Roxana Jaffer would have an open-plan office if she could. The CEO of Holiday Inn Dubai, Al Barsha, who follows the ‘servant-leadership’ management principle – that a manager should first be a servant and then a leader – is happy for staff to walk into her office at any time to share their views or voice their concerns.
“Traditional leadership involves the exercise of power by one at the top of the pyramid,” says Roxana. “The servant-leader shares power – he or she puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform to their best.
“I have no issues with staff stepping into my office to air their views at any time – a reason I’d have liked an open-plan office.’’ However, as that was not possible in the four-star hotel, she has the next best thing: a glass wall behind her chair. All she has to do is swivel round to see what’s going on in the lobby below.
Not that she has to. “My staff are efficient and conscientious so my team of managers can put some of their quality time into working on more important projects – charity, for instance – than on micromanaging chores,” she says.
The 50-something Roxana has earned a number of qualifications including a diploma in management skills development from Imperial College London, and a degree in accountancy from the organisation now known as the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants. She got her big chance to put her beliefs into practice in 2005 when two of her friends from the UK wanted somebody they could trust, rather than just a professional, to run the hotel they were launching in Dubai.
“I had just joined my husband, Sadruddin Jaffer, who got a job in the oil industry in Dubai,” she says. “I had already run my own business – a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise – so I had some experience, but none in hospitality.”
But Roxana was not afraid of taking up the challenge. “I had come to Dubai expecting to retire!” she laughs. “But I was lucky to be given this chance to head a totally new business. I just relished the challenge.”
The hotel was still being built, so Roxana had the chance to see it being shaped from ground up. “I watched every floor being laid and saw the electrical wires and structural cabling being done,” she says. “I would go up on the makeshift lift in the July heat, sweating buckets, to inspect the progress. I selected the marble for the flooring, even the doors.”
It’s difficult to launch any new hotel in such a competitive market as Dubai, but Roxana had a plan. “We opened at a time when budgets were tight,” she says. “We had business strategies to put into place and targets to be met. I decided that my first business strategy would be to ensure that I had a good team who knew their job. They would help me in doing my job. The idea was to give them my vision and they actualise it for me.”
Teamwork is key
For Roxana, running a business is all about teamwork. “The first thing I look into is how to retain my staff,” she says. “I am just one finger in a hand. My staff are the other four. And just as you would need all fingers to hold something or to do a task, you need all staff doing what they are expected to do to accomplish a job.”
Planning is the other magic word for Roxana. “You can never plan enough,” she says. “I first did my budget, the costing. It helped that I have a financial background, so I planned well, focusing on keeping the cost under control.”
Even before the hotel was launched in 2007, Roxana set the tone for the way it would be run – as a compassionate, staff-friendly venture.
She feels that the morals instilled in her by her upbringing had a strong effect on how she conducts business today. “Three generations of my family have been settled in Mombasa, Kenya,” she says. “My mother ran a school for mentally and physically challenged children. As children we would go to school in the morning with her, and she would pick up students for her school on the way.’’
So early in life she learnt to help special needs children get into and out of the car. She also learnt to include them in the little games they played while travelling to school together. Slowly the virtue of inclusion and helping those less privileged became ingrained in her.
Having been through the arduous summer on the hotel construction site, Roxana wanted to acknowledge the contribution of the hotel’s construction workers. “They were contract workers, not hotel employees, usually forgotten after their role was over,” she says. “I felt that they, their work, needed to be acknowledged.”
Construction over, she hosted a meal for them in the hotel. “We ordered some lunch and had it all together,” she says. “We made sure that we – the managers – served food to them. There were tears in their eyes. ‘Nobody’s ever said thank you to us until now,’ they told us. It was a moving moment.”
And all this goodwill wasn’t to the detriment of the hotel’s profits. In fact, the finances have flourished. “We have had huge growth over the six years we’ve been in existence,” says Roxana. “We broke even in 2009, posted a 6.7 per cent increase in profits over the previous year in 2010, 11.68 per cent in 2011, and 15.72 per cent in 2012.
Finding common ground
“While Holiday Inn is a global brand, we have built Holiday Inn Dubai, Al Barsha as a brand within that brand. We did that by putting a few strategies into place,” says Roxana.
The first and most important was being staff-centric. “I made sure they were happy and wanted to work for us,” she says.
The next strategy was “some glue that could hold together the 23 diverse nationalities that comprise the 263 staff’’.
