Hotel Indigo’s Kate Ellis on creatively approaching new challenges amidst a pandemic.
This interview is part of Visit Alexandria’s series, Leadership Insights During COVID-19: How 7 Alexandria Leaders Navigated a Global Crisis. Read more interviews in this series here.
General Manager, Hotel Indigo Old Town Alexandria
Chairperson of the Visit Alexandria Board of Governors
President of Alexandria Hotel Association
Q: What leadership principles did you practice that led you to where you are in your professional career?
A: I had a general manager who once told me to hire people smarter than you. Some people might be intimidated by that, but why not surround yourself with the best talent and use the opportunity for all, including yourself, to learn and grow?
In hospitality, we welcome guests from all around the world, and of all lifestyles, backgrounds and experiences. I love that I work with a very diverse group of people, and I interact with people who have had different experiences than me. I can’t profess to know or have experienced everything, but I do know that I need to rely on my team, especially senior leaders, and empower them to make choices that they think will be in the best interest of the organization. This is why I love working with Visit Alexandria as well and serving as chairperson of the Visit Alexandria Board of Governors. This board brings together a diverse group of leaders who all have the common goal of making Alexandria a great place to visit, using true hospitality principles.
Q: When you were a child, what did you dream of being as an adult? Did you always want to be in a leadership role?
A: I was always involved in team sports like basketball and clubs like Girl Scouts where I was a team captain or patrol leader. But, when I would think about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I saw myself working in more of a solo capacity I actually wrote a speech that took me to the state finals in a McDonald’s competition, and I talked about being an author. I pictured myself sitting at a big desk in a quiet library writing fiction books for kids. I suppose that even though the work would be initially solo, an author still relies on a strong team and has to lead in all things – editing, publishing and promoting, so there must be something there still about leading a team.
Q: What principles did you follow to lead your team, stakeholders, clients and members during the pandemic to keep them engaged, motivated and feeling secure?
A: In the beginning of the pandemic, there was so much unknown. It can be hard for some leaders to not always have the answers, but in this case, there were so many times when no one knew what had really just happened, what was happening or what was coming next. I always feel it is important to talk straight. If I had something to share, good, or more likely, bad, there was no need to dance around or try to skirt the issue. We were all being hit from all directions and didn’t know what could possibly come next, so it was important that we were able to unite together toward common goals and keep operating to the high standards we have always expected, even in the “new normal.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic hasn’t been the only crisis we have had to deal with. We’ve had civil unrest and a highly charged political climate that has kept us on edge, however, through direct communication, I knew I could rely on my team, and they could rely on me to tell it to them straight – the good, the bad and the ugly. Two-way trust is huge to keep a team feeling secure and motivated. By engaging my senior leaders in important conversations and reviews of deviations to our standard operating procedures, I knew we could ask real questions of each other to make the best decisions for our business.
Q: What new skills and lessons did you learn during the pandemic? What will you implement as we move toward recovery?
A: Resiliency and flexibility have been tested and applied like never before. We’ve all had to deal with adversity in the past and have needed to creatively work toward new goals or around challenges to overcome unforeseen issues, but even as our industry was knocked down, I had to keep getting out bed the next day and back at it. I was learning as I went and taking directives from our corporate partners, owners, federal agencies, city leadership, the health department, industry organizations and a slew of others, including counterparts in competitors and related industries just to gain traction with all the changes floating around. Moving forward, I’ve found new forums, newsletters, blogs and podcasts that are valuable sources of information and will look forward to creatively approaching new challenges using these resources.
Q: Benjamin Franklin once said, “Well done is better than well said.” Is there a certain historical leader or phrase/quote/mantra that you relate to?
A: Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “You don’t lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership.” It makes me laugh. Even as I recognize leadership is a big responsibility, it doesn’t always have to be so serious, either. If you’re not having fun, what are you doing and why? I’ve been in the fortunate position to help new leaders grow, and I’ve seen first-hand how the new leader is overcome with power or responsibility that gets to their head. There is also the unfortunate circumstance where someone in a leadership position can’t communicate with those around them. Even if you shout louder, you’re not necessarily going to be understood.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style and what did you have to amend during the pandemic crisis?
A: When I’m asked what I do in my day job as a general manager, I reply that I “generally do things.” It’s one of those answers that make me continue to think about what I do, and how others see me. It really is my job to help make sure my team feels supported and has the tools and information they need to do their best work, however, as business levels dropped during COVID and team members were taking leave to take care of themselves and their loved ones, it left me with a much smaller team on a day-to-day basis.
Going back to the last question, another favorite lesson is from Nelson Mandela. He said, “It is better to lead from behind and to put others in front, especially when you celebrate victory when nice things occur. You take the front line when there is danger. Then people will appreciate your leadership.” There is nothing better than celebrating the success of my team. A leader must step up and show (not just say) that they are with the team. For me, that meant cleaning around the hotel, working shifts at the front desk and not just being in an office but being right there, socially distanced of course, with my team.
Q: How do you personally recharge and let go of stress?
A: It sounds cliché, but exercise is huge. I appreciate any morning that I can take time to myself before my husband and kids wake up for a yoga session or some time on the treadmill. I really do notice the difference in my day when I make exercise a priority. At the same time, I also enjoy cooking. Food is good for the soul and providing food for my family (and friends when the time is right), gives me a sense of joy. And it never hurts when the chef can have a glass of wine, too!