Expert View

Empowering Your People

To build a team that makes decisions, that owns your brand and delivers the standards you want, they simply have to be empowered, says Conor Kenny, the Founder of Conor Kenny & Associates, Ireland’s leading independent training, learning and professional development company.

Many years ago I was working with a beautiful pub in County Cavan. The owner was cheerful, energetic and driven. Still, things weren’t happening and business was slipping. It didn’t take long to see why. A quick glance at the palatial surroundings couldn’t hide the glum faces of every member of staff. The solution was clear but would he implement it?



Culture comes from the top. Culture begins with values. Staff, good and not-so-good, will quickly ‘follow the leader’ and the culture you create becomes the norm.

Yes there are intensely emotional values that can outperform any standard values or even standard operating procedures. Why? Because we’re human and often conflicted by our own emotions. How you set your compass, what’s negotiable and what’s not, will ultimately determine your course. It’s your choice.


“It’s His Boat”

The team were flat. They worked hard, they were passionate about standards, the community and doing a good job. Still, they were flat. It didn’t make sense.

I gathered them around and gently probed this complex conundrum. Clarity arrived in minutes.

A girl, a very hard-working girl, in response to my “Why are you so flat?” prodding said, It’s his boat, not ours”.

I didn’t understand. I asked her to explain. She said, “He’s always talking about ‘sailing together’, ‘his crew’ and ‘we will ride out any storm because we have built a great strong ship’. Thing is, it’s his boat, not ours”.

I understood and quickly drawing on their analogy, I said this:

If it is his boat and he wants to sail across a channel to get to the island then he will need help. The boat, your boat, has three oars on the port side and three on the starboard side. He may well be the Skipper, he may well own the boat – but without his sailors and oarsmen, he’ll be staying in port for a very long time yet”.


The Skipper

If the Skipper wants to sail fast and effectively then he has to do what never comes easy to the enterprising publican, he has to ‘let go’. If he can’t do this, nothing else will happen.

To build a team that makes decisions, that owns your brand and delivers the standards you want, they simply have to be empowered. Why? Because empowered teams must have responsibility and authority over the work that they do. They must be given autonomy to plan and manage work, make decisions and solve problems. That’s how they grow, emerge and learn. If those that are truly ambitious don’t see that freedom, learning and development, they go.

If they keep going, no matter how well you recruit, you’re simply a breeding ground for smart competitors who understand that motivation comes from learning, development and seeing a clear future career.


What Do You Do?

You have good people, they know that and you know that. You’ve been smart, you’ve hired well. In fact, you may even have over-sold the role to make sure you got them. That’s temporary unless you deliver. Quite simply, ambitious people won’t wait if you’re running late on your promises. Therefore you must understand what motivates your team.

First, motivated staff are energetic, positive, cheerful and satisfied. This is the key to ownership, action and atmosphere. Think of the opposite.

But before we talk more on ‘what motivates?’ think on this – slowly:

“There is no such thing as a lazy person. They’re either sick, lost or in the wrong job”.

– Ivor Kenny

Assuming you’ve recruited people who love hospitality, a challenge and the pursuit of learning, then you must understand how to keep them. The answer to this is rarely money, that’s a symptom not a cause.

Here are five simple steps that will help you take your team from being detached to attached:-


Share Your Vision

The most common question I ask senior team members of any business we work with is, “Do you know where this business is trying to go?”.

Unsurprisingly, the answer is ‘No’.

Share your vision and get their input.




Do they know your boundaries and theirs, what they can and can’t do, where they have authority and where they don’t? If not, expect inertia, it’s safer.



Ambitious people and successful people always invest time and money in continuous learning. In our experience, this is the No1 reason to leave a job and the No1 reason to go to a competitor. Also, in a fast-changing world, why would you not invest in training, learning and development? In 2008 who would have predicted a fast-changing world that saw an economic collapse, Brexit and the election of Donald Trump? A new order means new learning, new strategy and new tactics. If you don’t continue to learn, you’ll be out of date fast and past your ‘sell-by’ date just as quick.



When you meet, study or interview great leaders, every one of them will talk about the influence of mentors. It’s not a coincidence that they were humble enough to recognise their limitations and seek wise counsel to fix the gap.



It’s easy to hit a sinking ship but good leaders don’t do that. Instead, they encourage, nurture, challenge and advise. They listen, they learn and they remain open to new ideas. When you think about it, why would you not want to hear what your staff think? Is it because most of us would rather be damned by praise rather than saved by criticism?



To Finish

Last year I had the privilege of interviewing seven of the world’s best hoteliers for my second book Dancing at the Fountain. There isn’t a page where they don’t share precious wisdom. But to finish let me quote directly from just some of the seven interviewees:


“I wouldn’t have come close to achieving what I have without mentors”

– Kiaran MacDonald, MD at The Savoy, London.


“Our job is to make rough stones shine”

  • Philippe LeBoeuf, Mandarin Oriental, Paris


“Hire personality, not skill”

  • Nathalie Seiler-Hayez, Beau Rivage Palace, Switzerland


“The counter is the border”

  • Michael Davern, The K Club, Ireland


“Are you doing something for me? Or are you doing something to me?”

  • Bernard Murphy, Gleneagles, Scotland


No, they didn’t talk about pubs, luxury or even hotels, they talked about people and as I’ve said before, “What’s the point in having a great big dramatic theatre full of plush red velvet seats, wonderful lighting and a fantastic backdrop if the guys on stage haven’t a clue what they’re doing?”.

So, if you want a motivated team, empower them. If you want more customers, empower your team. If you want a better atmosphere, new ideas, creativity and much more – empower your team.

It really is that simple.



Conor Kenny is the Founder of Conor Kenny & Associates ( Ireland’s leading independent training, learning and professional development company. He’s the author of two books Dancing at the Fountain – In conversation with world leading hoteliers ( and Sales Tales – True stories of how great sales happen (

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