It wasn’t easy to find some common ground that brought together all the different nationalities of staff, but Roxana’s inspiration was her childhood when her mother taught her that anything shared doubled the pleasure.
“Cricket or music, for instance, can bring together nations like India and Pakistan,” she says. “But the issue crops up when a Filipino doesn’t watch cricket, or a Brazilian knows only salsa. So how do we connect them in these circumstances? I wanted to connect these diverse people so that we could be part of one big family.
“That’s how we thought up the The Holiday Inn Loves You campaign. The simple message being that most of us are expatriates here. We’ve left families back home to come here. So let’s make it worthwhile. And let’s help other people along the way.”
Roxana makes it a point to add that the The Holiday Inn Loves You campaign is not simply a corporate social responsibility drive. “I wanted to not only help people but also to integrate staff and make them feel good about themselves,’’ she says.
To that end, a few months after opening the hotel in October, 2007, she threw a tea party for physically challenged children from the Al Noor Training Centre for Children with Special Needs at the hotel on Valentine’s Day in 2008.
As well as entertaining the 100 or so children who turned up, the event helped the Holiday Inn staff discover a common ground that brought them together.
“Since then we haven’t looked back,” says Roxana. “Our team has gone on beach-cleaning drives, we’ve provided food and medical assistance to workers and got them gifts after raising money among our staff.”
She has also spearheaded major initiatives such as relief efforts during the floods in Pakistan in July, 2010. “During Ramadan that year our restaurant Gharana was used as a drop-off centre to collect stuff like bedding, clothes, rice and other supplies,” says Roxana. “We sent 16 containers of stuff to Pakistan, which helped an entire village there.”
That incident was a major turning point in the staff relations. “Chinese, Indians, Filipinos and Brazilians among others had got together to help those in Pakistan, because they saw the flood victims could have been from their country too,” says Roxana.
“After this I noticed a shift in staff mentality. What had until then been my initiative was promptly adopted by our staff. They were so enthusiastic that a committee was formed, which meets once a month to organise activities.’’ The committee consults Roxana, and together they plan new charitable initiatives.
One of the ideas the committee came up with a couple of years ago was to feed 100,000 hungry children all over the world through the United Nations World Food Programme (UNWFP). “We collected the necessary stuff, packed it and sent it off to needy people in India and Pakistan,” says Roxana. “Today we are a recognised partner of the UNWFP.
“This year we will be feeding 80,000 unfortunate children in the Philippines who were affected by floods. The people who saw their countries benefit from our previous programme are helping the Filipinos now.’’
One of the ways the staff raised funds was by conducting garage sales. This way they raised Dh10,000, which is enough to buy a meal for 10,000 children.
The hotel’s initiative includes requesting guests to give Dh5 more on their bill as donation. “That’s how we hope to raise another Dh80,000,” says Roxana.
Roxana has started another charity initiative called Advent for Building Human Capital (ABC). “I realised that many people who come to us looking for jobs have the talent but not the language skills required to make it in the hospitality sector,” she says.
“They usually end up as stewards, housekeeping or as kitchen staff. So we decided to review their skills to see if they have the potential to move up the ladder.”
Building leaders from within
Roxana cites the case of one of her staff who benefited from the ABC scheme. “He came to us as a steward, and was very successful at it,” she says. “He was a whiz at washing dishes and figured out a way of doing it faster than it was being done before. He started teaching his colleagues how to save time at work.
“But his English language skills were poor, so we decided to train him in other departments so he could improve them.
“After his regular shift, he volunteered to work for a few hours in the front office and in the concierge. Three months later, he moved up the ladder to a new department.
“Today he’s earning five times his previous salary and he heads a department with 15 staff. This way we are building leaders from within.”
The upshot is that Roxana is now taking the ABC model to developing countries where they can help the unemployed learn skills that will help them find work in the hospitality industry.
“We have developed a curriculum for hospitality in English through the British Council School and took it to Pakistan,” she says. “We taught it to tutors in vocational training centres there.’’
Roxana sees a big future for ABC. “Five years from now we see it becoming sustainable without any support from the hotel,” she says.
“Giving money, giving food is a temporary solution. That’s why we started ABC – to build the community. Finally, what matters is not what I have achieved, it is what I have helped others achieve.”
What keeps her going is the sheer joy of giving. “The happiness we feel when we see the joy on a recipient’s face is better than getting the best Gucci handbag!”