Four Seasons Book Review
Want to win my copy of Isadore Sharp’s Four Seasons: The Story of a Business Philosophy? Shout me on social media & I’ll send it to you with a favourite passage marked for your enjoyment.
Everyone has heard of the Four Seasons.
Unless you live under a rock or do not travel, that is.
So how did they become a household name?
I was recommended this book by a friend who knows Isadore Sharp, as we were talking about corporate culture and what it’s like to build a brand. I remember feeling particularly disillusioned at that time in my life, wondering if there were any companies out there that managed their people and business in ways that I valued (versus out of fear or antagonism). Where we work takes so much of who we are – the time and energy and essence that we put forth before one even hits the punch clock. It’s so unfortunate if we find ourselves in an environment that doesn’t bring out the best in our abilities, and chances are – you’re dreading to get out of bed for it.
What I found in this book was incredible – principles that I had been living and doing without really understanding why. I have always believed in not compromising quality on my projects – not skimping or cutting corners…and what I learned about Isadore Sharp and his vision changed me.
Aside from the motivational aspect of coming from nothing and reaching the top, this book really speaks to that unique characteristic that makes people great. The thing that can’t be taught or programmed, but rather cultivated and enhanced: intuition. The trust and connection to intuition is what sets apart the good leaders from the extraordinary, I think. The people who know in every fiber of their being that they have an idea/product/vision that has a higher purpose in existing. It’s not just about making a profit or selling units, there is a deeper purpose. A brand.
Sharp started out working for his father, building average buildings and cutting his teeth in the construction and development business. Immigrants to Toronto, the Sharps could be considered the “Canadian Dream” for truly chipping away with hard work and focus. Self made. Fake it till you make it. And now, no one can deny that Isadore Sharp has made it. How he built his Four Seasons legacy is truly fascinating. Project by project, how he struggled to raise capital, ultimately proving that the best thing you have is your name and reputation. Sharp shares his experiences candidly, not so much about life in the boardroom…but what it was like to travel and build relationships with his partners (who consequently often became his board members and executives – a testament to his ability to treat his people well).
One of the things that really stood out were the brand principles that the hotel group developed, almost by accident. The key players believed in the vision of “doing right” by their people, in a sense – training them thoroughly, giving them agency to problem solve and feel validated in their roles, giving them a reason to stay. This respect and humane way began leading to a consistently low turnaround and high satisfaction among staff (from general managers to dish washers, so to speak). This humanistic leadership under Sharp proved to be the unique advantage that the other hotel groups did not possess, and arguably why the chain flourished so well internationally (with investors knocking on YOUR door to open properties, it’s a sign you’re doing something right!). You can sign strategic deals and scout great locations, but with out the substance to back it up – there’s only so far that a customer-centric company can get.
My personal management and work style has a lot in common with Sharp and his executives, and I really enjoyed learning how they refined and crafted their HR principles from the baseline of “treat your people well.” For example, when they opened a hotel in Nevis – they opted to hire people without any previous hospitality experience, instead hiring farmers and labourers who would #1 Enjoy the new job, and #2 View it as an opportunity. This concept of “hiring by attitude” instead of “hiring off experience” really does show that one can shape a fantastic employee from a positive outlook (versus take away bad habits of someone who has become jaded or unbending).
Moreso, I really enjoyed learning about how the company reacted in humanitarian ways – responding to a hurricane by sending supplies straight from their pantries (and leveraging their network to have Air Canada fly them down for free). It really shows a true understanding of human motivation – of compassion and trying to improve the lives of employees and patrons, not just a dog and pony show contribution of support.
Perhaps the most known anecdote is Sharp’s forcefulness at not compromising quality. While a lot of other companies will try and skimp on “small things” like towels or pillows, Sharp’s vision was about not affecting the customer’s experience and truly offering a five-star experience. In the end, his plush hand towels proved to make all the difference in the world, and for that he’s living the dream.