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From Complacent to Competitive

Exclusive Resorts’ CEO James Henderson reveals how to transform corporate Culture. 

When I first accepted my role at Exclusive Resorts in late 2019, it was pre-Covid—a time when the luxury travel space was steady yet primed for evolution. I envisioned a brand transformation anchored in redefining corporate culture. Five months in, best laid plans took a major pivot, as all of us weathered the short-and long-term professional and personal effects of a global pandemic. Yes, we had to mine new business strategies and re-think our creative approach, though my North Star remained: lead an inspired team aligned in making transformational changes to mindset, productivity, camaraderie, and enthusiasm. Along this surprising new journey, I’ve learned not only can a company culture be quickly shifted, but it can also be truly transformed with these five steps.  

1. Evangelize Your Vision

Shifting a company from complacent to competitive is not without its growing pains. Pre-pandemic, global corporate culture for Exclusive Resorts was primarily confined to the people, character, and traditions inside a brick-and-mortar office. As I type this, we now have staff working remotely, whether from home or at high-end luxury properties around the world. At first, I questioned if this new work-from-anywhere concept was sustainable. Yet as we shifted, evolved, and re-imagined our approach to both the workplace and our brand, I realized that success was not defined by where you work, but how you work. Encouragement was the first step to achieving our new vision. When we use positive reinforcement, our minds and bodies are more prepared to do what it takes, even if it requires a new perspective. This in turn mobilizes a simple, succinct, long-term vision. Effective leaders need to evangelize this vision, repeating it at every opportunity. As occupancy across our Club portfolio returned to pre-pandemic levels and we celebrated the refresh and reinvention of our brand, I learned to appreciate how a new — and optimistic perspective — can drive change even during times of great turmoil.  

2. Remove Organizational Silos

Create a culture of empowerment. This means no swim lanes—we are all in it together. I continuously seek out ideas and opinions at all levels of the organization. Many of the greatest ideas come from people on the frontline who are pivotal in delivering on the customer or member experience. These people often have incredible insight, so take the time to listen and learn from them. The key to unlocking a remarkable customer experience starts with these conversations. Employees need to understand the “why” — the rationale behind key decisions and goals, then you can trust them to figure out the “how.” And, the organization must be behind you in order to drive change. Inspire them, bring them along on the journey, and you will create a movement with its own full-blown momentum.

3. Practice Ruthless Consistency

I am a great believer that focus breeds results. If you shine a light on something and continually discuss the desired outcome, it will change. Transformation needs a steady, deliberate hand. Consistency builds trust and it drives results. You must be relentless in focusing the business on a series of key metrics and revisit them daily, weekly, and monthly. They need to be fully ingrained into the daily dialogue of the organization. Focus on the outcome—not the process—to create a more efficient decision-making environment. I believe in a regular cadence of individual meetings to drive accountability and results. At Exclusive Resorts, we celebrate perseverance and tenacity; I like to think of it as a culture of grit. Most highly successful leaders are not smarter or necessarily more capable, they are just willing to tackle things others won’t. Lindsey Vonn — one of the most decorated downhill skiers ever — wasn’t necessarily gifted as a child, she simply worked extremely hard, was obsessive about equipment, and trained with the Norwegian men’s team. Grit, epitomized. 

4. Foster Agile Teams

We believe in winning! And aren’t afraid to say so. We win as a team, and support each other. As a leader, everyone who reports to me knows I have their back. All my best bosses gave me this same sense of security. That said, we embrace failure and trends, too. Fail fast, learn, and move on. I also gamify the process. This means encouraging healthy competition, creating challenges, and utilizing a metrics-driven approach. Additionally, I’m a firm believer in empowering middle management and allowing them to run meetings, as most senior leaders shy away from this tactic. Lastly, why not keep it fun? People join a company because they enjoy their job, they are growing, developing, or learning. If they’re not doing one of these, then they should work someplace else.  

5. Take Time Off

While we work hard, I lead a luxury travel brand and firmly believe a positive mindset is fostered via time away from the workplace. Time off is critical to anyone’s success. Employees are more effective performers when they take a deep and extended time of renewal and repair. Vacation provides new perspectives and creative thinking, as the subconscious drives many decisions. A friend and mentor, Tony Schwartz, outlines his “Power of Full Engagement” model. He too is a firm believer in time off — he personally takes a vacation and digital detox for at least a month every year. When we, or an employee, is living in the optimal “Performance Zone,” as Schwartz describes, they are upbeat, optimistic, confident. This is how I choose to lead, and it can’t be achieved without the transformative and restorative power of travel. And I’m fortunate enough to think creatively about travel daily, and how ultimately it connects us further to others and ourselves.

James Henderson is the CEO of Exclusive Resorts—a private, Members-only vacation Club offering its community of travelers access to multi-million-dollar residences and curated experiences across the globe. In 2020, with less than one year at the Club, Henderson led Exclusive Resorts to its most successful year in twenty years, despite travel coming to a complete halt during the pandemic. This success can be attributed to his focus on removing silos, fostering talent, and encouraging risk and competition. 

As appeared in CSQ online edition posted October 7, 2021.