My Biggest Mistake
Sunday 20 December 1992
MY BIGGEST mistake was in doing too much talking and not nearly enough listening. From 1971 I spent three years as manager of the Great Northern Hotel in King's Cross, London. Early one morning, I was sitting in my office when I had a phone call from Peter, the head doorman, telling me that someone had turned up for an interview.
We had advertised for a waiter so I told Peter to wheel him in, whereupon a very smart, good-looking young fellow of about 23 presented himself in my office.
During the interview I didn't learn very much about him apart from the fact that he had no experience and was from Iran.
But he was very keen to learn and I was very short- staffed, so on discovering that he could start immediately, I decided to offer him the opportunity to take on the great British public.
I explained what the job entailed, told him all about the money and conditions of employment, and sent him off to the head waiter.
At about 12.40pm, I walked through the restaurant, as was my habit, to see how everything was going.
We were always full at lunchtime, so it was with some surprise that I found this fellow sitting down at a table.
As I chastised him, he jumped up, whereupon I saw that he was still wearing the checked trousers he had worn during the interview.
I assumed that he must have misunderstood me, and explained again that while we supplied the jacket, he had to provide his own black trousers.
He dashed out and bought some, and over the next hour and a half I observed him working very hard in the restaurant, carrying trays and generally doing what he was told.
At about 2.45pm, I was walking along the corridor to my office when I heard this altercation going on between my secretary, Maggie, and the young gentleman. He was shouting: 'Me no waiter.'
So, with the general aplomb that one adopts when managing a hotel, I stepped in. And during the course of my peacemaking, I discovered that the fellow had actually come to be interviewed by one of our customers for a job as a cosmetic salesman. The rest of the tale was one of language barriers. Because he didn't speak much English, the head porter had had difficulty in understanding him and just passed him on to me.
I doubled up with laughter.
When I could manage a straight face I said how sorry I was, refunded him pounds 7 for the trousers and wished him well. Pity - he could have been a good waiter.
The hotel business is famous for interviewing people in corridors, and in those days you would take them on as long as they were breathing. But in this case I had spent a good hour and a half in my office. And in retrospect I realised I hadn't interviewed him at all, but just talked at him.
I learned two lessons: first, as a manager, you should never assume anything - I had assumed that this chap was coming for a job as a waiter, when the reality was nothing like that at all; second, of course, is that you must listen. I give that advice to my assistants time and time again, and always try to live by it myself.
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