We believe in creating ‘hire-to-retire’ experience for our employees
Lara Hernandez is a strategic global leader with over 20 years of experience in the hospitality industry across the Americas, Asia, Middle East, Africa and Europe. Currently based in Singapore at Hilton’s Asia Pacific headquarters, Lara oversees talent development of over 50,000 Team Members, with a focus on People and Culture.
Lara has led and overseen multiple disciplines in the hospitality industry around the world. Lara believes that HR serves as the business partner to the wider organization, enabling the building of a strong culture focused on robust purpose-led talent strategy.
In a conversation with People Matters, Lara talks about her journey into HR, trends in hospitality industry, and Hilton's talent management strategies.
In your career spanning 25 years in sales & marketing within the hospitality industry, what sparked the shift from marketing to HR?
I’ve always loved hospitality and have been in the industry since I entered the working world. Hospitality is a special business – one that can be likened to a ‘street corner business’ that opens doors to the communities in which we operate in. More importantly, it is one of the few industries which offer an accessible entry point to the working world, regardless of one’s background and educational level. It is highly resilient and adaptive, and has the capability to provide individuals with a breadth of opportunities to accommodate multiple career trajectories, including lateral changes.
I myself have made several lateral changes throughout the span of my career. I kickstarted my hospitality career with a 3PM – 11PM shift as a front desk clerk – that was my entry point to this exciting industry and I have never looked back since. Along the way, I was fortunate enough to learn and hone my skills laterally. For instance, I held several on-property roles across operations and sales, and then moved to lead complex teams across multiple disciplines and cultures. These experiences have truly broadened my perspective on the industry, and provided me with a myriad of opportunities to learn and grow.
I have also always been particularly passionate about people. As someone who started in the front line of the industry and was able to progressively explore the spectrum that the industry has to offer, I have always been conscious of the importance of creating opportunities, career succession, performance management and mentorship. Moreover, when dealing with running the big functions of the business, I have in turn come to value the human resource (HR) business partners who have helped me progress as a leader and refine my talent management strategy.
You cannot be a 100-year-old hospitality organization without carefully and properly understanding how people serve people. Over the last century, Hilton has demonstrated just that
Ultimately, the warmth and care that the industry offers to the people and communities in its surroundings was a huge pull factor for me. When the opportunity with Hilton arose, I was drawn to the fact that I would get to focus on people development in such a dynamic region like Asia Pacific.
Can you share some instances of challenges that you might have faced in terms of team building, creating the right culture or anything else? How did you get over them?
Amidst our rapid growth as one of Asia’s fastest growing hospitality companies, an ongoing challenge that we face is in nurturing talent to sustain excellence in operations and services across our properties. As one of the region’s fastest-growing hospitality companies, we need to think very differently about the existing processes and communication strategies that are in place to drive synergy.
As people and culture are at the heart of our operation, we are constantly seeking ways to develop an engaged workforce of the future that is able to offer excellent service and contribute in providing amazing guest experiences for our guests at every hotel in every region we operate in. We have established multiple robust avenues for learning and development catering to the different learning needs of our Team Members, through programs launched across the Asia Pacific region.
Our initiatives such as the launch of the Hilton Vocational Training Center in Myanmar, and partnership with Sichuan Tourism University to establish the first Hilton School of Hospitality Management in China, which provides training to youth who are keen to build a career in hospitality, are developed with our Team Members and culture in mind. Not only do these initiatives ensure that we are able to mold new generations of aspiring hospitality leaders, they are also part of our drive to attract and retain hospitality talent, as well as our mission to develop and introduce a great workforce and workplace culture to more people.
How do you build a successful, enduring culture, and how do you sustain that culture?
You cannot be a 100-year-old hospitality organization without carefully and properly understanding how people serve people. Over the last century, Hilton has demonstrated just that, having invested significantly to ensure that our valued Team Members are well taken care of to begin with, so as to take care of our guests.
