Photography by Mauricio Calero
Toronto has always been an incubator of talent and creativity. Much of that can be attributed to the diversity that the city fosters, from its distinct neighborhoods to its varied people. And thanks to the collective efforts of the community, the cultural landscape is a thriving one recognized on an international stage. Part of that support is due much in part to the Drake Hotel. Since 2004, their definition of hospitality has always existed at the intersection of culture, great food and great drink. Behind-the-scenes lies a talented group of women who have been responsible for much of the company’s success. Collectively, they come from varied backgrounds, with professional experiences that have spanned the globe working for some of the world’s most reputable companies. Over drinks and a shared meal at the Drake One Fifty, we spoke to the women leading the charge about what it takes to create an inspiring company from the inside out.
Success starts from within. What do you look for when building a great team?
I’ve been a part of both high performing and challenged teams in the past. The common factors to success have always been the same: accountability, empowerment and support. I have always hired team members based on their sense of drive and personal pride in their work. Watching people build skills over time is a pleasure when you assemble a team of learners and doers. I’ve found the best succession plans have been created with people who grew within their positions.
How do you cultivate a thriving corporate culture from within?
Once you have great teams, you need a shared vision. Everyone needs to be working towards the big goal together. When I joined the Drake, I knew that the most valuable thing we had was our spirit. I had never seen anything like it. I knew that if we could sustain that and build a Best Employer environment, we would continue to attract and retain the best of the best. The magic that made our staff so passionate was the true belief that you were part of something special, that you made an impact.
There is a difference between being a boss and being a leader. What separates one from the other?
A leader has high standards, sets lofty goals and has great expectations. They expect more from themselves and from others. A truly excellent leader has passion and vision, as well as the ability to help their team navigate the incremental steps to get there. Most importantly, a great leader is a consummate professional, but also openly human. They have the self-awareness to catalogue their own strengths and analyze their shortcomings. In my experience, it is this compelling mix that charges people up and motivates them to deliver results.
What should employees never be afraid to approach their superiors about when it comes to facing challenges?
Generally, employees should always feel comfortable approaching their boss in these situations. A good leader will see crisis as an opportunity. They know it’s extremely difficult to make major changes, even necessary ones, when things are going relatively smoothly. Obstacles and challenges, big or small, give us the ability to make things better.
Much of your work has involved building relationships in the community to foster a vibrant experience. How should companies spearhead community-driven initiatives to enhance a brand?
For it to work, it has to be authentic. You can’t go in with an agenda. The objective should be to create genuine opportunities for community organizations that allow your company to learn and grow from different working styles. Ask yourself questions about what the values of your brand are, what you are ultimately trying to achieve (aside from the bottom line), and what community organizations compliment those ideals.
Why is it important for companies, regardless of industry, to embrace creativity and innovation?
Creativity is the root of growth and innovation. If you’re not thinking about new strategies or challenging yourself to think of better ways of operating, you’ve become stagnant. You can be sure that at least one of your competitors will be asking these questions and overtake you before long.
Food and drink is bigger than itself in that it brings people together. In what ways do you cultivate shared and individual experiences through your work by way of food?
The experience of shared food and drink is the single most important aspect of what I do. The experience is what remains with us. A particular dish or server will be remarkable in the moment but it is the culmination of the minutiae that creates the memory. There are a million moving parts, thoughts and behind-the-scene conversations that go into a “perfect service”, however I believe that a guest should never feel the details. It’s about transporting them through an experience from start to finish.
The food industry is often seen as a boy’s club. How important has it been to mentor and cultivate other women to succeed in your industry?
This industry has most definitely been a “boy’s club” — especially back in the day. I spent most of the early part of my career being underestimated by men, both colleagues and guests, alike. Although more and more women are becoming successful in the restaurant industry, there is something about a young woman trying to develop her skills that is not truly supported. I teach women to not be afraid of being underestimated, but use it to their advantage to take people by surprise. I drive them to learn everything and be great at everything. To mentor them to find their strength through positive means and respect which has longevity.
Communication is important to the success of any business, both internally and externally. What are the keys to effective communication in your experience?
Whether working internally or externally, it’s important to have a total understanding of a brand, its key messages and values. This is the foundation of effective communication. It’s also imperative to understand your audience. Who are you talking to? Put yourself in their shoes and tailor your message accordingly. It sounds cliché, but communication is a two way street. Listening to feedback is essential to stronger communication.
In many ways, failure and crisis can be opportunities for success. How should companies embrace these struggles in order to grow?
Failure or a crisis can either be disparaging or a springboard for growth. If a business has a solid infrastructure and a positive corporate culture, failure can effect positive change. It can lead to more efficient protocols, reporting structures, clearer communication or improved project management. Regardless of the circumstance, think critically and move quickly. Experienced PR professionals know to own and control a crisis by facing the issue immediately and informing key stakeholders directly. Albert Einstein once said, “failure is success in progress.” Companies need to be flexible and adaptable to truly evolve.
In your experience, describe the elements of a fantastic brand in today’s world?
A fantastic brand today is one that has a clear vision and purpose. It goes beyond selling products and making money. The best brands consider their role in the world and the potential impact they can have on their audience.
As a brand grows, how can it stay true to its roots while still expanding and catering to larger audiences?
It goes back to having a clear vision and purpose for your brand, and keeping that at the forefront as you expand and grow. The business might outgrow its roots, just like people often do, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If the business is clear on why it should exist, what role or void it fills in the marketplace, who it wants to reach and what it wants to mean for its customer, then that business has already created a strategic path that it can continue to travel and evolve.
More sage advice on winning at business over at BayStBull.com