they mean will little ambiguity. In Malaysia, the communication traditions are quite different. Words are spoken more softly, gestures and intonation adds complexity, and often the intricacies take time to fully digest and understand.
Adding complexity are the abbreviations, and other elements. For example, Malaysians often take English words and shorten them, often in my opinion, without good reason. "Sabo" I learned means "sabotage" and means back-stabbing. "Ori" means "original", and is typically used to describe handbags and mobile phones. Additionally, foreigners must learn that certain phrases, when used in Malaysia, have different meanings than in other parts of the world. For example, when someone says "On the way" in Malaysia, it actually means "Not yet on the way." It can also mean "I just got out of the shower." Additionally complex is the concept of time in Malaysia. I eventually learned that "tomorrow" actually means "next week", "next week" means "next month", "next month" means "next year", and "next year" usually means "never".
One particular early interaction with my Director of Engineering (Maintenance) at the time, Kumar, still stands out in my mind to this day. We were in the midst of our morning meeting at 9am, and the discussion turned to an on-going project to replace the old "filament-style" light bulbs in all of the 250 hotel guestrooms with new long-life, energy-saving bulbs which were made exclusively (at the time) by a company called Osram.
The conversation went (almost exactly) like this:
Me: "How many rooms have we completed installing the long-life Osram bulbs?"
Kumar: "About 150."
Me: "So we have to finish installing Osram bulbs in 100 rooms still?"
Me: "Well, if we have 250 rooms, and 150 have the long-life Osram bulbs already installed, that leaves 100 rooms still to go, for the long-life bulbs, right?"
Kumar: "Yes, exactly."
Me: "So don't we have 100 rooms remaining to replace with the Osram bulbs?"
Kumar: "No. The whole hotel already has them."
At this point, I was getting a bit frustrated and a bit confused, but I didn't want to lose my cool. Obviously there was something I was not understanding, and I was determined to figure out what it was. "Kumar", I said calmly, "if you have completed installing the Osram long-life bulbs in 150 rooms, then we have 100 rooms remaining to still complete. Is that right?"
"Yes boss." Came Kumar's reply.
"So, out of 250 total rooms, we have 100 rooms that still do not have the Osram bulbs, and 150 rooms that have the Osram bulbs already installed. Is...that...correct?" I asked slowly.
"No boss", replied Kumar calmly. "All rooms have the Osram bulbs already."
At this point, I lost it, and my voice began to increase in volume and speed. "Look here, Kumar, I may not be good at math, but if we have 250 rooms in the hotel, and 150 rooms have had the Osram long-life light bulbs installed, and 100 rooms have NOT had the Osram bulbs installed, then we have 100 rooms still to complete, RIGHT??"
"Ohhh, wait...there is something I think you do not understand boss." came Kumar's relaxed reply. "You see, the old style filament light bulbs that we need to replace in the remaining 100 rooms...they are also made by Osram."
I stopped, stunned, and stared at Kumar for a good 20 seconds. And he stared right back at me. And then we both began to laugh. It was a great lesson about "asking the right questions" and the beginning of a lasting friendship that has seen Kumar transfer to Bali and now to Dubai. And inevitably, whenever we meet, this story comes up, and we laugh about it still.
About the author
Steve Cokkinias is the Founder & CEO of InnSense Leadership (www.innsense.com)which he established in 2012 after a successful 17-year career in the hospitality industry that included senior positions with Ritz-Carlton, Westin, and Sheraton in the U.S.A, Caribbean, and Asia. An inspiring and sought-after speaker and executive coach, Steve has delivered energizing programs on service, leadership, and talent management to a wide range of international companies. During his 9 years as General Manager in Kuala Lumpur, his hotel was named "Best Employer in Malaysia" 4 times consecutively by Hewitt & Associates, earning him a place on Human Capital Asia's "Hot 40 - Asia's H.R. Superstars". In 2010, Steve was named Malaysia's "General Manager of the Year" by the Hospitality Asia Platinum Awards. His new book, "InnSanity - Leadership Lessons from a Lifetime in Luxury Lodging", is due for release in early 2013. Steve can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow Steve on Twitter: @stevecokkinias.
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