We have an existing talent management strategy driven by our value proposition, Thrive@Hilton, which makes a nod to our commitment to a holistic and personalized approach. Under the Thrive@Hilton, we have set in place initiatives which allow our Team Members to grow in body, mind and spirit – creating an environment that promotes their well-being and happiness. In Asia Pacific, these include our Heart of House initiative, which provides a conducive physical working environment that offers features such as napping pods, Wi-Fi and healthy meals, as well as other programs such as the Hilton University. Our focus also continues to be on ensuring that there are career development pathways for our Team Members, whether it be through our management trainee programs, Brand Learning, Leadership Development curriculum or Women in Leadership initiatives.
As we move forward, we also take into consideration the evolving needs and preferences of our Team Members, especially as Team Members of different generations come to make up our workforce.
Can you share some insights on Hilton's talent management strategies and how are they different from the rest?
At Hilton, we believe in creating what we call the ‘hire-to-retire’ experience for our Team Members – a seamless experience from the beginning, which enables access to a multitude of opportunities and skillsets within the organization. This means being present at every step of the journey, from ensuring that they have a great experience through the recruiting process and all the way through the onboarding period and beyond. It is also about making sure that our Team Member benefits are regionally and culturally relevant.
As a 100-year old business, we have always had a front-row seat - if not, the driving seat - in witnessing numerous changes and innovations that were considered as technological disruptions during the time
In Japan, for instance, we have overhauled our Team Member benefits to include paid sick leave – a relatively uncommon concept due to certain established cultural conceptions. In China, our female General Managers who move away from their families for work are given relocation support and monetary aid to assist in covering their children’s school fees, so that they are able to remain together as a family. As we grow exponentially across the region, these aspects in turn become increasingly important as our workforce expands to include a multitude of Team Members from diverse backgrounds and cultures.
All in all, what sets us apart is our approach to locality. As we come together at the regional level to discuss learning and development and recruitment, we are able to dissect the differing wealth of knowledge that our leaders bring to the table in their respective regions and co-create solutions that are best applied across all markets and the regions as a whole.
How does Hilton plan to carry forward the Great Place to Work tag? What are your top priorities moving forward?
We recognize that our Team Members are at the heart of our success, and we actively strive to create an environment that promotes their personal well-being, in order to help them flourish and succeed.
There are two key aspects that would be of utmost priority to me going forward. The first aspect would concern how we continue to maintain our relevance in attracting and engaging our talent across the region. We have to always have our ears on the ground and pay close attention to what makes us competitively ahead – by understanding our objectives of expanding our portfolio across the region and of what we want to activate locally. For me, I personally love to be close to the heart of the business and be part of the process from the get-go – I will continue travel across the region to meet our Team Members and understand first-hand their needs and preferences so as to be better able to mold a great experience for them with us.
The second aspect would be to recognize the significance of feedback in career development and to ensure that we continue promoting the process actively across the organization. This also means providing our Team Members with the tools and resources they need to carry out check-ins with their managers, and vice versa. In my career, I have been fortunate enough to get the support of my mentors and sponsors who have helped me grow through their feedback.
What is your take on the future of jobs now that technologies such as AI are making inroads into business? Does this have an impact in HR, and how has it changed the way you manage talent in the hospitality industry?
As a 100-year old business, we have always had a front-row seat – if not, the driving seat – in witnessing numerous changes and innovations that were considered as technological disruptions during the time. Innovation is in our DNA, and we have always been, and will continue to be pioneers in hospitality. We were the first to introduce the mini-bar concept – perhaps, during the time, some might have thought that bartenders were out of business! Of course, that did not happen, and it stands to enhance the guest experience at hotels across all these years.
We are also consistently on the lookout for areas where we could incorporate technology to increase efficiency at the workplace. So, in any place where technology is able to fit in, we would definitely leverage on that. However, I certainly do not lie awake at night worrying about robots taking over the jobs of our Team Members – we are in a people-serving-people business, and no matter how efficient or advanced technology can be, it could never take away the element of human touch. In fact, the advent of smart technology and automation will only continue to sharpen the focus on enabling Team Members to do what only humans can do, which is to extend genuine hospitality and service and provide thoughtful recommendations, to deliver the light and warmth of hospitality through exceptional service and help create memorable experiences for our valued guests.